2011

Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chief Scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC


NTB: When you look at current scientific priorities, what do you think has been the biggest change compared to years past?

Dr. Abdalati: I don’t think I can point to a specific change. Rather just our ability to look at things in new ways allows us to ask new questions. I think one thing NASA has done is really transform paradigms in many ways, from our own Earth in my own discipline: something as simple as learning how fast ice is capable of flowing on a glacier or an ice sheet, just by watching through the tools that we developed, or something as sort of groundbreaking as the expansion rate of the universe and the fact that that’s accelerating. We have antimatter, we have dark energy. These kinds of discoveries. The constant is when you look at new things, you’ll often be blown away. The change, the difference, is the kinds of things that are blowing us away are real surprises around every corner. The change is what’s blowing us away.  We keep pushing frontiers, and with that comes revelations.

NTB: During your first tenure at NASA, you served as the head of the cryospherics sciences branch at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and you’ve also led campaigns in the Arctic and Antarctic and did work studying polar ice. Because of your previous work, will we see a greater emphasis on climate change studies?

Dr. Abdalati: No, you won’t see a greater emphasis because my responsibility is related to all of the agency science, and it really is up to the science mission directorate and the earth science division to determine those priorities. However, I firmly believe it’s an incredibly important part of the NASA portfolio. We make unique contributions. We do things no one else can, and really shine a light on these important processes, so you’ll certainly see me as an avid defender of these activities. But it’s not my intent, nor is it really my place, to shift the emphasis on those kinds of investments.

NTB: When you’re an advocate for NASA, you’re dealing with coordination and communication between a variety of different agencies and groups. What is your strategy for managing and leading that coordination?

Dr. Abdalati: Well, the first element of that strategy is to understand the constraints within which those entities have to work: the pressures that are on them, the objectives they’re trying to fulfill. Once you take that step, I find it easier to identify the best ways to map those objectives and efforts toward the broader agency goals, but also to have a sensitivity to the concerns and the issues that may be impediments to such a mapping, or to such an execution.

The first step is to understand. The second step is to demonstrate that I understand and get buy-in so that everyone realizes that we’re all trying to move in the same direction, and that’s to serve the agency’s interest and deliver the best science. Then finally, I certainly formulate my own ideas, but really draw from the experts, draw from the people who live and breathe the day-to-day headaches and triumphs associated with these activities, and try to pull that altogether in a plan or a forward movement that everyone can stand behind, and at best really aggressively and enthusiastically advocate for, but at a minimum, at least support my decisions through an understanding of how I got to them. There won’t always be agreement, but at a minimum, there should be clarity as to how decisions are arrived at, recommendations are made, and paths forward are set. Really the absolutely foundation of that is understanding what each of these organizations are trying to do: what their goals are, what their constraints are, what their concerns are, and trying to integrate that into a whole across these entities.

NTB: How does the NASA Science Council operate to determine scientific objectives?

Dr. Abdalati: The NASA Advisory Council and the science committee of the NASA Advisory Council are groups of very distinguished members of a community who understand NASA, who understand Washington, and who understand science. By bringing their expertise and experience to bear on what NASA is trying to do and the constraints within NASA must work, they provide advice. They tell us “These are things that you should be thinking about. These are the things you should be looking at. This is probably a good way to implement certain activities. And we ask them “Should we be doing X? Should we be doing Y? What are your views?” This is an incredibly important function.

While we get our scientific input and priorities from the decadal surveys, that’s really only one dimension of a multidimensional problem. How you deal with these things, and the budget environment that’s always changing, and the political environment that changes periodically, requires more of a view of these other variables. So they are certainly an important part of what we do: offering us guidance on what we’re doing, how we should be doing it, and the implications of certain courses of action.

NTB: Given potential limitations, what are the most urgent calls and priorities when you’re gathering feedback?

Dr. Abdalati: It varies with whom you ask. The most urgent calls are for more resources. We’re in real-year dollars. A lot of people are seeing declines in the resources, and we’re seeing cost overruns so the buying power appears to be diminishing, and we can’t fulfill all our priorities. Really the most urgent thing, depending on who you ask, it’s to do the next thing that we’re just not quite able to afford right now. When you’re working on missions that people are involved in, that are moving forward, everybody’s supportive of that. It’s the stuff that we can’t quite do yet, or have to put off a little bit longer because of resources, that really become urgent in people’s minds. There’s so much discovery to be made, and none of us like to have to hold back on that.

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