Topic: Collaborative Experiences in Medical Research and the Formation of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Speaker: Dr. Baruch Blumberg
President, American Philosophical Society
Senior Scientist, Lunar Science Institute & Astrobiology Institute
Nobel Laureate, 1976
Location: Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley (NASA Research Park Building 23) Room 118
Time: Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 4:00pm-5:00pm
While at Stanford I was invited to attend the Astrobiology Roadmap Workshop at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field in nearby Mountain View, CA. (07.20.98). I was fascinated by the proceedings. NASA had recently established an astrobiology program and had invited several hundred scientists from the space science and general science communities to discuss and formulate a program for astrobiology. The mission statement for astrobiology is, "The study of the origin, distribution, evolution and future of life on earth and in the Universe", no mean program. It addressed the heavy questions, "How did life start?" "Are we alone in the universe?" "What is the future of life on earth and elsewhere and what happens to life when it leaves its planet of origin?" Embodied in these questions is the issue of how does one define life, or, if a definition is impossible, what are the characteristics that can be used to identify life. An allied question is what constitutes death and how can you tell if something previously alive is no longer so. These are intriguing questions, of interest not only to scientists but to philosophers, the religious, ethicist, and many others. NASA proposed to study the issues using scientific process. The Workshop encouraged me to learn more about this emerging discipline.
A few months later I was asked to co-chair another roadmap workshop along with the Nobel laureate Richard Roberts; this was on "Genomic Studies on the International Space Station". It was an exciting program and I met more of the NASA staff during the course of the meeting and its aftermath. Soon afterwards I was asked if I would agree to have my name put forward as the Director of the recently established NASA Astrobiology Institute. This was a surprise since I had not worked in this field before. However, apparently, NASA wanted to have an experienced scientist to take part in the initiation of this scientific program. After interviews with Daniel Goldin, the then Administrator of NASA, I was appointed the "Founding Director" of NAI.
The NAI is a virtual Institute with each of the research teams remaining in their home institutions. They are well funded by NASA and expected to take a part in the NAI activities using direct and electronic means to collaborate. Astrobiology included disciplines in which I did not have formal training; geology, paleontology, oceanography, astronomy, cosmology as well as the engineering that were needed to understand the technology that is a major part of any space mission. The Director had, theoretically, a large measure of control over the grantees' research, but it was apparent that a top-down hierarchical model for management was inappropriate for the independent minded scientists the field attracted. I relied heavily on the Executive Council, made up of the principal investigators of each of the 11 teams that we funded. Although they were formally an advisory group, I nearly always took their advice, giving them de facto authority. I understood that my mandate was to establish a basic science organization that could discover and understand natural phenomenon that related to early life and to life elsewhere. At an introductory address to the members of the Institute I told them that I did not expect them to do exactly what they said they would do in their applications since, in a fast moving field, observations made after the application had been written could greatly change the path of research. This was greeted with cheers.
Fortunately, NAI attracted outstanding NASA professionals for the NAI staff located at our headquarters at Ames Research Center. This enabled us not only to maintain the efficient operation of the Institute, but also to innovate. There were major barriers to surmount to produce the "Culture of Collaboration" that we sought. These included collaboration between and across scientific disciplines, between different institutions, across geographic distances and different age groups, and between national groups. We developed techniques for realizing our goal of collaboration. These included: a) Modern videoconferencing capability at each of the teams. b) Frequent face to face meetings so that collaborators knew each other personally and could therefore relate better using electronic communication. c) Funding of field trips that included members of several teams. thus increasing the opportunity for people to learn about their colleagues scientific and other interests. d) A website that would bind the participants together and serve as a repository for mutually used data. e) Funding research fellows who could migrate from team to team to facilitate communication between the teams. f) Producing real-time interactive video lectures and conferences that could include members from many teams. The management structure was dispersed rather than command and control; we encouraged the teams to communicate and collaborate directly with each other without the need to go through NASA Central.
NAI has a strong emphasis on international cooperation. Space exploration has been a remarkably international event. Even during the depths of the Cold War Soviet and US astronauts, cosmonauts and space scientists collaborated on projects, as did their governments. We recognized that exploration of the solar system to look for life could not be exclusively a US activity. It is a human program in which nations who wish to collaborate, and can, should be encouraged to do so. Initially, several countries requested and received association or affiliation with NAI in part to demonstrate to their own governments that they had international recognition. Eventually, this was converted to a federal organization of national astrobiology institutes. This has resulted in rich and effective international programs.