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Getting the best out of the NASA Astrobiology Institute research teams


Developing a culture of communication at the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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Part of my mission was to… to figure out how to have a… how to have a virtual institute because the director didn't want to spend a lot of money building, you know, a $50 million building at NASA for a research center and then try to recruit, you know, several hundred scientists to come and live there. First of all, it's very expensive, you know, maintenance of the building and all that, you can put an awful lot of research funds in that. So the decision was there was going to be a kind of headquarters and what we eventually called NASA Astrobiology Institute, NAI Central, and then eventually there were 15, 16 teams, and they competed for really what, in this field, like geology, planetology, we had many disciplines; it's a lot of money, you know, at 1.2, 1.3 million a year, it was pretty good. You can support 30–40 people with it, and then the Institution was required to contribute money as well. So if we gave 1.2 million, on average there was nearly 1.8 or 1.7 million of money, it was pretty good, and it was for five years. So there was… it was highly competitive and there were like 50 teams competing and we selected initially 10, 11, and then we added another five later. And there are, I mean, very… I mean, the level of science was amazing, the… the field attracts very good scientists. Okay, so all these teams were spread around the country; several in California, Texas, the east coast, in Massachusetts, and there were several NASA centers; one did the jet propulsion, they had the NASA Ames, Johnson Space Center, and… so we had to figure out how we'd all work together. Well, first of all, you had to tell them you're… this isn't a grant, you know, you're part of an institute. That means you have to contribute to the institute in one way or another, and we had, you know, we… you have… we had to get together. Well, I didn't want… you can't have everybody travelling all over the place because you'd be in the air constantly. So we developed electronic means of communicating. Now, initially to do that, I had a computer chap who was meant to know about computer equipment and communication, this was still early in these days, but eventually I hired a anthropologist and she actually had got her degree here at University of Pennsylvania, and she had done her fieldwork in the highlands of Papua New Guinea but she was pretty good on — she'd done work in business afterwards too — she was good on… on developing what we eventually called a culture of collaboration. And we developed a lot of interesting techniques for doing that, and, in fact, we're now… Dr Faithorne and I are now writing this up as an instruction to other institutions like it. We really learned a lot. And our video conferencing got very good, but the big thing is we knew each other. When we had a video conference, I, in effect, knew personally everybody on the other side. Now, part of the reason was that I… we had a lot of fieldwork. I wouldn't be surprised, 20% of our funding went into fieldwork and some of our scientists would be away for six months at Spitsberg and up in the Arctic and, you know, doing… and I always encouraged people to go on the field trips and, in fact, if anybody didn't have money for the field trip, we could… you could apply to NAI Central and… and… so people got to know each other. If you're hanging together, you're in a tented camp for a week or two weeks, having all your meals together, you know, working together, people really get to know each other very well. So that was… that helped. And then we… we had a lot of conferences. We had an annual get together, a scientific meeting, when a lot of the members came and then there… there was something every year.

Well, and then I was very interested in foreign involvement. There's no way the United States can… can maintain a space program on its own, particularly now because the budget's gone way down. And… but, on the other hand, this… this is a kind of human effort and there's a great tradition of international cooperation in space in addition to competition. And even during the Cold War, you know, NASA and the Soviets were having joint missions, it's quite amazing. At the height of the Cold war there was still a level of cooperation, and I've never heard a NASA scientist or engineer criticize the engineering, let's say, they admire Russian space engineering. So, I decided, well, we can't do this by ourselves and our institute, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, is going to encourage international cooperation, very much in line with what headquarters were doing also. So we set up a kind of an affiliate, and the first one was with Spain, and they really were anxious to affiliate with us, with the… with the NASA one, because that gave them validation in their own country. Well, the Spanish — incredible scientist who ran that — he, even before I came on board, they were… they had an affiliation, and based on that, he got a huge amount of money from… from Spain to build a great laboratory for astrobiology. And we went to England and I spoke to the advisor, the science advisor to the government — who was an old friend actually — the science advisor to the British government, and he recommended scientists-to-scientists rather than government-to-government, so we did that. Then we had one in Australia who is… we don't have one in China yet, and with the European Union and with France and there are others as well. So we had this ring of… but I… one thing we made clear from the very origin is that it wasn't what the Soviets used to call hegemonic, that is, we didn't run it, and we said we didn't determine the quality of their science. In a way, we did because they were looking for that anyhow, you know, they… so, we… the assumption was their government or their scientists, decided who was going to represent them, and, okay, we accepted that but we did go through a very careful review, of every international application; we had a really stellar group of reviewers and the point was that we wanted to see compatibilities and… and we would respond, and sometimes it took a while, like a year or two, you know, to get the arrangements worked out, but for the most part they’ve gone forward. And now it's become a kind of federal organization, in other words, we don't dominate it — well, in a way we do because we still have a lot more money than most of them but that… that's changed greatly. This was, you know, a confederation of astrobiology programs, astrobiology institutes. So that went famously, you know, and a large part of it was because of this great staff I had. There were these highly competent NASA civil servants and contractors that were professionals and dedicated.

American research physician Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 along with D Carleton Gajdusek for their work on the origins and spread of infectious viral diseases that led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus. Blumberg’s work covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics and anthropology.

Listeners: Rebecca Blanchard

Dr Rebecca Blanchard is Director of Clinical Pharmacology at Merck & Co., Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. Her education includes a BSc in Pharmacy from Albany College of Pharmacy and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While at Utah, she studied in the laboratories of Dr Raymond Galinsky and Dr Michael Franklin with an emphasis on drug metabolism pathways. After receiving her PhD, Dr Blanchard completed postdoctoral studies with Dr Richard Weinshilboum at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on human pharmacogenetics. While at Mayo, she cloned the human sulfotransferase gene SULT1A1 and identified and functionally characterized common genetic polymorphisms in the SULT1A1 gene. From 1998 to 2004 Dr Blanchard was an Assistant Professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. In 2005 she joined the Clinical Pharmacology Department at Merck & Co., Inc. where her work today continues in the early and late development of several novel drugs. At Merck, she has contributed as Clinical Pharmacology Representative on CGRP, Renin, Losartan, Lurasidone and TRPV1 programs and serves as chair of the TRPV1 development team. Dr Blanchard is also Co-chair of the Neurology Pharmacogenomics Working Group at Merck. Nationally, she has served the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the Strategic Task Force and the Board of Directors. Dr Blanchard has also served on NIH study sections, and several Foundation Scientific Advisory Boards.

Tags: NASA, NASA Astrobiology Institute

Duration: 8 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009