Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May 9th, 2007

Eating science’s seed corn

Posted by metaphorical on 9 May 2007

At a time when climate change impacts are accelerating, our ability to observe those impacts from space is deteriorating.

The BBC reported last week not only that we’re in effect choosing to see less, not more, from space:

Cuts in US government funding for Nasa programmes will dramatically weaken scientists’ capacity to monitor and understand the planet’s climate; at least, so says a major study from the National Research Council (NRC), published earlier this year.

Or, as Bob Parks said in his estimable weekly newsletter,

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting far faster than estimated. Molly Bentley points out in BBC News that the NRC found our ability to monitor change from space deteriorating as NASA collapses under the weight of human space flight.

Parks has been critical of manned space flight long before Bush’s jury-rigged a “Mission To Mars” goal out of duck tape, sealing wax, and the budgets of any number of NASA programs that do real research and contribute to the storehouse of human knowledge.

It’s as if Bush promised to build a new community center, and put up the frame with bricks and nails and studs ripped from the building next door. (Oh, and by the way, it’s not as if the community center ha a greater than zero chance of being completed, since we’re not actually going to Mars in the foreseeable future.)

If we had an unlimited budget or three wishes from a genie, manned space flight might be one of them, Parks seems to think (or would be if we could make the odds of survival significantly better than a hundred to one or whatever they currently work out to be with a shuttle blowing up every few years).

But we don’t, and there’s a lot of real work to do with the limited funds we have, e.g., studying climate change. Of course, for the Bushies, we already know more than we want to about that topic, as I’ve noted previously. That people will be harmed in the short term as well as long is of little consequence to the current administration.

Programmes involving measurements of temperature, ozone, ocean winds, water vapour, and solar radiation are among those expected to be curtailed.

The substitution of more economical but less capable instruments on some missions will worsen forecasts of El Nino, hurricanes and coastal weather, the study says.

Or as the NRC understated,

“To permit the Earth-observing capability to diminish at this time is unwise.”

Computing power and storage have become so cheap that we’re at the brink of a new understanding of complex phenomena, such as hurricane formation. The number of variables is enormous, but so, no, is our capacity to account for them. If, that is, we can get our hands on the raw data. That’s where the NASA satellites come in.

The NRC Earth-observation report recommends that 17 new satellite missions be flown in the next decade. They were chosen from over 100 proposed missions based on cost, readiness, and the potential to answer critical scientific and policy questions, among other criteria.

The new satellites would be developed for launch between 2010 and 2020, with price tags for each mission ranging from $65m to $650m (£30m to £300m).

Each would provide key measurements to help form an integrated picture of the planet’s dynamics. This would help researchers answer basic scientific questions about the climate system, monitor climate change, and forecast weather.

The satellite data could help us tackle any number of problems, not just weather:

Some new projects could help monitor risks to human health. For example, one mission designed to monitor soil moisture may contribute to more reliable forecasts of vector-borne disease outbreaks.

The cost of the entire program is estimated to be “$2 per person per year.”

Science funding is one of those things that require planning ahead. There’s a lag time between investment and its return, and likewise between defunding and its consequences. That makes it particularly problematic for politicians: their successors get credit for what’s done on their watch, while there’s no downside to them when they grab science’s money and do other more visible things with it.

The NRC comments that the Earth science budget remains well below the 2000 funding, even with the president’s proposed boost for 2008.

The president’s budget includes a five-year projection. After 2010, the trajectory for Earth science funding continues downward.

“By 2012 we go to a 20-year low,” says Dr Moore, “and Earth sciences goes in the tank.”

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