NASA, politics, science, and skepticism
by Taylor Dinerman
|If NASA is seen as being an organization committed to one side in the debate it automatically becomes the mortal enemy of the other side.|
For the agency the way it manages the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission is critical to its legitimacy. This mission hopes to, in its words, “produce irrefutable climate records that will be used to support national and international policy.” The two satellites will each carry three instruments, one to study planetary infrared emissions, another to measure reflected radiation, and a GPS occultation antenna.
It is interesting to note that the instrument development team at NASA’s Langley Research Center is using the Air Force’s Advanced Infrared Sensor (AIRS) as a benchmark against which to measure the effectiveness of the system they are designing. If they are truly building a new state-of-the-art set of sensors, one hopes that they will pay a lot of attention to the problems associated with the frustrating NPOESS weather and environmental satellite program. It was, and is, very much a joint effort between NASA, NOAA, and the Defense Department and is now wildly over budget and behind schedule.
If CLARREO can set the standard for all future Earth observation systems, especially for less than a billion dollars, the team will deserve all the praise that will come their way, but there are two problems. First is the sad fact that the mission will be launched in 2016 yet policymakers are making decisions related to climate change in 2009. The Cap and Trade Bill now before the US Senate is not going to be voted on based on information from a mission that will only begin to produce data seven years from now. The second problem is a more serious one for NASA: will the data be credible?
The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies more strongly to the climate change debate than to any other major politico-scientific issue on the horizon. In his short book on the subject, Blue Planet in Green Shackles, Czech president Vaclav Klaus, writes: “The fundamental problem… lies in the huge discrepancy between the original scientific reports and the public presentation of their results in the media.” There is little that NASA by itself can do to remedy this, but there are a few precautions that the agency can take to protect the integrity of the data.
For this program the choices that are being made in the way the information is being gathered are of primary importance. The data from CLARREO observation satellites will be used to calibrate other solar and infrared spaceborne sensors. This means that if the measurements that are being made are flawed in some way, then data from the whole of NASA’s Earth Observing fleet will be suspect.
Most people are aware that the answer to any question often depends on the way a question is phrased. In science the result of an experiment depends on the way it is designed. Some experiments have been designed to produce the answers that the experimenters wanted or expected to see. The notorious Tuskeegee medical experiments are a good example of this.
|If CLARREO can set the standard for all future Earth observation systems, especially for less than a billion dollars, the team will deserve all the praise that will come their way.|
In order to insure that the data collected by the CLARREO satellites is truly “irrefutable” NASA should establish a small advisory committee consisting of no more than a dozen distinguished scientists, half of whom should be well-known skeptics of the AGW theory. Together with a like number of AGW proponents they could ensure that the parameters used by the instruments on the spacecraft would be acceptable to both sides in the debate.
NASA has more or less managed to maintain a solid reputation for honest science. The fact that it is taking its time with the CLARREO mission instead of rushing into an emergency program is a good sign that it is trying hard to do the right thing. The team wants to insure that they produce data that is “Tested, Trusted and Necessary”. However, since this new administration includes key people who strongly believe that the debate on man-made climate change is over and the time for action has come, making an extra effort to keep Earth science programs credible to all sides would seem to be a worthwhile investment.