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Utah climate scientists anxious over threatened NASA cuts during Trump presidency

Published January 9, 2017 2:05 pm

Science • Cutbacks could have wide-ranging consequences, with the U.S. falling behind other nations.
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Local climate scientists are accustomed to opposition. But if President-elect Donald Trump defunds NASA's climate research as he's suggested, they say, Utah and science generally could face long-term consequences.

"I think it's safe to say that it's a period of uncertainty and anxiety for those of us in the climate community," said Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah.

Bob Walker, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, told The Guardian newspaper in November that he did not believe it was necessary for NASA to engage in "politically correct environmental monitoring." He suggested that under Trump, NASA would be charged exclusively with deep-space research, leaving Earth science to other organizations. The statement has led some climate scientists to fear the Trump administration may attempt to undermine their research.



Steenburgh, the author of a book about the scientific "Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth," said that like other researchers whose work deals with climate, he is worried about the availability of data and funding under a Trump presidency. He doesn't believe the administration would go so far as to delete climate data that already exists — that would be a truly extreme move, he said. But by cutting NASA's funding or by directing the agency to cease researching Earth's climate from space, Steenburgh said Trump could prevent scientists from gathering data they might need in the future.

"I am concerned about our ability to continue to monitor, and hopefully better monitor, the planet Earth," he said, "and to better understand and eventually predict climate change."

Access to NASA's satellites, Steenburgh said, is critical to that endeavor.

Climate change is likely to change the way Utah gets water, said Robert Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University. As climate change accelerates, Utah is expected to get more moisture in the form of rain rather than snow. That's a problem, Gillies said, because Utah currently stores much of its water in reservoirs, which collect water from snowmelt. But it's not an unsolvable problem, so long, he added, as Utah is prepared to adjust to those changes.

"If there are no resources made available to collect future data, then we would not be able to tell if a trend in the meteorological data was increasing or decreasing, and that really blindfolds us to what is happening," he said. "That's my biggest concern."

But this isn't just about climate research, Gillies said. Weather data is used by just about every major industry you can think of, he said, not to mention everyday residents. His center has helped municipalities with city planning, and has even assisted with court cases involving, for example, wind damage.

"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."

To understand the full scope of the impact of NASA climate funding, said David Long, director of Brigham Young University's Center for Remote Sensing, you have to understand the relationship between this and other agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may be responsible for researching climate, weather and the environment, but NASA is the primary source of the technology — and the scientists — that make that research possible.

"It's not just climate — it's really about practical stuff," he said. "So suppose you decide to cut the Earth science budget and stop spending money to use spacecraft to study Earth from space — that would mean we no longer get the remote sensing data we use not only for climate research, but for weather forecasts."

Government funding for science has been increasingly difficult to come by over the past several years, Long said, which has created stress for a lot of researchers, especially young faculty.

McKenzie Skiles, a snow hydrologist who recently joined the Earth science department at Utah Valley University as an assistant professor, said she is worried about her ability to find future funding under Trump's administration. Her current funding doesn't come through NASA, she said, but prior to accepting a position at UVU, she worked as a postdoctoral scholar in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"NASA is a place I would look to in the future" for funding, she said. "And if that funding is no longer available, that limits the opportunities."

Funding from NASA is especially important for young scholars, Long said, because it often helps them launch their careers. Long himself spent seven years working in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before becoming a professor, and the space agency also plays an instrumental role in providing funds students use to complete graduate degrees.

Kim Olson, program coordinator for the Utah NASA Space Grant Consortium, said her organization uses funds provided directly by the space agency to pay for the education of 20 to 25 graduate students each year. In addition, some of the $835,000 the Utah grant consortium receives from NASA each year goes to fund other institutions, such as the Clark Planetarium and the Leonardo Museum.

So if the cuts to NASA's budgets were deep enough, Long said, the local impact could be far-reaching.

"All the money spent on space and NASA is all spent here on Earth," he said. "Putting money into space means putting money into training people."

As a young scientist, Skiles said she agreed about the future risk, even though she said she was trying to remain optimistic.

"My master's and PhD were paid for through research funding," she said. "One of the things that will happen is we will lose our talent pool of new scholars being trained by these grants, and the U.S. already lags in training scientists."

And if there aren't enough scientists in the future, Skiles said, that "will impact the quality and the amount of science we will have the future."

The United States is already seeing the results of this loss of expertise, Long said. For example, NASA is currently trying to send Americans to the moon again — a worthy and exciting goal, he said. But the trouble is, the scientists who once built moon-bound rockets retired — and took their knowledge with them.

Closer to home, Long said, the wind sensors he once tried to make are now being developed by scientists in India and China.

"So far they have copied us," he said. But eventually, he said, he fears the United States will fall behind other nations in matters of science and technology.

"The adverse impact to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education in the United States," he said, "would put us behind on — everything."

epenrod@sltrib.com

Twitter: @EmaPen

 

 

 

 

 

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