February 10, 2011

Obama’s Reorg: Keep It or Cut It? Part II

Last Thursday we inaugurated this new feature in which we ponder: if President Obama is considering federal government reorganization, what should he keep or cut with regard to natural security issues?  We began by recommending cutting the energy and climate czar position (though retaining its functions in a well-supported organization), so this week I’ll offer one in the “keep it” category. And as a reminder from last week, this is not commentary on people or the work that anyone has conducted. Consider it a Washington-style parlor game focused solely on debating government structure and organization.

Today let’s look at NASA’s Applied Sciences Program. This small office plays a role I consider crucial in helping our government’s investments in science and technology pay off for policy makers and decision makers at all levels. As its website describes:

“Where NASA data and modeling capabilities are evaluated to have potential application, NASA and the partner organizations collaborate to test and integrate the data and modeling capabilities into the decision making and/or products and services. These collaborations involve appropriate academic, business, nonprofit, and other entities to accomplish the project and extend the results.”

I’ll put this office in the category of functions that the federal government needs more of: people who leverage the science and technology work that the government already does by interpreting data into information relevant to policy makers and raising awareness of U.S. government capabilities to do really, really useful things that, sadly, often go unnoticed.  Anyone who examines environmental change, climate issues, and even things like migration and demographic stability likely use information derived from satellite systems run by NASA – often without have any idea what capabilities produced that data that produced the text they're relying on for academic or policy research.

In one of our major projects in 2009-2010, our team explored how to improve getting climate change information that actually makes sense to policy wonks like us. This is an age-old problem, but we’d had personal experience with it as we collaborated with Oak Ridge National Lab on a climate-focused future scenario, which was an often trying but enormously fruitful experience.

Bottom line: if the defense community, area specialists, et al. are going to integrate climate and environmental issues into their decision making, having intelligible (to the non-scientists among us) and useful information makes or breaks your ability to do so. And notice how the Quadrennial Defense Review, National Security Strategy (pdf), Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and other high-level instruction documents indicate the importance to our national security of actually treating these topics like we do other fields, like global finance and demographic trends.

Over the long term, it would be even better if foreign policy and national security types were generally more conversant in science and technology. Name me a China expert, for example, who doesn’t need to understand space technology to properly contextualize that country’s space activities and future possibilities? That is a long battle though, and one that our readers are already ahead of the curve on. Until that happens, we critically need offices like NASA’s Applied Sciences Program to do some of the heavy lifting.