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The US Government Wants to Monetize One of The Most Critical Earth Observing Systems

27 APR 2018

In 1972, NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS) launched a new satellite program "aimed at gathering facts about the natural resources of the Earth."

By 2013, the programme was made up of eight satellites, collecting millions of images and documenting decades of global change.


With nearly 30 million Landsat scenes downloaded altogether, a 2014 White House-led assessment concluded that the Landsat programme was one of the most critical Earth observing systems in the US, second only to GPS and weather.

The data has been used by scientists from around the world to monitor water quality, glacier recession, coral reef health, land use change, deforestation rates, and population growth.

For the past ten years, the information has been free of charge.

But now, the Interior Department, which oversees the USGS, has directed a federal advisory committee to consider whether the agency should put a price tag on the information.

If approved, the changes could come into effect as early as 2019.

Some scientists are worried that by putting a fee on the world's longest-running data set of satellite images, the USGS could seriously hinder environmental, agricultural and public health research the world over.

"It would be just a huge setback," said Thomas Loveland, a remote-sensing scientist who recently retired from the USGS.

Loveland explained that before access to the satellite data was made free in 2008, scientific research was seriously limited by price.


"You would buy as few images as you possibly could to get an answer," he said.

On the other hand, ever since the data was made free, the rate at which users downloaded the information increased 100-fold.

If you search Landsat into Google Scholar, for instance, you will be greeted with roughly 100,000 papers that have drawn on the programme's data since 2008.


Over and above the scientific argument, there is also a compelling economic argument for keeping the data free.

A 2013 USGS survey found that free distribution of the Landsat imagery generates over $2.19 billion each year - $1.70 billion for U.S. users and $400 million for international users.

In the same year, the National Research Council found, "The economic and scientific benefits to the United States of Landsat imagery far exceed the investment in the system."

If a price tag is put on this information, the whole idea could backfire, lowering usage and the overall economic benefits.

"It costs a lot of money to charge money," argued Loveland.

d41586 018 04874 y 15713348Snow cover on Mount Shasta in California has been shrinking over the last two decades, as shown here by images from the US government's Landsat probes. (Landsat/EO/NASA)

Furthermore, it seems as though the idea has already been put to rest. Six year ago, an advisory committee looked into charging money for the satellite data and found "Landsat benefits far outweigh the cost."

The panel concluded that it would ultimately waste money, stifle science and innovation, and hamper the government's ability to monitor national security.


"It is in the U.S. national interest to fund and distribute Landsat data to the public without cost now and in the future," the panel wrote.

Just three years ago, a USGS report was released that was titled "Free Data Proves Its Worth for Observing Earth."

It remains unclear why the US government thinks the verdict could have changed in such a short period of time, though it may have something to do with the Trump administration's penchant for climate denial.

Secretary of the Interior under the Obama administration, Sally Jewell, fought hard in her time to reduce the financial barriers around scientific data.

"Science and reliable data need to be at the heart of policy decisions around the globe if we are to tackle climate change and other serious environmental challenges facing our world," she said in 2016.

"It is vital that we share the trusted data that comes from earth observation so citizens, scientists, and political leaders everywhere can most effectively work together to meet these most difficult challenges."

In contrast, the current Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has repeatedly denied the primary role of humans in climate change, and scrubbed climate change from the department's five year plan.

Under his leadership, the Interior has also rolled back several policies designed to elevate climate change and conservation research in policymaking.

The current trend against climate research and mitigation at the Department of Interior is certainly worrying.

This article is based on a report published in Nature.

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