Trump administration considering reinstating fees to purchase Landsat images


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The Trump administration is considering reinstating the fee system to purchase Landsat images that existed prior to 2008.

Not surprisingly, the Nature article is completely hostile to this idea. The quote below gives a flavor.

Since the USGS made the data freely available, the rate at which users download it has jumped 100-fold. The images have enabled groundbreaking studies of changes in forests, surface water, and cities, among other topics. Searching Google Scholar for “Landsat” turns up nearly 100,000 papers published since 2008.

A USGS survey of Landsat users released in 2013 found that the free distribution of Landsat imagery generates more than US$2 billion of economic benefit annually — dwarfing the programme’s current annual budget of roughly $80 million. More than half of the nearly 13,500 survey respondents were academics, and the majority lived outside the United States. [emphasis mine]

Why should scientists, a majority of which are not even Americans, have a free ride?

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8 comments

  • Oh, this has little to do with anyone getting a free ride or foreigners using the data or the administration trying to fill the humongous hole it created in the nation’s finances with the recent tax cut.

    No no no….None of that. Let’s deal with the real issue here by looking at another part of the story:

    “Some scientists who work with the data sets fear that changes in access could impair a wide range of research on the environment, conservation, agriculture and public health. “It would be just a huge setback,” says Thomas Loveland, a remote-sensing scientist who recently retired from the USGS in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”

    An administration busily undoing environmental and health regulations really doesn’t want to give scientists easy access to data that will chronicle the negative impacts of these efforts. The more the data cost, the less researchers can buy them, the fewer studies and papers get published, the less evidence there is about what’s really going on, the more the administration can cast doubt on findings and refuse to address problems.

    It’s as simple as that, really.

  • Edward

    D. Messier wrote: “The more the data cost, the less researchers can buy them, the fewer studies and papers get published, the less evidence there is about what’s really going on, the more the administration can cast doubt on findings and refuse to address problems. It’s as simple as that, really.

    At the risk that this was a sarcastic comment, plenty of Earth science was performed before the free-ride system was implemented in 2008. It is silly to suggest that Earth science can be best performed only when the data is provided free of charge. If their research is important enough and their track records good enough, I’m sure that the scientists can include the cost of the data in their grant requests.

    I’m pretty sure that the salaries of the research staff far outweigh the price of the Landsat data, not to mention all the other costs associated with research. If price is a concern, then perhaps the researchers can narrow down the range of data to only that which is most relevant to their research, which will also help them save time by eliminating the need to look through irrelevant data.

    From the article:

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

    Providing this data to foreign nations — at any cost — is against the U.S. national interest, giving foreign nations strategic business or military advantages that they would not have otherwise. If the national interest is at stake then it should only be available to U.S. nationals, not foreigners.

    Isn’t free Landsat imagery in direct competition with U.S. commercial imagery companies? Doesn’t free data put U.S. national interests — the U.S. companies — at a disadvantage?

    From the article:

    And although the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites provide free global imagery that is updated as often as every 5 days, at resolutions up to 10 metres, they cannot match Landsat’s 46-year record

    Wait a minute. There’s a second source for the data? So why not just let everyone sponge off the ESA rather than sponge off the USGS, which spends good American tax money to operate these satellites. If researchers want the (superior?) extras that come with Landsat’s 46-year record, then why not pay a fee for it, and when they don’t want all that extra, then they should go to the ESA.

    From the article:

    The last time the federal advisory committee examined whether to reinstate fees for Landsat data, in 2012 …

    … there wasn’t that nice, free, second source with the 10 meter resolution, rather than 30 meter (15 meter for some Landsat instruments). The arguments from the 2012 examination disappear, now that the Sentinel 2 satellites are operational.

  • I could pretty much predict most of this response. Let’s see….

    Academia: Overpaid freeloaders

    > If their research is important enough and their track records good enough, I’m sure that the scientists can include the cost of the data in their grant requests. I’m pretty sure that the salaries of the research staff far outweigh the price of the Landsat data, not to mention all the other costs associated with research. If price is a concern, then perhaps the researchers can narrow down the range of data to only that which is most relevant to their research, which will also help them save time by eliminating the need to look through irrelevant data.

    Yeah, the experts say otherwise. Lots of people would be cut off. Landsat is a great national asset paid for by taxpayers. Making it freely available to researchers, STEM educators, businesses results in far more benefits than the government could collect by restricting access.

    National Security

    > Providing this data to foreign nations — at any cost — is against the U.S. national interest, giving foreign nations strategic business or military advantages that they would not have otherwise. If the national interest is at stake then it should only be available to U.S. nationals, not foreigners.

    Not really buying this argument. There’s a reason that Landsat is a civilian program and the military spends billions on spy sats with unique capabilities. A foreign military or business could easily set up an to buy Landsat data. Transferring it electronically across borders would be fairly easy.

    > Isn’t free Landsat imagery in direct competition with U.S. commercial imagery companies? Doesn’t free data put U.S. national interests — the U.S. companies — at a disadvantage?

    That’s a legitimate questions. Perhaps Landsat and the burgeoning private sector are complementary.

    > Wait a minute. There’s a second source for the data? So why not just let everyone sponge off the ESA rather than sponge off the USGS, which spends good American tax money to operate these satellites.

