NASA science chief seeks to allay concerns about transition

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GRAPEVINE, Texas — The head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, seeking to assure astronomers concerned about the next administration, said that the transition process has gone as he expected.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said at a NASA town hall meeting Jan. 5 during the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here that he has had good interactions with the “landing team” assigned to the agency by the transition team of President-elect Donald Trump.

“The meetings have been very thoughtful,” he said. “I think that, at this stage of the process, it’s working the way it should.”

Zurbuchen described the meetings with the landing team as “customer-driven,” with NASA responding to questions from the team about agency programs. “The types of questions that are asked are exactly what you would expect,” he said, not going into details about the topics of those discussions.

“The discussion was very thoughtful, very focused on good objectives and focused on science value,” he said in an interview after the town hall meeting. “We were ready for that. Every division director was ready to talk about their programs that way.” The landing team, he added, has received all the information they requested.

Zurbuchen said he had not been able to glean any information from the landing team about the incoming administration’s plans. That included, he said, who it might nominate to be the next administrator of NASA, or when that might take place.

Many astronomers attending the conference, the largest annual gathering of the field in the U.S., felt worried about the transition because of a lack of information about how the Trump administration might affect their field. While policy statements made by Trump advisors before and after the election mentioned Earth science as a field that the new administration would seek to de-emphasize at NASA, they have been silent on other scientific work carried out by the agency.

“We don’t know the Trump administration’s priorities, if any, for NASA astrophysics,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a Jan. 3 meeting here of three groups of astronomers that advise the agency. “The Trump administration has not communicated to us any of their priorities, and I don’t know if they have priorities that affect NASA astrophysics.”

Zurbuchen acknowledged in the town hall that the lack of information during the transition might worry people. “During that time there’s a lot of ambiguity, and the ambiguity is really kind of a scary thing for many of us,” he said.

He said later that, in discussions during the conference, astronomers also expressed to him concern about the future of Earth science at the agency. “As scientists, no matter what your primary field of study is, whether it’s astronomy, planetary science, or so forth, I hear a lot of discussions about Earth science, in the context of how important it is for them,” he said.

Ultimately, he said he expects the next administration to make changes of some kind to NASA, even if he doesn’t know yet what they might be. “If there was no change with this administration, it would be a huge surprise,” he said, “because every incoming administration creates some change.”