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VALUABLES Consortium Convenes Experts to Explore How to Quantify the Societal Benefits of Earth Observations

May 14, 2018 | Bethany Mabee

On February 28, 2018, the VALUABLES Consortium gathered representatives from NASA, academia, and the public and private sectors for a day-long workshop at Resources for the Future (RFF) to explore strategies to quantify the economic value of data that satellites and aircraft gather about Earth. This includes determining how this information benefits society when people use it to make decisions about managing air quality, water quality, agriculture, and natural disasters.

Over the course of the morning, participants learned more about the needs (and challenges) that underlie this work. The day got off to a great start with comments by four leaders at the interface of science and policy:

  • Former NOAA Administrator and RFF board member Kathy Sullivan;
  • NASA Applied Sciences Program Director Lawrence Friedl;
  • RFF Vice President for Land, Water, and Nature, Ann Bartuska; and
  • Jupiter and the University of Colorado’s Betsy Weatherhead.

The speakers highlighted the importance of being able to demonstrate the value of Earth observations and the VALUABLES Consortium’s opportunity to increase both the quantity and quality of impact assessments that quantify how Earth science information benefits society. These assessments involve comparing how an individual would make a decision about something . For example, let’s say we wanted to design an impact assessment related to satellite-based air quality monitoring. This process might involve comparing how a regulator would use information from ground-based monitors to make an air quality management decision with how she would make the same decision using improved information from a satellite.

A major focus of the workshop was the introduction of a four-part framework that the consortium’s economists and decision scientists developed to identify key elements that experts need to determine the value of information (VOI). Together, the four stages of the framework clarify the difference that information makes to decisions and the subsequent benefits achieved. Later in the day, workshop participants broke into groups to use this framework to design impact assessments for specific satellite data applications. Application areas included water, oceans, air quality, volcanoes, and food security and agriculture.

The consortium is taking the lessons learned from this very successful pilot activity and incorporating them into further outreach to the Earth science and economics communities. This work includes developing online tutorials to familiarize Earth scientists with the terms, concepts, and methods that economists use to value information, so Earth scientists can contribute their expertise to interdisciplinary projects that quantify the socioeconomic value of Earth observations.

NASA’s Bruce Wielicki presented a VOI study that he co-authored with RFF’s Roger Cooke and American University’s Alexander Golub, in which the proposed CLARREO climate observing system was valued at 2 trillion to 30 trillion US dollars. After Wielicki’s presentation, a panel of decision scientists and Earth scientists discussed their experiences collaborating on projects to quantify the value of Earth observations. They expressed excitement and discussed the opportunities collaborative work provides, including how it offers Earth scientists a way to demonstrate the value of their satellite data applications in socioeconomically-meaningful terms such as the volume of water conserved, the number of endangered species preserved, increases in private sector profits, or human lives saved.

The panelists also identified some challenges, such as the difficulty of publishing these studies in peer-reviewed journals and the lack of alignment between this work and professional incentives. They observed that the availability of funding or discretionary research time is also essential for these collaborations. Despite the hurdles, the speakers expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for undertaking these kinds of partnerships, with Wielicki calling his project one of the most personally satisfying of his professional career.

Besides the insights gained throughout the day, a major accomplishment was building connections between different disciplinary perspectives and growing a community of interested VOI practitioners and consumers.

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VOI for Earth observations is a young field that needs development, but it is an enormously exciting field with many opportunities. As Friedl said in his morning remarks, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s comments on the space program, “We choose to…do…[these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.