Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Scientists are Assholes

I’m a scientist. I’ve been in my field for over 25 years, employed at the same place for the vast majority of that time. I’ve got a many peer-reviewed journal publications, and have been around science and science publishing long enough to realize that…

Scientists are assholes.

Scientists have egos. I think for any successful venture, including scientific research, you HAVE to have a healthy ego, a confidence in your own capabilities, and a confidence in what  you’re doing. But underlying the “confident” form of ego is the seedy underbelly of scientists acting like assholes.

The New York Times posted a wonderful piece that focuses on social psychology, but the same general storyline could have played out in any of the sciences. In short, a young scientist published an article in 2010 that summarized one piece of her research. That led to notoriety, and even a 2012 TED talk that become one of the most widely viewed talks ever. After basking in the glow of the work for a short time, other researchers began to question her methodology, and question her results. Even worse, it got personal, with scientists and science bloggers taking the young woman to task, making unfounded and hurtful accusations. In short, the young woman DARED to experience success…which triggered a backlash from other scientists, a group of human beings that love NOTHING more than to tear each other down.

Scientists are assholes. At least there’s a segment of the profession that act in this manner. Many of them have built careers not on perfecting their own new, original research path, but instead by tearing apart the work of others. Even in my own field, there are scientists who I am only aware of because of their published “bakeoffs”, assessing the collective work of OTHER scientists, and meticulously picking through the work to find (perceived) flaws.

Given my cynical nature, it’s not like being an asshole is restricted to the field of science. So why devote a blog post to trashing my own profession? To make a point about climate change science. Climate change skeptics are nearly ALL politicians…talking heads…pundits…but very rarely, actual scientists. Even the majority of “scientists” who do attempt to discredit climate science are not climate scientists themselves.  Most often they are from another field. The pool of real climate scientists that are skeptical that 1) the climate is warming, and 2) mankind is at fault is TINY.

Scientists are assholes. And yet among scientists, climate change discord is remarkably absent. In a profession where ego and competitiveness are sometimes out of control, I can think of no better evidence of the sound scientific basis behind anthropogenic climate change. IF there were any speck of credible evidence that the climate isn’t warming, or that mankind’s activities aren’t the primary cause, stories such as the one provided by the New York Times would be rampant. Scientists would be eagerly ripping apart each other’s work, trying to discredit not only the research, but the researcher him/herself.

 

How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

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