Joe Biden has a possibility to enhance the best way we view the earth from house
But every year Congress intervened to save these missions. OCO-3 was launched on time in 2019. PACE and CLARREO have made some budget cuts, but should start in 2022 and 2023 respectively.
"I'm happy to say it wasn't as bad as I thought," says Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a researcher at Columbia University who uses earth observation data to assess disaster risk. "Maybe that's just because expectations (that things) get a lot worse."
The government tried a few other tactics to mitigate the effects of climate research. Scientists have been pressured to stop using phrases like “climate change” and “global warming” in grant proposals or project descriptions. And some institutions, like NOAA, were filled with climate critics who downplayed climate change.
The most immediate steps the Biden government could take on day one would be to free the scientists from any language restrictions and reassure the Earth observation teams that they have the support of the leadership to plan long-term studies to get the most out of these missions .
The short steps
Increasing the budget would help widen the scope of this type of program in order to collect more valuable information. More money could also be used for planning and starting new missions. Mariel Borowitz, a space policy expert at Georgia Tech, believes it might be worthwhile to look to the European Space Agency and start an earth observation program similar to Copernicus, which has the task of studying global climate trends over a very long period of time . This could be a nice contrast to NASA's current approach of using discrete missions to study specific research questions in just a few years.
Other trends under Trump's watch probably cannot and probably should not be reversed, but they do require a response. For example, programs run by private companies like Planet Labs (which operates hundreds of EO satellites) have found room for faster growth in the past four years than ever before. New companies not only build their own sensors and flight hardware in orbit, they also process data and distribute images. NASA still has the largest Earth observation system in the world, and its data is free for anyone to use. However, there may be communities or regions of the world whose only access to the relevant data may come from private parties who charge for it.
The Biden administration could take steps to ensure permanent free and open access to the data NASA is collecting, and they could also try to contact the private companies directly. "There's already a pilot program in place where NASA buys the data from commercial companies under a license that allows them to share that data with researchers or a wider audience," says Borowitz. It might be a good model for Biden to rely on the growth of a private industry on a permanent basis while giving less affluent parties access to critical data.
“EO data is different from other types of data,” says Kruczkiewicz. "In some ways, it's one of the most privileged types of data." Maintaining its status as something closer to a public good can ensure that people continue to treat it as privileged.
But there are other big questions about the future of Earth observation research that the scientific community is poised to solve. These have less to do with cleaning up the effects of the Trump years and more to do with understanding how we can better apply the insights of climate science in the real world.
"I feel like we have the opportunity to rethink things," says Kruczkiewicz. “The last four years have forced us to think not just about how data is generated, but who has access to it, how it is disseminated, the unintended consequences of these programs, and how far we should go as scientists later. "
However, it is not enough to simply pour more money into geoscience and EO programs. First, "These satellite programs take an incredibly long time to develop, fund, and implement, so the timeframe for them is generally outside the length of each administration," said Curtis Woodcock, an earth scientist at Boston University. Woodcock points out that the effects of cuts in geosciences at NASA are still being felt during George W. Bush's tenure: "In many ways, NASA's geoscience has not fully recovered since then." To bring earth sciences back to rigorous levels, we need a long-term plan that goes beyond Biden's first (and possibly only) term in office.
Second, there is already a lot of earth observation data that we can use already – we just need better processing tools. “I fear that the gap between data availability and use of that data will widen because we now have so much data,” says Kruczkiewicz. "We don't necessarily have to develop new technologies in order to have new sensors or a new spatial resolution in order to solve flood issues."
The types of technology federal officials might want to invest in are data processing and tasking systems that can analyze and understand the vast amount of images and measurements. These tools could, for example, illustrate which communities may need more resources and attention in the event of a flood or drought.
Third, we need to think about how climate science is being applied in the field. For example, Kruczkiewicz's own work includes using NASA's satellite data to understand the risks faced by vulnerable populations and communities from disasters such as floods and forest fires, as well as the problems of preparing for and responding to such events. "I think we need to rethink the stories we tell of people on earth who benefit from EO data," he argues. "It's not just about throwing flood maps over the fence and hoping people will use them." The Biden government could take steps to empower humanitarian organizations that can communicate what EO results mean, how they can be translated into practical strategies, and how the data can help address social inequalities exacerbated by climate impacts .
Other institutions outside of the US have done better to familiarize themselves with this type of perspective. Dan Osgood, an economist at Columbia University, uses satellite data for insurance programs that benefit African farmers at risk of crop losses due to climate change. He and his team are already learning how farmers use these payouts to invest in higher-return farming approaches. This is an example of how EO data not only says something new about the climate, but can also be used to actually bring about change in society.
"The US government used to invest in us to do this type of validation," he says. "And now, for more than four years, it has been mainly European governments. ESA's data are much more readily available and they have invested in us to use them. European products are often easier to process and in many cases less so problematic. ”(Osgood notes that much of the changes he describes began late in the Barack Obama administration.)
Many of the actions Biden can take regarding Earth observation might work best simply by setting a tone on how the US intends to treat climate data. Promoting open access so that information can be shared with the world could go a long way in realigning the US as a leader against climate change.