Senate Committee Hears Remarks
on Earth Science Research

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences gathered for a hearing on National Imperatives for Earth Science Research on March 7, 2007.

Subcommittee chair Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) described the power of aerial imagery from just 10 days prior, when he flew over the eastern Andes Mountains in Peru, and witnessed the destruction of the rainforest there. It was over 20 years prior, he said, when he first saw deforestation, from the window of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The primary reasons for this hearing were the release of the study, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond” (commonly called “The Decadal Study”); and the fact that NASA has changed its mission and therefore its funding, moving away from Earth observations and research, toward the Moon and Mars exploration.

Witnesses were:

  • Dr. Berrien Moore III, Director, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire
  • Dr. Otis D. Brown, Dean, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami
  • Dr. Michael Freilich, Director, Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA
  • Ms. Nancy Colleton, President, Institute for Global Environment Strategies and Executive Director, Alliance for Earth Observations

Drs. Moore and Brown both served on the committee that released The Decadal Study. At the outset of the hearing, Senator Nelson surprisingly asked that panelists skip their prepared remarks, and only answer questions. Discussion ensued about the dire need for funding to not only create new programs, but to sustain current programs. NPOESS is infamously years behind schedule, billions of dollars over-budget, and has been stripped of many key monitoring components.

The Decadal Study reduced over 100 important initiatives to 17 key items, which are considered the absolute minimum for Earth observations – imperative for weather and storm prediction, disaster response, monitoring of the environment (including climate change), with significant economic and humanitarian impacts. The study went beyond science to applications for the “greater good” for society.

Dr. Michael Freilich, new Director in the Earth Science Division of NASA stated that he would try to solve issues between NASA and NOAA. He said that NASA is taking The Decadal Study seriously, and they will also do their own concept studies, another round of cost estimates, etc.

Following is the prepared, oral statement of one panelist, Nancy Colleton, President of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies:

  • Full testimonies of all four panelists and the video recording of the hearing are accessible here.
  • A summary of The Decadal Study and a link to the full study is here.









I am honored to participate in this important hearing, National Imperatives for Earth Science Research and thank Drs. Berrien Moore and Rick Anthes on the leadership that they have provided as co-chairs of this study.

I’d like to begin my testimony with a short history lesson. This year, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Our Common Future, the groundbreaking report of the World Commission on Environment and Development led by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. I share with you the first paragraph of that report:

“In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time. Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, which upset the human self-image by revealing that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards. This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized—and managed.”

It is insightful that, even in 1987, world leaders recognized that not only would space technology help us understand the Earth, but that it could also be a unique tool to better manage our planet for social benefit and economic interests. But, it is disappointing that despite this powerful text published 20 years ago, we are gathered here today for a hearing examining the decline in U.S. space-based Earth observing capabilities.

Therefore, in response to the Decadal Survey, I offer four primary observations to this Senate Subcommittee for your consideration and deliberation:

  1. The fact that the Decadal Survey Committee’s vision for a decadal program in Earth observations went beyond fundamental science to consider “increased applications to serve the nation and people of the world” is a significant and much-needed shift in approach to the U.S. program.

    The Earth observation satellite technologies enabled us to reduce uncertainty and manage risk. We know well the applications of this technology for weather forecasting and natural hazards such as drought.

    But there are also new emerging applications that we have just started to explore: For example, satellite observations role in the emerging carbon finance market.

    So much of what we know today about climate is directly attributable to satellite measurements as cited by the IPCC.

    In recent weeks we have heard strong calls for technology innovation for climate change: 1) emission reductions, 2) energy alternatives. I would submit that we should also be talking about a 3rd category: Earth observations, which ties directly to examining offsets.

    Therefore, I would urge you to consider examining Earth observations further in this regard during your March 14th hearing on Technology Solutions for Climate Change.

  2. My second point is that the U.S. should build upon our space-based Earth observation programs and move forward with the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS)—incorporating space, aircraft, and in situ instruments, and the requisite analytical capabilities.

    Senator Nelson, last April, my colleague, former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer testified before your Committee on the importance of a National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). I am pleased that funding for implementation of NIDIS and the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) were included in the President’s ’08 budget. However, more funding is needed along with a U.S. Common Information Architecture that would enable An IEOS, complete with data, analysis capabilities, and decision support tools.

  3. My third point is that we need clear leadership to resolve the issues and attain the goals identified in the Decadal Survey.

    Funding for these programs is important, but leadership is essential. Right now, Earth observations are not a primary responsibility of any one Agency—not NASA, the Department of Commerce, or Department of Interior. This is one area that must be studied further.

  4. My last point is that the time to act is now.

    What we knew 20 years ago, what the Brundtland Commission acknowledged in their groundbreaking report, and what we are reminded of today is that our nationally-funded Earth science and operational technology programs are vital to our society and economy. If nothing else, I hope that the Decadal Survey will motivate you as policy makers and leaders to take action now—action to protect, leverage, and advance these assets so critical to protecting our nation, the world, and our future. Let us not 20 years from now simply acknowledge the words written by the Decadal Survey Committee, but rather be able to point to the Decadal Survey as a turning point for action and commitment to protect, further develop, and exploit these assets for benefit of the nation and the world.

- Nancy Colleton

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