Waleed Abdalati, on January 3rd of this year, became NASA’s chief scientist. He will serve as the principal adviser to the NASA administrator on agency science programs, strategic planning, and the evaluation of related investments.

Dr. Waleed Abdalati: As chief scientist, I provide advice to the administrator and NASA leadership on science activities at NASA across the agency. We have a very capable and productive science mission directorate, but it also helps to have independent advice from someone who can take a broad agency perspective, look at science that also falls outside that directorate, and offer that advice without having the responsibility of implementing the programs and the pressures associated with that. So it’s really an opportunity for me to focus on just the science: how it’s done, what it’s doing, what our investments ought to be, and provide that input to the administrator.

I should also add that another important function of this job is communicating to OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy] to OMB [Office of Management and Budget] to Capitol Hill, serving as a spokesman for NASA science to the outside community: our sponsors, stakeholders, and the scientific community.

NTB: How do you determine what a good investment is? What challenges are there when you’re determining your scientific investments?

Dr. Abdalati: We actually have a pretty rigorous process. In the simplest sense, it’s peer review. We get judgment on our investments from the broader scientific community. In the case of our missions, and our more expensive undertakings, we rely on what’s called decadal surveys. This is a long 18-month, two-year process where the scientists in a community through the National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences survey their own community and develop scientific recommendations for priorities for NASA, in terms of science objectives and missions, whether that’s in earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, life and microgravity science, and heliophysics. Each community has its survey, so that’s the broad guidance on the kinds of missions that we should be investing in. And then at the research and analysis level, we put out solicitations, and people from all over the country are free to respond to those. We convene peer review panels and select the most meritorious science, those that are best reviewed and are most in line with the objectives that we’re trying to fulfill.

NTB: What are you seeing as the major priorities and major areas of focus in NASA’s science programs in 2011?

Dr. Abdalati: We have right now, just by virtue of the launch calendar, a lot of planetary missions coming up. In fact, just last night, I was at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for the insertion of [the spacecraft] Messenger into the Mercury orbit, to become the first mission to orbit Mercury, and we look forward to incredibly exciting results. We’ve had comet fly-bys and asteroid fly-bys. We’re exploring the solar system in new ways. The Dawn mission is going to be visiting [the asteroid] Vesta next year, so there’s a lot happening on the planetary front.

At the same time, we have incredibly exciting earth science missions going up, to look at ocean salinity. We’re working towards mapping soil moisture, ice changes, broader climate observations, and astrophysics missions. The NuStar X-Ray observatory will look deep into the universe, in what’s called hard-energy X-ray wavelengths. I can’t really pick one focus. I think there’s a lot of exciting activities going on, and bring to that the fact that the US has completed our component of the space station. It will become a national science laboratory with discoveries we probably can’t anticipate just yet. They’ll become revealed as we pursue them. I don’t want to point to any one specific focus for 2011. Rather, I would say the focus is going to be successfully executing the breadth of activities we have under way.

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