Interview with Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

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September 2013

This fall, Mariel Borowitz joined the faculty of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs as an Assistant Professor. Before coming to Georgia Tech, Dr. Borowitz was living and working in Washington, DC. She earned her PhD in Policy Studies at the University of Maryland, where her research focused on international cooperation in climate monitoring via satellite, particularly the incentives and barriers to data sharing. While pursuing her PhD, Dr. Borowitz also worked as a research analyst at the Space Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes space-related endeavors. Dr. Borowitz earned a Masters degree in International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also minored in Applied International Studies.

We conducted this interview with Dr. Borowitz to learn more about her activities and research interests.

Your most recent research focused on climate monitoring via satellite? How did you choose this topic?

My educational background is in aerospace engineering and space policy, so I was interested in continuing research that would build on that area of interest and expertise. My educational background is in aerospace engineering and space policy, so I was particularly interested in continuing research that would build on those areas of expertise. At the University of Maryland, I worked with the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), which does research on space security (for example, ways of avoiding the creation of debris in Earth orbit that could pose a threat to future utilization of space), nuclear non-proliferation, and other security-related issues.

One of CISSM’s areas of interest was the security implications of climate change. I knew that Earth observation satellites were a critical technology in terms of adequately monitoring climate change and began to read more about this issue. I found that the need for sharing satellite data was often mentioned at international events and in reports, but there was very little information about why this data was not being shared. I decided to focus my research on answering this question.

What did you find in your research? Why don’t nations share climate data collected by satellites?

First, I should note that a significant portion of climate-relevant data is shared freely without restrictions – data from about 40 percent of the unclassified government satellite instruments operated between 2000 and 2012 falls into this category. NASA, for example, provides all of its Earth observation satellite data without fees or restrictions.

Another 25 percent of the data can usually be accessed for free, but there are restrictions that apply to this data that make it harder for researchers and others to access and use. The remaining 35 percent of data is either subject to high costs or simply not made available at all under current policies.

After looking at information regarding which types of data were shared as well as conducting case studies on agencies in the United States, Europe, and Japan, I found that when countries choose not to make their data freely available, it is generally for one of three reasons. First, and most common, is an economic argument against sharing. Policy-makers recognize that the data collected by Earth observation satellites is valuable, and they hope to take advantage of this by selling the data. However, over the past three decades, nations have begun to come to the conclusion that the value of this data is primarily in its use for scientific research, and that there is not a viable commercial market for most Earth observation satellite data. In recent years, this has led some organizations, most noticeably, the European Space Agency, to switch to free and open data sharing policies. However, some countries, including Japan, still hope to generaterevenues from satellite data sales, and thus retain more restrictive policies. An interesting note is that the data that seems to have the most commercial value – very high-resolution imagery data – is almost always sold rather than given away for free. In Europe this is done through private-public partnerships, and in the United States, high-resolution satellite imagery is collected by private companies with the government as their largest customer.

Beyond the economic arguments, countries sometimes choose to share their Earth observation data for ethical reasons or because they recognize that international cooperation is necessary to adequately address international issues like weather forecasting or understanding climate change. These two arguments are particularly strong within the weather community, which operates many Earth observation satellites (meteorology satellites) that also have utility for climate. There are strong international norms and written agreements that ensure that weather-related data is shared freely, recognizing that this data enables improved weather forecasting that can save lives and property. There is also wide recognition that international cooperation and data sharing are required to adequately monitor and forecast weather. While both of these arguments –the ability of data to contribute to basic understanding and forecasts that save lives as well as the need for international cooperation – apply to climate, they have yet to gain traction in the international community. This is likely because of the relatively new and politically heated nature of climate science and the more long-term nature of climate change compared to the long history and widely recognized importance of weather research as well as the immediacy of severe weather events.

Do you think international cooperation on climate monitoring will improve in the future? Will there be more data sharing or less?

I believe international data sharing will increase in the future. The current trend is certainly moving in this direction, with Europe recently joining the U.S. in adopting free and open policies for much of its Earth observation satellite data. This is due in part to knowledge gained through experience that demonstrated that meaningful revenues couldn’t be generated from the sale of this data. Countries that do share satellite data freely have also been able to demonstrate that free and open policies greatly increase data use for both research and value-added industry (groups that combine the data with other knowledge or technology to create a commercial product), both of which generate outputs that benefit the public. International pressure, particularly through the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is also playing an important role. However, there is more that could be done to ensure this trend continues. More research is needed on the economics of satellite data sales to better understand exactly how costs and restrictions affect data use. Nations also need to examine more closely the ethical responsibilities for sharing climate data. We need to identify what types of data and what data quality would be required to have an adequate global climate monitoring system, and we need to institutionalize data sharing to accomplish this. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has the potential to play an important role in doing so, applying to climate the model used to establish international data sharing in weather.

