NEWS | IN DEPTH
1112 17 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6330 sciencemag.org SCIENCE
Q: How can your background help you work
with a divided Congress?
A: I grew up in a little town that you would
call, by any political spectrum, ultra–right
wing, right? Trust is important. You can’t
just go walk up and scream at people, like,
“I tell you what’s true or what’s real!” Even
if you’re right! That’s not the way to do
it. Because listen to it from their point of
view: “Wow, that’s an arrogant prick. Just
because he has this tremendous education
doesn’t mean that I’m stupid.” Right?
The way to make progress is to learn
with a little bit of empathy—listening to
others: “What do you care about?”
Q: U.S. science and engineering schools are
seeing a drop in international applicants in
recent months. As an immigrant who
became a U.S. citizen, are you concerned?
A: I came here frankly because I wanted
to learn a language. I felt that English is
the language of science and I felt I did
not speak it well enough. [And then] I
really felt, because I’m such a believer in
democracy, I’d really like to vote where I
Look at the Los Alamos [atom bomb]
project. You see how many people had
accents, right? This is what makes me
passionately excited about the U.S. That
amazing opportunity to really step up and
do something, no matter your background.
The fact that these applications go up and
down a little, we’ve seen in the past. Things
Q: You’ve written about the importance of
taking risks. How did risk factor into your
selection of Psyche and Lucy, two relatively
low-risk missions to asteroids, as the next
Discovery missions in planetary science?
A: Risk is not an end in itself. It’s like a
mountain hike. If I want to get on top of a
mountain, I don’t want to go on the path
that is the most dangerous. I could do that,
but that’s really stupid. The way I felt about
Discovery, risk didn’t really factor in. I was
all about the best science under the constraints we had.
Q: The current administration likes to think
of itself in business terms. What’s the busi-
ness case for NASA earth science?
A: The return of investment on earth science makes it a no-brainer. This morning,
people [in Washington, D.C.,] went onto
the [subway] with an umbrella. Because
they know that it’s going to rain. But for
many of the forecasts we’re addressing to-day, we want forecasts that are longer. For
each of these forecasts, there’s an immediate business case. How do I fuel aircraft, if
I’m in aviation? How do I deal with traffic?
What are the goods that should be in the
front of the store? These are decisions being made based on earth science data.
Whether it’s in agriculture, whether
it’s in water management, whether it’s in
trade, whether it’s in logistics—these kinds
of data really matter.
Q: Do you feel this message, about the
importance of earth science, is being heard
by the administration?
A: Well, when I’m in the room the message
is being said. Because it’s really important
for me to be a champion for that message.
Q: You’ve been a supporter of small satellites. Could such spacecraft address high-priority science?
A: There is a revolution going on in technology in which small platforms are really
becoming valid tools. It’s the opportunity
to solve some of these problems at a much
smaller price point. That’s the exciting part.
Q: Commercial space launchers are coming
fast—SpaceX, Blue Origin. How can the sci-
ence take advantage of this?
A: If somebody goes to Mars, I don’t want to
miss the opportunity of sending a payload
that we may be able to drop off. If our engagement helps to push a great project like
this over the edge, and makes it just viable
and we show up, as an early customer, we
pay for some of this, it’s a double success.
We get the science done. But we also help
a company—we get a capability, infrastructure, we get that enabled. j
Earth science a ‘no-brainer’
for NASA’s science chief
Thomas Zurbuchen talks risk, trust, and small satellites
at Kennedy Space Center
in Florida, learns about
a space habitat for plants.
Thomas Zurbuchen grew up in a tiny Swiss village with more cows than people. The heliophysicist, who in October 2016 left the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to take the reins of NASA’s science directorate, was raised in a deeply religious family, where he says he was comfortable asking the hard questions: “Where am I from?” and “What’s my purpose?” He could soon face more hard questions from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which is
skeptical about the value of climate change research, much of it supported by NASA.
Science caught up with Zurbuchen last week. This interview has been edited for length
and clarity; for a longer version, see http://scim.ag/ZurbuchenQA.
By Paul Voosen