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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.

 

GOP House Passes Bill to Legislate Away Science

Endangered ScientistsSince the November elections, I have had exactly one day where my inner “chi” was restored to where it was before the election. I have a pretty damned low opinion about my fellow man as it is. That’s what happens when you’re a news junkie and you read about the stupidity and outright cruelty mankind displays on a constant basis. But last Friday, when the GOP imploded and TrumpCare spectacularly crashed, I felt temporarily at peace.

That peace was short-lived. I should have just stopped reading any news, there and then.  But alas, since Friday, the GOP seems to feel the need to reassert their testosterone-driven, fuck-the-truth, pedal-to-the-metal drive towards the destruction of our country.  Yes, there’s Russia-gate and the incredible corruption of a party more worried about elections than the country’s very survival.  There’s the blatant nepotism that flouts all traditional ethical standards in government, where we’re no longer bothering to pretend Trump’s family is playing a major role, and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are being handed official government positions. There’s another potential effort to derail Obamacare.  But when you touch my science? You’ve gone too fucking far, GOP.

The House today voted on a bill laughably called the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act.  Or just “HONEST” for short.  What the hell?  Why not? Why not call it that? The GOP has a constituency comprised of ignorant rednecks who believe anything they’re spoon-fed, so why NOT go ahead and label something corrupt and dishonest as “honest”?  White is black, black is white, up is down, who the hell cares any more?  The bill claims to reign in an “out-of-control administrative state” that (GASP!!!) DARES to use actual science in their decision-making.  SCIENCE!?!?!? Using it to actually make informed, logical decisions!??!?  SCREW THAT!!  We can’t have those uppity scientific experts telling us what to do!!!

Lamar Smith, laughably the head of the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, even dared to give a lecture about how to conduct science while touting this tremendous accomplishment:

“The days of ‘trust-me’ science are over. In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only on data that is available for every American to see and that can be subjected to independent review,” he said. “That’s called the scientific method.”

Yeah, who wants to trust science, when you have corrupt, ignorant politicians like Smith to TELL us what the truth is?  The “scientific method” evidently is no longer based on objective analysis. It’s no longer based on empirical evidenced to support a theory.  The “Scientific Method” under Trump and the complicit GOP is to squeeze the life out of the science itself, and replace it with political ideology. The “Scientific Method” under the GOP is to replace “science” with “corporate profit” when making any kind of regulatory decision.

The GOP’s utter disdain for science, for TRUTH, for INTEGRITY, has become to be so absolute that we’re becoming desensitized to it.  The ignorance, the cruelty, the lack of awareness of what MADE America what it is…we’re becoming numb to it all. With the constant stream of absolutely ridiculous news coming out of Washington, stories such as this one get lost in the noise, yet it’s legislation like this that poses the greatest threat to our prosperity and well-being.  What makes it so devious is the presentation of the bill, as opposed to the content.  The concept that’s dishonestly pushed by Smith and others in the GOP? That we’re NOT using open, honest science in making decisions, and legislation such as this is needed to officially restrict what information is used to support regulation.

In reality?  Science is science.  It’s peer-reviewed by fellow experts in a process that ensures a self-regulation of the results. Scientists have egos!  Trust me, for many scientists there’s nothing more they love than to tear down the work of another scientist. If the science itself isn’t valid?  There will be a reckoning, from those with an actual understanding of the science.  If the science isn’t valid, it will collapse under the immense weight of the scrutiny it receives from others in the field.

This bill isn’t meant to make science more open and “honest”. SCIENCE BY DEFINITION IS OPEN AND HONEST.  This bill is meant to strangle federal science. This bill is meant to inhibit the use of science in driving regulation. It’s meant to throw so much red-tape in the regulatory process that it becomes effectively impossible for an agency like the EPA to regulate industry.

Ivanka Trump’s new “official” role?  Confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court? Another attempt to replace Obamacare?  Aggravating, damaging in the short term, but it’s legislative efforts such as this, proposed by WEAK, insecure, foolish little men like Lamar Smith that are the the longer-term danger.

“Weakness is what brings ignorance, cheapness, racism, homophobia, desperation, cruelty, brutality, all these things that will keep a society chained to the ground, one foot nailed to the floor”. – Henry Rollins

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