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.

NASA Tech Briefs: Can you take us through your responsibilities as chief scientist?

Dr. Waleed Abdalati

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.

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.

NTB: What are the key areas of research then?

Dr. Abdalati: I don’t know I could answer that specifically. Certainly, as any natural hazard like the earthquake in Japan reminds us, understanding the earth environment, bringing to bear the tools that are unique to NASA is a major priority. At the same time, the journey of discovery and learning about our neighbors in the solar system or what’s happening at the edges of the universe also are important and remain priorities. I probably haven’t been here long enough to pick one thing or another and say “This is more important than that across disciplines.”

Now within disciplines, we can do that because we have the tools. We have the decadal survey. For example, we just had the Mars Planetary decadal survey, and they made very clear recommendations on supporting research and analysis discovery missions, new frontiers, and so, on the one sense, they’re saying “Let’s let the proposals identify the priorities.” But for the flagship missions, they have identified a Mars Explorer-Cacher to extract a sample from the surface of Mars and hold it until it can be retrieved as the top priority. So within disciplines, I would point people to the decadal surveys. Across disciplines I’m going to need more time to sort out what are higher priorities and what are lower.

NTB: What has been the best part of the job so far?

Dr. Abdalati: The best part of the job so far has been learning. It has been meeting the people who do incredible things, and to almost every hour of every day, being reminded of what an unbelievable agency this is and what incredible stuff we do. I feel great even when I’m frustrated by something. There’s always something that happens frequently in a day that just makes me stop and say, “This is unbelievable.” And to have the opportunity to be involved, to play a role in the NASA leadership is great. The best part of the job is the learning, and the constant reminders across many areas of just how amazing the talent is here at NASA, and how incredible the things we do are.

NTB: Do you have any examples of the kinds of scientific discoveries that have really captured your attention?

Dr. Abdalati: It all has. Planetary science, just with the kinds of missions that are coming up and the kinds of things they’re doing, is particularly interesting. When I showed up, there was the encounter with [the comet] Tempel 1. Just looking at these bodies in the solar system as they’re passing by -- I mean, it’s just the stuff movies are made of. The fact that it rains methane on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, or that there are methane lakes, it’s just incredible to think of these planets that have such interesting and unique environments.

I’ve gained a real appreciation for heliophysics, for the behavior of the Sun, the implications for communication here on Earth. I always knew about that. I always knew about solar storms, and the perturbations to the magnetic field and that can disrupt communication. When you look at the Sun at different wavelengths in some of these images and the flares, and you start to think about what’s going on in this star that fuels us, that provides energy for life on Earth, it’s incredible.

It’s hard for me to pick one thing because everyday there’s something new that blows me away.

NTB: What other teams will you be working closely with to determine this strategic agenda?

Dr. Abdalati: All of the directorates here at NASA. The most obvious is the science mission directorate, and that is very strong and is moving forward effectively and productively. But we can’t do the science of this agency without the technology, and so I do and intend to work very closely with Bobby Braun, the chief technologist. Certainly there is science in the exploration mission directorate, the operations mission directorate, and I have been working and intend to work with them. This is more in the area of life and microgravity sciences and human research, and education: carrying the great things that NASA does to a domain where it cannot just serve society through practical benefits but also in an inspirational way. So I have begun with and will continue to work with Leland Melvin, the [associate administrator] AA of the education office, to turn NASA science into a vehicle for inspiring young people to go into these kinds of fields.

NTB: What skills do you bring that you think make you particularly suitable for the position?

Dr. Abdalati: I think the skills that I bring, mostly, are the ability to communicate comfortably to all levels of people, whether it’s from the White House or whether it’s in my daughter’s pre-school. I think the science talent that resides at NASA and in the NASA community is tremendous. I’m humbled by it, so I don’t want to say I add large amounts to it, but what I can do is take those exciting messages and discoveries, and really turn them into something people can relate to, which is critical when you’re talking about advancing the science of an agency.

I have 12 years of experience with NASA as a civil servant. A couple more as a post- doc. I have experience in the academic community and that breadth of experience, and at NASA it was at headquarters, it at the center as a scientist, it was as a manager at the center. I’ve been a professor at a university. That breadth of experience, that appreciation and understanding of what NASA does, and the ability to communicate that, are the strengths I bring to this position.

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.

NTB: What do you hope to accomplish this year?

Dr. Abdalati: This year, I hope to accomplish getting people to understand me, this office, and what it can do for them, and getting to understand what it is they need from me. A major focus is getting the community, our sponsors, stakeholders and the general public, to understand the value of NASA science to them, why it’s an important investment for this nation, and to really be an effective advocate for the programs we have here. Ultimately my goal is to maximize the value of the science of this agency. That involves looking across directorates, across NASA centers, and understanding where the synergies are, where the opportunities are for cross-directorate activities, cross-center activities, that no one organization may think to take on itself, but together could do great things.

My ultimate objective when I leave this job and look back is for people to look at NASA – people all over the world and all over the country – and immediately think of the great science we do. So they’re not just saying “NASA: They put people on the moon. They led the space station. They got the shuttle. They’re going to take us to new destinations far into the future.” I want them also to think, “NASA: Those are the people that put rovers on Mars, those are the people that discovered liquid methane on Titan, those are the people that help us understand our planet. And NASA’s the organization that lets us look to the edges of the universe to the beginning of time.” These are the kinds of things that I hope to achieve in the long run, but the first step and for the coming year is to make sure everybody gets and values what NASA is doing and to make sure that our activities are well-integrated, targeted at the best and most valuable science, and serve the nation.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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