Dealing With a Challenging Science Policy Environment

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director. Adapted from posts (here, herehere, and here) on the AMS Project,
Living on the Real World, discussing this week’s AMS workshop in Washington, D.C.

Our community suddenly finds the larger host society fiscally constrained and bitterly divided politically. And this seems to be true not just for America but for much of the world. The sources of funding that have fueled the progress in Earth observations, science and services in recent decades are not drying up – but they are looking to be intermittent, unreliable. And reductions – perhaps deep cuts – may well lie ahead. Historic bipartisan support for our work is fraying a bit; here and there we experience criticism, some of it harsh.
We face a twofold challenge. The work we do has never been more urgent…but the underpinnings for that work are in jeopardy. And – this is sobering – it seems this conjunction may not be accidental. Instead, these twin trials are related; they stem from the same cause. A population of seven billion people, on its way to nine, is straining both the Earth’s resources and its own intrinsic innovative capacity. And all of us are getting nervous and snippy with one another. If we’re not careful, worse lies ahead.
Discussions this past week at the AMS workshop on Earth Observations, Science, and Services for the 21st Century showed two divergent approaches to this challenging societal context. What was striking, without going into the details, was the contrast between work underway to (1) augment networks of surface meteorological sensors and (2) to deploy sensors in space. Both have had their recent successes. Shortly we’ll enjoy a substantial augmentation of surface carbon dioxide measurements – far sooner than most people had thought possible. And the successful NPP launch clears a huge hurdle for the world of aerospace and remote sensing of the Earth from space.
The distinction lies in what happens next. Those working on the surface networks see each sensor as seeding further sensors. They make comments like “…put this out in one state, and pretty soon other communities in that state will want their own sensor, and over time the network will build…” They’re looking to probing above the surface, characterizing not just conditions adjacent to the ground, but throughout the depth of the boundary layer (think the inversion layer that traps pollutants, or the layer just beneath cloud formation).
The folks at the satellite end find themselves by contrast on autopilot settings that don’t look as if they’ll change significantly until around 2025. The JPSS missions that will succeed NPP are scheduled to follow a script that’s relatively cut-and-dried. In the meantime, everything else in the host society that wants these space-based Earth observations will be morphing constantly, rapidly – if anything, at an accelerating rate. And this rigidity brings costs.
A big key? Being able to change direction…to recognize, acknowledge, and correct mistakes. How to accomplish this? Still up in the air.