Earth System Science at
20 Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, DC – 3 June 2010
Wright: Today is
June 3rd, 2010. This oral history is being conducted with Dr. Dixon
Butler in Washington, DC. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. This is the
third interview with Dr. Butler as part of the Earth System Science
at 20 Oral History Project, a project to gather experiences from those
who were involved in various efforts in the launch and evolution of
Earth System Science. Dr. Butler serves as a professional staff member
on the Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee for the Committee on
Appropriations of the United States House of Representatives. Included
in his responsibilities are NASA, the National Science Foundation, Office
of Science and Technology, and climate change. Thanks again so much
for meeting with us on this project.
Butler: Glad to.
Wright: We ended
your last session with you explaining the events around the arrival
of Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin [as NASA Administrator]. Before we get to
that, I just had a couple questions I wanted to see if you’d help
us summarize; it’s a rather large question. Through your interviews
you shared with us so much of bringing so many different types of agencies
together, even within NASA different factions that came together. That
in itself is such a challenge. Can you give us some pointers on how
the differences of these agency priorities were able to come together
so you could develop the EOS [Earth Observing System]?
Butler: Yes. [I’ve]
given a fair amount of thought to the interagency part of this. One
of the reasons the US Global Change Research Program was able to come
together has to do with the leadership and what the leadership considered
its priorities. There was a point where what was coming together was
NASA, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the National
Science Foundation [NSF], and the US Geological Survey [USGS]. This
was right at the beginning of the Bretherton Committee, not in the planning
of EOS per se.
I believe it was a man named Dallas [L.] Peck who was head of the US
Geological Survey. A wonderful, very fine, nice man. Earth science,
or GEO [geosciences], as it’s called at the NSF—Bob [Robert
W.] Correll had come in from the University of New Hampshire [Durham]
and was in charge of it. He ended up, even though he was on two-year-at-a-shot
leaves from New Hampshire, staying there for ten years heading GEO.
Bob played a major role. Shelby [G. Tilford] was leading Earth Science,
which at the time was just a division at NASA Headquarters [Washington,
D.C.]. Different people were involved at NOAA. It’s funny, people
have told me exactly who they think was responsible but it was a little
When we started off there were some tensions, particularly with the
man who was staffing it at USGS, but not with Dallas Peck. I think what
ultimately made it all work is the lead people at each of the agencies
had getting this done as a higher priority than trying to further the
singular objectives of their individual agencies. When you have that,
you can get it done. It’s much like, “Okay, we’re
going to go fight this war, and everybody comes, and yes, there will
always be some tensions between the army and the navy and the air force,
but people get the message.” Pre-9/11 [September 11, 2001 attack
on World Trade Center and Pentagon] you saw lots of reports of the lack
of cooperation within the multitude of intelligence agencies. When you’re
confronting a threat, that should end up going away. But it only goes
away when the effective leaders—doesn’t have to be the top
of something—but the person who’s the effective leader puts
that effort at a higher priority than either the current or the future
objectives of the agency. Then you have common purpose, then you can
make it happen.
There’s an analogue situation that happens in building Earth System
Science as an intellectual endeavor, and it’s posed a great problem.
I never gave this deep thought, but one day, in just the briefest of
conversations with Ralph [J.] Cicerone, who today is head of the National
Academy of Sciences, brought it home to me so quickly. When we were
concerned about understanding ozone depletion, we brought together laboratory
photochemists and people [who] did all manner of different kinds of
field measurements, with people who did numerical modeling, with people
who looked at satellite data, with statisticians—people who were
literally statisticians, they were not into the atmosphere at all—with
people who had a more meteorological background and understood the dynamics
of the atmosphere.
What enabled us to come together intellectually and work as an integrated
community was we had a problem we were trying to solve. It was an important
problem. At the time it was a unique environmental problem in its scope.
And it worked. One of the reasons it worked, maybe the reason it worked,
is we were joined in solving a problem that we embraced as a common
problem. Doesn’t mean we were all at risk for skin cancer—but
vicariously on behalf of mankind we saw it as a problem that we were
coming together to address, at least to address in terms of saying to
people, “Problem! Here’s the nature of it. Here’s
our understanding of it. Here’s our predictions.”
There is a general scope about how much can a human being do cooperatively.