    Oh, so you’re for sponging off government. Wait…what?

  • Edward

    D. Messier,
    You wrote: “Landsat is a great national asset paid for by taxpayers.

    I agree wholeheartedly! Unfortunately, it is also a great asset for foreign nationals, too, and they get to use it for free, unlike we Americans who pay for the development, construction, launch, operation, and the American scientists who use it. The foreign nations only have to pay for their own scientists and get all the rest for free — or more accurately from the (forced) generosity of the U.S. taxpayer. (Have you ever received any thanks for all that generosity over the years? Neither have I.) If the people who are cut off are the foreign sponges, I don’t mind at all. It just goes to show that they were not good enough at science to convince their financiers that their science was worth paying for the small extra cost of the data.

    Not really buying this argument. There’s a reason that Landsat is a civilian program and the military spends billions on spy sats with unique capabilities. A foreign military or business could easily set up an to buy Landsat data. Transferring it electronically across borders would be fairly easy.

    Well, that proves why we should just give it away for free. You have me convinced with this argument, since “in the national interest” was an argument for keeping it free. [Oops, sarcasm alert.]

    Oh, so you’re for sponging off government. Wait…what?

    The reason that you are confused is because my comment was for the opposite of your conclusion.

  • wodun

    or the administration trying to fill the humongous hole it created in the nation’s finances with the recent tax cut.

    Tax revenues are up, for now, so maybe we have a spending problem, just as we have the last 18 years and especially under the reign of Obama who doubled the debt?

    Isn’t it strange though how people feel entitled to the money they earn just like academics feel entitled to the money other people earn? There is always a lack of gratitude and recognition of where the money comes from that makes their life possible.

    That’s a legitimate questions. Perhaps Landsat and the burgeoning private sector are complementary.

    The government providing services for free isn’t complimentary to the free market, it hampers the free market. Its like dumping steel below cost in order to put your competition out of business.

    Personally, I don’t see any problem with researchers buying imaging from the USGS just like normal people buy maps and other things from the USGS.

    Yeah, the experts say otherwise. Lots of people would be cut off.

    The same brainiacs who said charging money would actually waste money? These people don’t even economics.

    The article was short on details, like prices or program costs, and overly sensational on fear mongering. It wasn’t written to appeal to rational thought but to psychologically manipulate its audience into a state of paranoia and hatred.

    the free distribution of Landsat imagery generates more than US$2 billion of economic benefit annually — dwarfing the programme’s current annual budget of roughly $80 million.

    This means that the noble researchers who are only concerned about science and not evil profits are turning a nice profit. A $2 billion a year industry isn’t super huge but it isn’t insignificant either. There are plenty of profits there to pay for imaging services.

    Maybe non-profit environmental groups could channel some of their billions into conducting science rather than political activism, piracy on the high seas, and rioting in the streets?

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “Isn’t it strange though how people feel entitled to the money they earn just like academics feel entitled to the money other people earn?

    This reminds me of the story of the Little Red Hen. No one wants to do the work to be productive, but they are very willing to enjoy the fruits (bread?) of other people’s work (read: “earnings”):
    http://www.enchantedlearning.com/stories/fairytale/littleredhen/story/

    So, who deserves the fruits of one’s work, the money one earns? Isn’t it the person who did the work? Some people do not believe in merit; they would rather sponge off of other people’s labor.

    Complaining about paying for something that was previously received for free is similar to welfare systems. It is politically difficult to end welfare systems, even though they discourage work and productivity, because the free stuff was so nice to receive (but not so nice for those who had to give up more of their earnings in order pay for them).

    Who would want to give up a free Obamaphone, even though he doesn’t use it for its stated intended purpose (finding a job)? Why work all day when you can play on your free X-Box and let someone else do all the hard work? Why build your own expensive research satellite when someone else will sell you his data for cheap or give it away for free?

    The experts may have said otherwise, but the reduced number of research satellites means a reduced amount of data for performing science. How much science is not done because the scientific satellites are limited in number?

    wodun wrote: “Maybe non-profit environmental groups could channel some of their billions into conducting science rather than political activism, piracy on the high seas, and rioting in the streets?

    [Ignoring the sarcasm]
    This assumes that these groups have lost sight of their objectives rather than these other activities being their true objectives. Are these groups concerned about the science, or are they intent on manipulating the governmental policy?

  • wayne

    Edward-
    totally forgot about The Little Red Hen!

    referencing real-life costs of satellite imagery–

    “Pricing Information for High Resolution Satellite Imagery”
    Landinfo Worldwide Mapping LLC
    http://www.landinfo.com/satellite-imagery-pricing.html

    Imagery sources include: “Pléiades, GeoEye-1, WorldView-1, WorldView-2, WorldView-3, WorldView-4, QuickBird, IKONOS, TripleSat, KOMPSAT, SPOT 1 – 7, RapidEye, PlaneteScope/Dove, Sentinel and Landsat 8.”

  • Bill

    The Landsat satellites are a U.S. government resource. A big part of their utility is in research. Researchers, in preparing proposals can currently use the free imagery from Landsat and other government satellites to readily prepare the proposals for more detailed research. To charge for the Landsat imagery would have a serious impact on the ability to prepare such proposals (for which funding is not available for many if not most researchers).

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