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Oct. 26, 2015


Report Offers NASA Framework to Help Agency Establish Priorities Among Earth Observations From Space


WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers NASA a framework for prioritizing satellite observations and measurements of Earth based on their scientific value.


NASA’s Earth Science Division conducts a coordinated series of satellite and airborne missions for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. Data from these observations are used to understand Earth as an integrated system and to support critical societal applications, including resource management, weather forecasts, climate projections, agricultural production, and natural-disaster response. 


Like all federal agencies, NASA is operating in a constrained budgetary environment that necessitates making difficult choices among competing priorities for investment. For the Earth Science Division, this challenge is exacerbated by increasing demands for the information provided by its programs and missions, as well as by congressional and executive branch direction to undertake responsibility for sustaining a number of measurements that were formerly supported by other federal agencies.


NASA’s current process for making decisions about Earth-observation priorities is primarily qualitative. As an alternative, the framework presented in the new report provides a partially quantitative and transparent approach that rates the relative importance of different measurements based on their scientific value.  (The report does not tell NASA which observations to prioritize, but instead offers methodologies and metrics that NASA can use to establish priorities.)


The report recommends that NASA begin by developing a small set of quantified objectives for its earth science measurements, using the same sources it uses to develop its program plan – the consensus priorities of the scientific community expressed in the Academies’ decadal surveys, as well as guidance from the executive and congressional branches. The report offers examples to illustrate the form of a quantified objective, such as determining the rate of global mean sea-level rise or the change in ocean heat storage within a quantified range of uncertainty.  NASA should then rate the benefit of a particular measurement to meeting a quantified objective based on a small set of characteristics -- importance, utility, quality, and success probability. Considering these ratings, as well as affordability, will enable NASA to distinguish the relative value of competing measurements.


The report illustrates use of the framework with science objectives, but notes that it could also be applied to help NASA prioritize measures in terms of their relationship to societal benefits. However, this use of the framework would require NASA to determine how to identify and assess quantified objectives in this area.


The study was sponsored by NASA.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



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Copies of Continuity of NASA Earth Observations from Space: A Value Framework are available at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above)



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Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Space Studies Board


Committee on a Framework for Analyzing the Needs for Continuity of NASA-Sustained Remote Sensing Observations of the Earth from Space


Byron D. Tapley1 (chair)

The Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair, and


Center for Space Research

University of Texas



Michael D. King1 (vice chair)

Senior Scientist Emeritus

NASA; and

Senior Research Scientist

Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

University of Colorado



Mark R. Abbott

Dean and Professor

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Oregon State University



Steven A. Ackerman

Professor of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, and


Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies

University of Wisconsin



John J. Bates

Principal Scientist

National Climatic Data Center

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Asheville, N.C.


Rafael L. Bras1

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

Georgia Institute of Technology



Robert E. Dickinson1,2

Professor of Geosciences

Department of Geological Sciences

University of Texas



Randall R. Friedl


Earth System Science Formulation Office

Earth Science and Technology Directorate

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, Calif.


Lee-Lueng Fu1

JPL Fellow

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, Calif.


Chelle L. Gentemann

Senior Principal Scientist

Remote Sensing Systems

Santa Rosa, Calif.


Kathryn A. Kelly

Professor and Principal Oceanographer

Air Sea Interaction and Remote Sensing Department

Applied Physics Laboratory

University of Washington



Judith L. Lean2

Senior Scientist

Sun-Earth System Research

Naval Research Laboratory

Washington, D.C.


Joyce E. Penner

Ralph J. Cicerone Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science, and

Associate Chair

Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor


Michael J. Prather

Fred Kavli Chair and Professor

Department of Earth System Science

University of California



Eric J. Rignot

Professor of Earth System Science

Department of Earth System Science

University of California



William L. Smith

Distinguished Professor

Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Hampton University

Hampton, Va.


Compton J. Tucker

Senior Scientist

Laboratory for Terrestrial Physics

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, Md.


Bruce A. Wielicki

Senior Scientist for Radiation Sciences

Science Directorate

NASA Langley Research Center

Hampton, Va.





Arthur A. Charo

Study Director


1Member, National Academy of Engineering

2 Member, National Academy of Sciences