2011

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

NTB: In this role, what is your relationship with the international science community?

Dr. Abdalati: It’s certainly evolving. I’ve only been in this position two and half months, so I’m kind of a new face to that community, except for those with whom I’ve done polar research. But I’ve already worked closely, not directly, with (European Space Agency) ESA, but through OSTP and the national research council to make assessments and recommendations on US partnership with ESA. I’ll be attending the NASA-ESA bilateral at the end of this month and make those acquaintances and start to build those relationships. Frankly, that’s going to take some time for them to get to know me, me to get to know them, again apart from my own scientific community. It’s a big part of where I’m going to focus my energy in the coming months, and in the coming year, because I think it’s critical for achieving the ambitious projects we’re trying to undertake.

NTB: What are the challenges of aligning scientific priorities with the international community?

Dr. Abdalati: Those challenges really are related to how the communities may prioritize scientific objectives, the budget cycles within the United States and with our foreign partners, and the phasing of these things. It’s not like NASA and Europe or NASA and some potential partner can get together from Day 1 and say “Hey, we should collaborate on this kind of activity.” We rely on our decadal survey process to inform priorities. Our partners rely on their own mechanisms of community engagement to inform priorities. And we get our budgets from our Congress. They get their budgets through their mechanisms, and until both of those are reasonably in place, it’s very difficult to plan out in detail any kind of robust partnership. That’s a challenge. We can’t really come to the table as far upstream in the process as we’d like to. Rather we try and sync things up, and sometimes they don’t always sync up. Our community priorities may be different than what they come up with. Our budget forecasts may accommodate some things when theirs can’t – and vice versa. It’s really when you take two political and scientific processes and try to integrate them -- that’s a challenge. But we’ve had tremendous success in earth science and astrophysics, and planetary science, and partnering where together we can do far more than any one space organization could.

NTB: In this role what is your relationship with industry?

Dr. Abdalati: I don’t have a direct relationship with industry. I work to get to know and understand our industry partners and look for opportunities for really trying to understand how we can use industry to maximize the science return, but the kinds of things industry is paying attention to (the big-ticket items, the missions, the instruments, the launches, and so forth), that happens in a bit of a different domain. That happens through the peer review competition, through announcement of opportunities, but I do intend to and am working toward building relationships with industry so that they can come to me on insight on the science thinking at NASA, and I can go to them to understand what they can bring to the table, what their issues and concerns are to the extent appropriate. So I really hope to establish a productive dialogue with industry, in a manner that benefits NASA science.

NTB: To what degree will you be engaged with the general public?

Dr. Abdalati: That’s very important. I’m one of the faces of NASA science, working with the administrator in the administrator’s suite. I have, by virtue of my position, a certain status that people may pay attention to. Really it is my intention to use that view people may have of the office to communicate our message publicly, because the public support us, they invest in us, and they’re the beneficiaries of the research. So a robust communication effort is certainly part of my plan.

NTB: Does the high-level role allow you to do the research work that you’re used to?

Dr. Abdalati: Certainly not at that level and certainly not myself. I still have a few students back at the University of Colorado and a post-doc, with perhaps one coming onboard. So the research is going on, but it’s usually colleagues of mine advising these students and mentoring these post-docs, so I have a peripheral hand in it. My commitment when I took this job was to put my all into it. Fortunately an important value is keeping that tie to academia. As with anything this challenging, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it. So most of my time goes to this job.

NTB: What would you say has been the biggest challenge of the job so far?

Dr. Abdalati: There is so much incredible science, so there’s so much to learn scientifically beyond my own expertise of earth science and ice specifically. So I’m learning a lot about heliophsyics, astrophysics, life and microgravity sciences, planetary sciences. It’s challenging, but it’s great, because it’s such cool stuff that’s going on, and as I dive into it, I get more and more excited by it.

The other challenge is sort of navigating the landscape: trying to be effective in an environment that has so many perhaps orthogonal parameters functioning. Working with OSTP, OMB, having to get a budget through Congress, working with the science community, working with the different directors. There are so many players all motivated by good intentions, but viewed through the prism of their own responsibilities and functions. Reconciling that into what the best path forward is, I would say, a major challenge for anybody in any high-level position at an agency like NASA.

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