In the late 20th century, remote sensing from space offered a means of resolving one of the principal challenges plaguing physical oceanographers, poor spatial sampling. But in fact, remote sensing offered an opposing problem–so much data that the traditional oceanographic institutions were not equipped to cope with it. NASA decided to resolve this problem by having the Jet Propulsion Laboratory construct an oceanographic data center at its Pasadena facility. This represents a new kind of scientific institution, whose purpose is the development, validation, and distribution of scientific data to third-party users. Since 1990, NASA has established several such facilities, each rooted in a subset of the Earth science disciplines and each making its data publicly available via the Internet. In so doing, it reversed a decades-old policy that had given an instrument's science team proprietary privileges. Agency leaders did this to expand scientific demand for NASA's capabilities, thus buttressing the agency's political support; because they believed remote sensing could enable great scientific strides; because they thought open access to data would foster competition and thus produce better scientific results; and because they believed that publicly-funded data should be public. In the process, they created a “market” for oceanographic data far larger than that represented by professional oceanographers.

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