I’ve read recently some article that says one of the differences
between human beings and chimpanzees is chimps can identify with about
50 individuals in the group. Human beings tend to be able to relate
to about 150 or more. Obviously some of us can relate to far more and
some of us have mental difficulties and can’t relate to anyone.
Generally that lines up with a piece of wisdom that was out there 25
years ago in the science community. Other than with collaborators, most
scientists can write one good refereed journal article a year. They’ve
got collaborators, maybe three of them put out three with multiple authors—but
basically that’s most people’s reasonable pace. You can
read about one article a day. Well, 200 workdays, that says you can
read 200 papers, and you can write one. You can collaborate with 200
people, and 200 people have a way of forming, therefore, an intellectual
community to address a problem.
When you get to Earth System Science, as the IPCC [Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change] process demonstrates, you’re now dealing
with collaborations in the thousands. It makes it very difficult. In
Earth System Science we encountered that problem plus another. The other
problem, the one that Ralph Cicerone really helped point out, is the
Bretherton Committee created this concept of Earth System Science, of
studying the Earth as a system. It infected everything in the Earth
Observing System as well. The essence of it came down to the emphasis
on holding things together.
I think I explained with EOS, back when it was System Z, the seminal
thought was what joined the disparate disciplines of Earth science together
was water. It’s having water in its three phases that makes Earth,
Earth. What makes Earth System Science, the energy cycle, the global
hydrologic cycle? Water. And a set of biogeochemical cycles of the fundamental
elements: carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus being the key ones. You
can also go into the things that are in the minerals that all living
things want for some random one of their amino acids or proteins or
some reaction, like a little bit of magnesium or manganese, or a little
bit of zinc or iron for that matter.
So biogeochemical cycles, hydrologic cycle, energy cycle; each of them
is dealing with something that to a pretty high degree of accuracy is
conserved within the Earth system. The problem gets to be that we intellectually
created this construct—which made sense. Ultimately, there is
the Bretherton Diagram illustrating all the connections. Wonderful visual
to symbolize a very integrated—reductive but insightful concept
that is really Earth System Science.
But we didn’t exactly have a problem. So in building the collaboration,
it was “we all need to collaborate,” as opposed to we have
a specific problem to drive the collaboration. Today, one could say
yes we have global warming—or really global climate change—because
it’s not so much the warming as it is the sea level rise, and
the acidification of the oceans, and the whole swirl of shifts in the
hydrologic cycle, like wet areas getting wetter and dry areas getting
drier. It’s all of that together coming from greenhouse gases,
and therefore a more rapid pace of change than is normal or than the
biosphere is used to adapting to.
That is the problem. And that has enabled people I think to make the
kind of progress they have, but inevitably they break up into subgroups.
The glacier melting people, there are probably a couple hundred intellectual
workers in that area. They are able to come together through the IPCC
process, share all of their results, because there is a focused problem.
It’s an even greater challenge when you need 140 countries’
representatives to sign off on virtually every word in your assessment
of the science, which is the process that Susan Solomon told me ultimately
she had to achieve running just the Volume I process, which is the science
part of the process of the IPCC.
I think that gets at the answer to your question. The keys are leadership,
a commitment to a common problem, and a common problem that in effect
is so valued that the leadership involves a certain amount of self-sacrifice.
It doesn’t mean you’re going to go take a bullet. What it
does mean though is you’re not going after your selfish need,
you’re going after the community need.
Just as an aside, there are certainly arguments out there that would
say that’s why human beings evolved the ability to talk, which
is also the ability to abstract. It’s that the conversation builds
the ties to the group of 50, or then 150 or more, for collaboration
in the hunt, so you do what the group needs instead of what you need.
You don’t suboptimize to yourself, even when you’re out
of sight of the rest of the group. The ultimate ethical test. Do you
stop at the red light when no one’s around? That, I think, somebody
named Rushworth [M.] Kidder described as really the essence of ethics:
do you do the right thing when no one’s watching? In this case
it wasn’t so much no one was watching, but that is the way you
get multiple agencies to work together in the government.
Wright: One of
the essential factors, as I read it, in making this come together was
your role as an advance planner. Can you share with us what you feel
are the skills—and why is it necessary to have someone not necessarily
in that title but in that role to advance the project and formulate
how it’s going to advance? What were all those duties that you
took on in that role as an advance planner?
