NASA Earth Science to “Meet the Moment”

Image: NASA via SpaceNews

This op/ed was originally featured in SpaceNews on March 30th and has been reprinted with their and the author’s permission. 

By Nancy Colleton

Small businesses and large multinational corporations face incredible challenges and uncertainty in today’s world. Whether an uncertain economy, continuing impact of a pandemic, or the rapidly changing natural environment of water scarcity, ecosystem collapse, record high temperatures, wildfires, and sea-level rise, today’s CEOs have a full docket of issues, all of which one way or another intersect with our changing planet.

There’s no shortage of authoritative voices sounding alerts to these challenges. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 highlights that the natural resource crisis impacts business continuity, growth, and positive social impact. In a recent Brookings essay, “Rebooting the Climate Agenda: What should the priorities be?” Senior Fellow Amar Bhatacharya writes, “The damages due to climate change and biodiversity loss could be even bigger and more lasting than those we are experiencing from COVID-19. Decisions made now are crucial in shaping the future of people and the planet: we must not go back to the old normal. The imperative now in recovery is to “build back better” on a path of sustainable, inclusive, and resilient growth.”

President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad is a welcome start to addressing climate risk and action. As stated in the very first paragraph of the Order, “Together, we must listen to science and meet the moment.”

As we applaud the president’s words, we must also recognize that climate isn’t the only moment that companies need to meet and listening to the science will require a major change in how the U.S. science agencies such as NASA currently do business. Why? Because it must involve an ongoing dialogue and engagement with business, specifically businesses with which NASA has not traditionally worked.

While legacy aerospace companies come to mind when we think of NASA and industry, an entirely new business community stands to directly benefit from NASA engagement. These are not suppliers, but potential science and data consumers of NASA’s unique, robust and unparalleled space-based observations of the Earth. From the world’s largest beer producer, AB InBev, to pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, to information technology leader, IBM, businesses stand to gain important insights from NASA Earth Science and for different reasons.

With more than 20 ongoing satellite missions, numerous instruments on the International Space Station, cutting edge data analytics and visualizations, and a treasure trove of historic data, NASA’s Earth science program provides insights into our atmosphere, land, and oceans, all of which represent the starting point for an environmental information ecosystem that results in NOAA’s weather, ocean, and climate services, USDA’s agricultural forecasts, the Department of the Interior’s conservation programs, EPA’s air quality analysis, and, in many cases, numerous analyses across the national security sector.

Of a group of companies that participated in roundtable discussions focused on NASA science, many noted that it was their first introduction to NASA’s vast science and data analytic resources. The business representatives shared their interests in examining not only climate, but water, biodiversity, air quality, and sustainability.  AB InBev, for example, stressed their interest in working with the space agency to explore and apply NASA data to map risk and opportunities related to changing climate and water conditions. Others emphasized the value of NASA’s biodiversity data for protecting unique and critically important ecosystems for biopharma products, while still others hoped to gain greater knowledge and access to cutting-edge data analytics, AI efforts, and visualizations.   These representatives stressed the need to identify an entry point for industry data consumers, opportunities for collaboration, and the importance of continued dialogue.

To truly “listen to science” NASA should think more broadly about their data users, look beyond the Academic sector, and recognize a new and growing private sector customer base for their products.   Such an approach will maximize our precious national investment by ensuring that more can listen, learn, and meet the moment. NASA’s valuable, cutting-edge Earth science research — recently appropriated at nearly $2 billion for FY 2021 — should be viewed as a potential stimulus for U.S. business. Much like the COVID-19 vaccines, the Federal government just needs to deliver this critical resource to those that need it and increase production through better research to operations with partner agencies like NOAA and value-added businesses that create environmental information products and forecasts.

Imagine the possibilities when U.S. investment in the world’s best science about the planet leads to more sustainable business practices and efficiencies, directly strengthening the U.S. economy while protecting the environment?   Imagine if U.S. business could easily tap the most timely and relevant information on forests, oceans, air quality, water resources, and ecosystems? Imagine NASA — a symbol of our nation’s most admired scientific and technological achievements — provided its unique satellite-derived insights about the Earth as a foundation to build back better? Now, that would be a moment that I think we all hope to meet.

Nancy Colleton is the president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and studies Earth observations applications for and conservation.  She is a long-time Friend of the Planet.

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