Earth Science and Continuous Inspection

Earth showing one quadrant breaking-up into disassembled bits.

Earth as the product of the continuous integration of its bits.

On this Earth Day I’m preparing to start a new job, one full of IT management buzzwords like continuous inspection (CI), continuous integration (my other brother, CI) and continuous delivery (CD). When making policy towards our homeworld though, it strikes me that these proven management practices fall by the wayside of many “pro-business” policymakers. What does CI for earth science really mean?

Continuous Inspection

When I was learning woodworking in middle school as I was growing up, our teacher stressed one principle that sticks with me to this day,

Measure twice, cut once.

The idea was clear, that before you irrevocably commit yourself to cutting your wood, measure what you’re about to do not once but twice to avoid making a mistake.  Continuous inspection carries that conventional woodshop wisdom to the next level for today’s complex systems engineering.  At a high-level all you need to understand is that CI defines key indicators, measures and monitors them to ensure quality throughout the development of whatever product it is that you’re trying to turn out to your customers.

continuous inspection in a nutshell

  1. Identify or refine key measures.
  2. Automate their continual measurement.
  3. Communicate them to everybody.
  4. Return to step 1.

Earth as Corporation

Now any business leader knows the importance of keeping records (even if we sometimes don’t like to do it) to know the financial status of an enterprise, to know what inventory is on the shelves and what needs to be re-ordered from suppliers, to know what products sell and what products do not sell.  If we think of the earth as our business, then naturally having a lot of observations and measurements would be equally valuable feedback in its management.  No manager worth their salt would dream of running a business venture without the benefit of such continuous measurements, would they?  Would they??

Enter Congress

Something curious seems to happen when a former businessperson is elected to Congress or appointed to an executive agency with responsibility for the public’s lands, waters, air and environment. They forget the management practices that make for successful businesses, and in the name of deregulation and/or fiscal responsibility, seek to eliminate programs that do just this sort of continuous inspection of our Earth.

Earth Observation System

Giant sphere illustrating a heat map and other planetary-scale scientific visualizations.

Gigantic scientific visualization globe in foyer of Goddard Space Flight Center, building 32

I had the privilege about a year and a half ago to visit NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.  One of the sights I’ll remember was on entering [I believe it was] building 32, the Exploration Sciences building. There big-as-day was what must have been a 4 – 5 meter diameter globe hanging in the air illustrating all kinds of observational data about the Earth, as well as other planets in the solar system.

America has some of the best and brightest scientists and engineers actively monitoring the planet from an orbiting system of satellites assembled over the years. What they learn day-in, day-out, expands human knowledge about our land and water use, the effect of natural disasters, weather and climate.

Budget Cut Proposal

A lot of pro-business, former businesspeople were elected to office in 2016 and in their first budget proposal they want to cut earth science spending.  For the reasons I set forth above, this just isn’t good business practice.  So what is the rationale behind their thinking, if it isn’t to manage the world as a good business?

The Data Doesn’t Look Good

Ostrich sticks its head into the desert sands.

“I thought it was all a hoax by China!”

We can set aside the deregulation and fiscal restraint philosophy arguments; here they’re just red herrings.  They’re recommending these cuts for one field in particular that NASA has learned too much about: the climate.

Think about it.  Why cut Earth observations when, if you are a climate change-denier, they should produce evidence that supports your position of there not being any anthropogenic warming?  Because they already recognize that the evidence coming in does not support their position. Like the former lawyers many of them were (if they weren’t previously a businessperson, they were likely a lawyer), they are burying evidence that makes their case look bad.

Truth, Transparency, and the American Way

Are truth and transparency no longer a part of the American way?  Only time will tell.  For my two cents, I’d advocate policymakers take a closer look at the business practices (like continuous inspection) that work for growing business, and apply it to growing a more robust and resilient world on which we can live.  After all, they live here, too.

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