What is your next research project?

Carrying out research on incentives and barriers to data sharing helped me to identify some current gaps in our knowledge, as I mentioned above, and I’d like to carry out research to address some of these gaps. For example, analysis of how changing prices and restrictions for accessing data from the U.S. Landsat satellite program affected data use could provide more concrete evidence on the economic effects of data sharing policies.

Your research specialization is in space policy. How did you get involved in this field?

I have been interested in space ever since I was in elementary school. (It started with a general interest in exploration of the unknown – I originally wanted to be a spelunker and investigate never-before-visited caves before learning more about the infinite possibilities of space exploration and thinking, “Wow! Even better!”) When I applied for college, I focused specifically on schools with the best aerospace engineering programs (including Georgia Tech!) and eventually ended up majoring in this field at MIT. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a systems engineer, and found that I really enjoyed work that allowed me to look at the bigger picture – not just the technical aspects of a project, but the funding and budget as well. From there, I discovered the Space Policy program at George Washington University, which allowed me to think not just about how to build space systems, but to explore why we were building them and what directionsour space activities should take in the future. I thought (and still think!) that is anincredibly interesting area in which to work.

What major developments can we expect to see in space in the next few years?

NASA is at a bit of a crossroads for human space activities right now, still working on the initial stages of its next exploration plan. There is general consensus that the next big goal is to send humans to Mars, but the question is how to get there, especially with such a constrained budget. NASA is currently developing a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) that will give us the capability to leave Earth’s orbit – something that we weren’t able to do with the Space Shuttle. The current plan is to first send humans to visit an asteroid, allowing us to learn more about deep-space exploration a bit closer to Earth before attempting a years-long mission to Mars. A big question also involves exactly how the international community will be involved in future human space exploration.

Commercial launch activity is certainly an area that is exciting to watch, particularly given the recent success of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences in launches of their respective vehicles – Dragon and Cygnus – which will carry cargo to the International Space Station. Hopefully, these commercial activities will help to lower the costs of launch and increase NASA’s ability to focus on cutting edge technologies. (And if you’ve got a couple hundred thousand dollars for a ticket, the recent successful tests of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suggest that they may be ready to start flying tourists on suborbital flights by next year!)

There is a lot going on in space – not just the human space activities at NASA that most people think of first, but also advancements in Earth observations, military space programs, and commercial areas, so there are lots of things to watch for. Earlier this year, France and India launched a joint satellite called SARAL/AltiKa that will collect detailed data about global sea levels with many applications for environmental science and oceanography. The U.S. launched the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which will continue to add to the Landsat program’s continuous 40-year history of satellite Earth observations. China launched humans to space for the fifth time, with a crew that included China’s first female taikonaut. The Air Force sent up a new GPS satellite that will improve the system for users around the world, and satellite company O3b (which stands for the “other three billion” people in the world that don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet) just launched the first four satellites in a constellation that aims to provide broadband internet access to underserved areas of the globe. And that’s just a small sample of recent global space activities!

Tell us more about your work as a research analyst in Washington, DC. What did you enjoy most about his position?

Working as a research analyst in Washington, DC gave me the opportunity to interact with the wider space policy community on a regular basis, and benefited my research in a number of ways. I was able to work directly with people involved in making or influencing policies, such as Congressional staff members, government officials at NASA and NOAA, and international representatives from Japan, France, Germany, and other nations. This gave me a great deal of insight into the practical challenges facing these agencies and organizations and helped me to understand their challenges and requirements for information. In my role as a research analyst, I was able to carry out research that could assist in better decision-making, while keeping to the fast-paced schedule required to influence and inform current issues. This allowed me the opportunity to research, write, and present about a diverse set of topics, including space applications for international development, the trade-offs involved in extending the life of the International Space Station, decisions about the development of the James Webb Space Telescope – the follow-on to Hubble, and upcoming risks and challenges in developing the next generation U.S. weather satellite system.


Why did you choose to come to Georgia Tech?

I’m very excited to be joining the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, because there are so many opportunities here. The university has an excellent reputation and an impressive faculty. The students at Georgia Tech are intelligent, hard working, and curious, which makes them great to work with. The Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy (CISTP) conducts research at the intersection of science, technology, and international affairs – which is my particular area of interest, and area that I believe will only grow in importance over time. Further, carrying out science and technology policy research at a university that is home to cutting edge technology research provides great opportunities to work across the university with leaders in these fields. I’m very much looking forward to many years of exploring these opportunities at Georgia Tech.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Ava Roth
  • Created:10/22/2013
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016


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