Butler: I did make
reference to Frank [T.] Martin teaching me to be one in about 25 minutes
in his office, and I wish I could remember all the things he said to
me still. There were a number of elements, some of them fairly practical,
little P politics. But everybody needs people with vision. Again, if
you’re going to draw people together, even if it’s just
the components of a division within a program at NASA Headquarters,
like the planetary program, the heliophysics program, or astrophysics,
or for that matter Earth Science at NASA Headquarters—even just
at that scale, somebody’s job needs to be embracing the full.
Not just as the boss manager, who’s got to go run [the organization]
and worry about personnel.
What the advance planner is at their best, in the best of situations
and times, is a person who embraces a knowledge—admittedly not
as deep as the individual experts’ managing pieces of the program—a
knowledge of the program, an embrace of that program, preferably a fairly
inclusive embrace if you’re really going to get things done. You
already begin to see a tie back to that you are behaving in an intellectually
selfless way. It’s not truly selfless in the most idealistic sense,
but you’re not pursuing your individual subset objective as a
scientist or an engineer or whatever. In general, people like this at
NASA would be scientists by background. You’ve got to embrace
that. You’ve got to be seeing what’s needed both in scientific
terms—but in Earth science you’ve got to see what’s
needed in much larger intellectual terms.
It helps if you also have a sense of the agency mission. If you can
see what the agency mission is, that’s great too. There’s
also seeing the interagency mission. Let’s say in astrophysics.
There’s a lot of ground-based astronomy going on. There’s
now ties to all the accelerator stuff because the big questions have
become dark energy, dark matter, things that bring together high-energy
particle physics with all the astronomy disciplines other than planetary
and solar astronomy. You want to see that as an intellectual horizon.
You want to see what our government needs and your agency’s role
within it. You want to embrace the suite though of that intellectual
set of efforts within the agency. Having an advance planner ideally
is having a point person who wakes up in the morning saying, “Gee,
I can’t wait to go do that, that’s what I want to do.”
It helps to have some preparation to do that. Just as an aside, I would
say I would not have been able to do what I did for the Earth Observing
System had not I upon my return to NASA Headquarters from being a congressional
science fellow been assigned as the advance planner to go help the oceanography
people. I was an atmospheric scientist, admittedly stratosphere more
than meteorology, but I knew the atmosphere side. We only had an atmosphere
and an ocean side in the division at that time. I also knew some space
physics because of going to Rice [University, Houston, Texas] where
space physics was the dominant force really in the department [of Space
Science and later Space Physics and Astronomy].
When I went over to the oceanographers, Stan [W. Stanley] Wilson and
his gang—and I felt they were a really tight group—they
taught me satellite oceanography. They took me under their wing. They
didn’t ever view me as having really joined the group, even when
later on as a manager I did things that really helped the field beyond
their, I think, expectations. I never really became part of that tight-knit
oceanography group, but I learned. I learned what was important to them;
I learned what they needed; I got Stan’s vision of satellite oceanography,
and I carry it with me to this day.
At some point I had to pick up ecology vision. I didn’t really
know it; I didn’t really understand the biological stuff. I certainly
didn’t know the geology stuff, but somehow it came to me fairly
easily. When Burt [Burton I.] Edelson put us on the track of coming
together across all of Earth science, even with the inside NASA group
of ten that did the System Z plan and got things started first, we taught
each other things about our separate scientific backgrounds. We gave
each other a kind of advance planner’s breadth. Then of course
we, in some ways, were functioning together. Not everybody on the committee,
but several of us were functioning as advance planners.
It helps to have that embrace. It helps to have a context. Then you
need the magic, which I would describe as the vision. Of course it’s
magical to be willing to embrace other people’s objectives, it
is magical to not have a tin ear when you look at the broader agency,
interagency, government intellectual need. But seeing the path ahead
becomes very important. Frankly, for any advance planner who might ever
listen to this tape, I didn’t start with all those. I’d
always been out there. I think I was prone to sort of having a vision
and being able to look ahead, but I certainly didn’t have the
broad intellectual embrace. I didn’t understand satellites or
engineering spacecraft or launch vehicles or the details of orbits and
orbital dynamics, but I learned.
