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Science That Inspires and Serves
According to Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA's chief scientist, kids' interests usually include two subjects: dinosaurs and space.

"The dinosaur interest often fades, but the fascination for space lingers forever," he said. "Then once you see Earth from space, that's when you really fill with wonder."

NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Waleed Abdalati
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"Science either inspires or it serves, and NASA has an incredible mix of the two that just makes you say -- 'Wow, that's amazing!' "
--Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA chief scientist.
Credit: NASA/Michael Finneran

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Abdalati spoke to employees at NASA's Langley Research Center in the Pearl Young Theater on April 21, about his outlook on science at NASA and what he hopes to accomplish as the agency's newly appointed chief scientist.

"When I was offered this job, I had a couple of conditions and one of them was that the job had to mean something," said Abdalati, as he began his all-hands meeting. "I wasn't interested in going to Washington, D.C., for just a title. I was interested in making a difference."

Abdalati explained that one of his goals as chief scientist is to maximize the science return on taxpayer investment. He also hopes to achieve instant recognition of NASA as a science agency among the public, stakeholders and the science community.

"Humans only have a few things that make us tick -- wonder, survival and prosperity. Science at NASA gets at each of those in incredible ways," Abdalati said.

The Science Directorate at Langley focuses its research on finding out how the Earth and its atmosphere are interacting and changing -- and what that means for the health of our planet and our quality of life. This often means looking for better ways of gathering, measuring and analyzing atmospheric data so that researchers can better understand and track the effects of human activity on the atmosphere.

"These are incredible, profound undertakings that get to the core of the human spirit," said Abdalati. "In the context of Earth and climate change, you can't argue with the notion that there is tremendous value in knowing what is coming."

Early in his career, Abdalati worked as an aerospace engineer. After working with satellites for some time, he realized he was becoming more interested in what satellites were looking at and less interested in how they worked, which led him to Earth science.

While visiting Langley, Abdalati made a point to schedule meetings with fellow scientists to talk about the innovative research taking place. He spoke with staff members working on climate change research, active remote sensing projects, space weather and those who work in airborne air quality studies to gain their perspectives on science at Langley, including what enables it and what hinders it.

"When budgets get tight, it is easy to focus on what can't be done … but at some point we need to step back and realize the incredible things that are still possible," he said. "And the first step is to be outspoken about the great things we can do."

Communicating the value of science, according to Abdalati, is one his primary responsibilities as chief scientist. He also represents all of the scientific endeavors in the agency, ensures they are aligned with the administration's science objectives and fosters interaction across directorates and centers, and community.

Abdalati is also interested in aligning NASA science with education initiatives to show the next generation just how exciting science can be.

"Science either inspires or it serves, and NASA has an incredible mix of the two that just makes you say -- 'Wow, that's amazing!' "

Jennifer LaPan
NASA Langley Research Center