President-elect Donald Trump claimed that he would surround himself with the best people, but when it comes to science, he's been doing anything but. Lately, senior campaign adviser Bob Walker has said that Trump could potentially slash NASA's earth science budget, limiting the administration's focus to deep space exploration. Now don't get me wrong — I'm all for exploring space, but that doesn't erase the fact that forcing NASA to cut back on its earth science research is a dangerous and terrible idea.
Science has been taking hit after hit since Trump won the election last month. First, he gave climate change denier Myron Ebell the job of taking the EPA through the transition; this is a guy who doesn't have a degree in science himself, but who believes that climate research is part of a political conspiracy. Trump's pick to head up the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a walking disaster for anyone who thinks that the guy who's always spoken up for the fossil fuel industry probably isn't the best pick to run an environmentally-focused agency. And of course there's Ben Carson, soon to be the secretary of housing and urban development after being passed over for secretary of education, a young Earth creationist who believes that the pyramids were built to store grain. All of that is bad, and then they're also threatening to stop NASA in its tracks when it comes to earth science research. This is not promising.
In this case, Walker calling NASA's earth science activities "politically correct environmental monitoring" is at best uninformed and at worst dangerously shortsighted. NASA was indeed founded as the country's space agency, but there's a huge amount of earth-related science that they can do from space that just can't be done at the same level from the ground.
Scientists around the world use NASA's data for their own research (it's always free and open), and the amount that the world has learned from that body of work is too big to even consider. Climate science is only part of the picture (albeit a big part); NASA's work has also revealed information about the Earth's gravitational field, various weather patterns, and even powerful solar storms. If you want your GPS to keep working properly, then you also want NASA to continue its earth science work. If you're concerned with the fate of your potential children or grandchildren, you definitely want NASA to continue its earth science work.
Trump's picks for these positions tasked with taking care of the Earth subscribe to the myth that climate science has been politicized. They actually believe that the scientists saying that humans need to do something to combat the massive climate change that we've created are doing so as part of some massive conspiracy, be it a Chinese hoax or whatever else. If they actually succeed in cutting NASA off from doing their extremely valuable research, it will be the equivalent of simply ignoring information that's out there for the taking, information that can help the planet's scientists and activists prepare for the coming changes. As astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says, science is true whether you believe it or not. Not doing the research doesn't mean that the phenomena happening more now — floods, superstorms, droughts, etc. — are going to stop. So NASA can help the world prepare, or the Trump administration can actively work to stop that.
It's far too early to make predictions about what this administration will be remembered for, but if this actually happens, then being the administration that stopped science could easily turn into one of its more ignominious distinctions. A world where the government stops researchers from seeing what's out there is not a world that I'm excited to see take shape.