It was okay to start and then learn, but you had to be open to it. At
the same time you had to be empowered by management, by your job assignment,
to do it. Frankly, at some point as EOS matured, and in some ways as
I ceased being an advance planner, a whole lot of skills—I had
to understand the orbital mechanics to deal with and help chair meetings
where we came to decisions about well, are we going to put EOS primarily
in a 705-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit which has a certain inclination
and certain coverage patterns, but a 16-day repeat pattern in its ground
tracks—all that was an understanding that had to be built up,
and it had to be built up actually in the EOS Science and Mission Requirements
Working Group. Enough of them had to get that, but I had to get it for
sure as the chair.
I learned things about remote sensing instrumentation. I never had Shelby
Tilford’s understanding of optics and some of the remote sensing
instruments, or that of many of my colleagues, but I had enough. I had
enough of a sense of spacecraft engineering and what the real issues
were, and radio frequency interference, and electromagnetic interference
on board the spacecraft, and booms and cooling and being able to point
away from the Sun for where you’re shedding your heat, and gathering
the sunlight, and rotating joints. You need that, but the point is you
can learn it. And you can learn it on the job.
Having an advance planner is really having somebody who’s, if
you will, receptive, where it’s soil which is ready to have all
these seeds grow in it, and a role to go learn, and a management that
wants them to do that. It really helps, if you’re going to be
successful, that you hit the times when the things are saleable. For
some reason, I was listening to the old folk rock song from Ecclesiastes
[3:1] Turn! Turn! Turn! [(to Everything There is a Season) by Pete Seeger].
Well, there are seasons to sell, and seasons to prune back, and NASA
goes through them. It’s a lot nicer if you’re hitting [the
season to sell]. On the Earth Observing System you’d have to argue
we hit glitches, we hit lean times, but it was as sustained effort,
and if you think about it, I began working on the Earth Observing System
as System Z in late 1981 or early 1982, and I didn’t have any
idea where it was going or what was going to happen. We didn’t
have a new start until fiscal year 1991. The [Space Shuttle] Challenger
[STS 51-L accident], as I said before, gave us a three-year setback,
but we were able to ride that rhythm through.
Some things hadn’t been. George [F.] Esenwein had led an ICESat
[not the one that eventually came into being, but a large satellite
with SAR and other instruments] study, which had a lot of precursor
elements, particularly on the oceanographic side of EOS. It didn’t
go. Part of it was we [EOS] hit the resonance with what increasingly
was needed. In other words, the need to understand the global environment
wasn’t a need that went away. Events did not overtake us.
I would say in planning things of the time and technological complexity
and scope—and by that I mean development time—NASA tends
to move a lot better on times of half decade to a decade and longer
for getting anything done. You need to be finding problems, needs, things
that will persist in the national commitment. The Moon was going to
be out there for the Apollo program, it wasn’t going to go away
between 1961 and 1969. The problems of the global environment, if anything,
got worse or more urgent, at least in the public perception, between
1981 and 1991. What is a shame is that there was a certain amount of
going to sleep in parts of the ’90s, and particularly in the 2000-2008
time period. We really didn’t keep paying enough attention, but
the problem has been one where you ride through that [and the commitment
of public funding that goes with it].
Wright: When putting
together proposals you referenced one time that there was a risk of
combining research missions and operational missions because sometimes
resources tended to go to operations, and the research could get undermined.
How was it put together where both could be taken care of and you knew
the risk was acceptable?
Butler: When you
go to space there are a lot of things you can’t do. You can’t
just go plug into the wall. You can’t touch something and ground
it. You’re there. In effect, every spacecraft we have is a robot,
not a very human robot or anthropomorphic robot, but it’s a robot.
It may be getting lots of commands from Earth, but it’s on its
own. If it’s Hubble [Space Telescope], you can get the Space Shuttle
there, you can go fix it, but most of the time it’s on its own.
It’s, in a very real sense, launched. That means it’s got
finite resources. It’s like an island in that sense. There’s
only so much resource there. If, for instance, you’ve only got
so much power, you’ve only got so much solar collector, you can
only charge the batteries up so much. If some of the batteries fail
you’ve only got less power.
