President Barack Obama’s administration released its first national strategy for civil Earth observations on 19 April. The report comes six years after the US National Research Council (NRC) warned that inadequate funding and mismanagement had put ‘at great risk’ the United States’ ability to monitor Earth from space. The strategy does little to reassure.
The 60-page document, written by a federal task force, lays out a process to determine the types of observations that deserve government support. But it does not provide what is most urgently needed: clear and specific guidance from the White House on what the government considers to be the most important Earth-science satellite missions — or when they should be launched.
That type of plan, long overdue, grows more important as the fiscal crisis deepens and the demand for such observations rises (see page 13). Meanwhile, the country’s ageing collection of Earth-observing satellites continues its long decline. The number of US probes is likely to dwindle from 23 to just 6 by 2020, threatening to degrade scientists’ ability to track climate change, forecast weather and monitor natural disasters.
Obama is one of many to blame for the brewing crisis. The lack of leadership at the White House is matched by the intransigence of Congress, which set in motion the across-the-board sequestration spending cuts that took effect on 1 March, slashing about 5% from the budgets of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other key science agencies.