Editorial: NASA cuts only would make it harder to understand climate

First Published      Last Updated Jan 10 2017 05:18 pm

It's called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, so what does NASA have to do with anything here on Earth?

The answer is everything, and that has been apparent to NASA-funded scientists in Utah for decades.

Bob Walker, a senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, has indicated that the administration plans to defund NASA's Earth Science Division to focus instead on NASA's traditional role of space exploration.

"Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission," Walker told the Guardian.

If he had left it there, then maybe this would have just been about taming the federal bureaucracy, but Walker added the kicker: "Mr. Trump's decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science."

The "politicized science" he refers to, of course, is climate research, something that NASA has been involved with for decades, funding work that takes place both in space and on the ground.

What kind of "politicized" science gets practiced by NASA grant recipients at Utah State University and Brigham Young University? Those two institutions are not bastions of left-wing politics, and they're in the heart of a Republican-dominated state.

Robert Gillies, director of USU's Utah Climate Center, worries that suspending NASA funding will end needed data gathering, and it isn't just environmentalists looking at that data. "You can name any industry," he said, "and we've had a request for climate data to help them understand something or help them do some analysis."

And David Long, director of BYU's Center for Remote Sensing, says NASA has been an important player in climate research because of the technology it has stimulated. He fears NASA cuts won't just limit climate research. They'll also impact the quality of our weather forecasts.

That raises a major challenge for the Trump administration or any other Republicans wanting to lead a charge against climate research. The "politicized" research, if there really is such a thing, won't lift out cleanly. Once they take a thorough look, they'll find hundreds of scientists scattered across the nation, all trying to figure out their own pieces of the puzzle.

Cutting their funding will not end the climate debate. It will just make it harder to figure out. And that will be true in space, on Earth and even in the halls of the White House.