Trump’s budget wants the US to stop watching the planet

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Enlarge / You spent the money to build it and put it into orbit? Twice? Doesn’t matter, shut it down.

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Today, the Trump administration Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST. The plan was to build this using the optical hardware of a spy satellite that was donated by the intelligence community. Once in orbit, it would scan the entire infrared sky using a wide-field lens, allowing large catalogs of different objects, including near-Earth asteroids, to be generated. The budget document more or less says that NASA is getting the James Webb Telescope and shouldn’t expect another so soon: “developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the Administration.”

Don’t tell them about Spitzer and Chandra.

If you think it’s only a joke to suggest that the Trump administration would terminate an active observatory once we’ve gone through the expense of putting it in orbit, well, then you haven’t read the rest of the budget proposal, which attempts to follow through on earlier threats to gut NASA’s Earth-observing missions. Two are not yet launched. One is a satellite called CLARREO pathfinder, which is intended to develop instruments for a follow-on satellite to produce detailed climate records. Another, PACE, would track ocean-atmosphere interactions. Two other satellites would have specific instruments shut down—one of them an Earth-observing camera championed by Al Gore that has been targeted by every Republican administration since he left the vice presidency (the Bush administration shelved the working hardware rather than put it in orbit).

But the most striking thing is the call to shut down the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which has only been in operation for less than four years. The ability to monitor Earths’ carbon dioxide fluxes was considered so important for following climate change that NASA built a second after the first was lost in a launch accident. The Trump administration would now shut it down.

Closing our eyes

It’s not only in space where environmental monitoring would be cut. For the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there is a clear theme to the budget request: efforts to collect data or study our home planet get funding cuts, and climate-related efforts doubly so.

Both agencies are cut by about 20 percent in total. The only increases in NOAA’s budget are for facilities or operating costs, with the exception of work to incorporate data from new European weather satellites. About 250 positions would be cut from the National Weather Service, with another 25 cut from the Tsunami Warning Program as one of the two US Tsunami Warning Centers would be shut down. A NOAA summary document notes that “Support for [tsunami] preparedness education, outreach, and innovation research will cease.”

Funding for development of weather forecast models, hydrological models, ocean observations and ocean acidification research, climate research, and university partnerships would all be cut. Although the budget seems to reverse last year’s call to scrap several future weather satellites—endangering weather forecasting as older satellites die—it cuts $565 million from two satellite programs without really explaining how that would be done.

A host of NOAA programs would be slated for complete termination, including major grant programs funding coastal research (like Sea Grant), the Office of Education, Arctic research, several fisheries research programs, and the Big Earth Data Initiative (which was created to make federal data more accessible).

At the USGS, earthquake, volcano, water resources, and coastal work would all take a significant hit in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 percent. Ecosystems-focused programs come in for a whopping 40-percent cut, while the Energy and Mineral Resources program would be the sole recipient of a budgetary boost (about 15 percent).

The EPA would also see cuts to its research, as a program that allowed the agency to fund research at universities would be eliminated. But it would also see its ability to do anything with the research curtailed. The EPA has a funding program to helps states comply with regulations that result from the Clean Air and Water Acts; the Trump administration wants to eliminate it, taking what had been a funded federal mandate and de-funding it.

Energy Star’s budget would be zeroed out, and appliance makers would be asked to pay fees to use its labels. Another section suggests that the EPA’s mission doesn’t involve helping companies address climate change. “The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for several voluntary partnership programs related to energy and climate change,” another section reads. “These programs are not essential to EPA’s core mission and can be implemented by the private sector.” Cleanup of Superfund pollution sites was also slated to be cut but will be restored given the congressional budget.

Willful blindness

Reading the budget documents, it’s hard to escape the impression that the administration would simply rather not know about the world around us, even when that knowledge could be essential to saving lives and property. But there are also hints that they do not want the public to know what it’s missing, as the budget would cut off several sources of public-facing science. Funding for National Heritage Areas, in which the government helps preserve significant privately owned sites, will be eliminated. So will money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As will NASA’s Office of Education.

The good news is that Trump proposed a similarly draconian budget last year, and Congress ignored it. The seriousness of this year’s proposal was already undercut by the fact that Congress pre-allocated more money than the administration wanted. Still, as a window into Trump’s view of the role of science, the documents present a grim picture.

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