Report on Reporting: Cuts to NASA Earth?

Issue #17

The day before Thanksgiving, The Guardian published this story. The headline -- "Trump to Scrap NASA Climate Research in Crackdown on ‘Politicized Science’" -- was alarming.

The story sent me on a mission to track down the facts. I'm still in the middle of that mission, actually. By next week I'll have a more complete response to share. But this much is clear already: that headline overstated the issue. Robert Walker, the person quoted in the piece, does not (yet) have an official position in the Trump administration. He is apparently a "senior advisor."

Is it newsworthy that someone with the president-elect's ear thinks we should drastically reduce funding for scientific monitoring of the Earth's systems -- from fire to hurricanes to sea level rise? Yes. Is his notion that NASA Earth produces "politicized science" worth questioning? Absolutely.

But none of this equates to the certainty of that headline. We don't know that the Trump administration is going to scrap climate research. We don't even know how much Mr. Trump is listening to Mr. Walker.

At this point, I've reached out to Mr. Walker, the Trump transition team, seven members of Congress, and two researchers from conservative think tanks. The only one who responded to me was Mr. Walker, and that was to say he couldn't talk.

I've also spoken with several scientists to try to get a handle on what these cuts would mean if they actually became reality. One of those scientists was Steve Running, Chairman of the Earth Science Subcommittee for NASA’s Advisory Council. That conversation was on Montana Public Radio last night, you can hear it here.

As I work on this story, I'm in a bit of an internal dilemma. Should I be worrying about trying to confirm or deny statements by an advisor whose status within the new administration is largely unknown? Is this a good use of airspace and the public's time and attention? And my own?

I landed on a yes to all of these questions. Here's why. If Mr. Walker was speaking out of turn, and these threats to slash funding for Earth science at NASA are his own private pipe dream, then the Trump administration has done nothing to clarify that. The fact that they've been silent on it could mean...anything. They could be ignoring him. They might totally disagree with him. Or maybe they're totally in support of him. We have no idea.

With that much space (no pun intended) left open, it seems necessary to at least consider the possibility that dramatic claims like Mr. Walker's are actually going to make it into the realm of serious policy initiatives. The scientists I've spoken with say this seems unlikely, but they also say...who knows, really? If the public has a strong reaction for or against proposals like this, perhaps that will help shape the conversation. So in this way, playing the "what if" game has some merit in my opinion.

But only to a point. I think it's important to rein in sensationalism, fear-mongering and general freaking out. Mr. Walker is not running a Congressional committee or leading an agency. A title like "senior advisor" is easily bestowed and easily rescinded. His level of influence is unknown.

That's some of the "behind the scenes" happening around this story. I welcome your feedback, both to these thoughts and to this interview. And I'll have more for you on this soon, including thoughts from former NASA Chief Scientist, Waleed Abdalati.

~ Amy