If you [have] got to choose which instruments get the power to continue
to operate and you’ve got a need to provide weather forecasts
or ocean forecasts every day 24/7 [24 hours a day, seven days a week]
for public safety, and you’ve got an investigation looking at
climate change in an intellectual way over the coming decades, you don’t
get to choose climate change; you just don’t. You can balance
these in the research and operational portfolio of an agency, of a government
for sure—if you can’t you’re in trouble—and
certainly of a global economy. Nobody talks about we need to spend 20
percent of GDP on research and development. No, we talk about 3 percent.
We know how to balance. Setting the balance correctly is a mess, and
it’s a mess we experience politically right now in some very awkward
Your body, threatened in a certain way, will reserve all of its functions
for your core; it’ll keep the brain going, it’ll keep the
heart and lungs going, it will abandon the rest of you if necessary.
Operations [such as NOAA delivery of forecasts] are like that. They’re
your bread-and-butter got-to-do-it. Research is on a longer timescale,
and although you’ve got to do it, you don’t necessarily
have to do it today—and that’s one of the problems in Earth
science. You cannot come back tomorrow and take Earth’s data [for]
today. You must take today’s data today, you cannot come back
and take it tomorrow. You may be able to infer it, but it’s not
the same, it’s not as good. That is a compulsion that Earth science
has that is flirted with in certain kinds of high-energy astrophysics
but generally is absent from most of science. It’s not just the
satellites. It’s in situ, it’s all the ground-based stuff,
it’s in the water—all of Earth science has that flavor.
That kind of trade shows up in lots of places.
Wright: Tell us
about how things began to change when you got a new NASA Administrator,
and then how you eventually transitioned over to a new job.
Butler: It happened
in stages, but I will have to say this, planning the Earth Observing
System up through—I referred to it earlier—the day I got
through the steering committee with the EOS AO [Administrative Operation]
selection, life was pretty exciting. I could wake up in the morning
and go to work saying I’m off to be the wizard. I’ve made
references to beginning to lose control after that, and I certainly
did. There was a time when at least one of my colleagues, Jim [James
C.] Dodge, said to me, “EOS is in your head.”
It wasn’t [that] there weren’t 100 scientists working on
it and project office people and all this effort, but in many ways it
was very fluid because I embodied the ideas. Not in my body, but they
were in my thought, in my consciousness, more, and in a more integrated
way, than [in] anybody else’s. That also clearly, to hark back
to your earlier question, is a critical thing to be an advance planner
for a particular mission or an integrated set of missions. EOS is really
more an integrated set of missions. It’s critical to have somebody
who has it all in their thought. They don’t have to know everything.
They don’t have to know all the depth, but they have to know enough
of the depth. It’s a lot of fun to be that person, and it’s
really painful to stop being that person. It doesn’t happen all
at once, but it does gradually happen. I would have to say I wasn’t
conscious that unhappiness was flowing from that cause, but in retrospect
an awful lot of it did.
In any case we had the EOS new start. We had to go through the [Edward
A.] Frieman committee exercise. We had the [Senator Barbara A.] Mikulski
number of $11 billion. Shelby and Wes [Wesley T. Huntress] had come
up with the structure where I was running this ill-conceived science,
mission operations and data analysis basically protodivision. It wasn’t
really a branch, [it] had branches within it. It wasn’t really
yet officially a division because we were still an uberdivision under
Shelby, under Len [Lennard A.] Fisk as an office at NASA, but a lot
of things were coming along.
Ceasing to be the EOS Program Scientist was the beginning of loss of
control. Then several things began to happen, and there did come a moment
when we went to having a new Administrator, Dan Goldin. He was very
much brought in as I’ve said before through the [National] Space
Council. The former head of the Johnson Space Center, who was the person
I referred to as being on the outs, who was at Space Council, was very
much the person who Dan Goldin owed for coming into his job. That would
be important to understand, at least from the perspective I have.
The Bretherton Committee at this point is done, EOS planning is done,
we’re into moving out. We’re beginning to launch things
like TOPEX/Poseidon [Ocean Topography Experiment], getting toward Upper
Atmosphere Research Satellite [launch]. We’ve grown up. I described
[previously] how we basically aspired to follow the model of the big
guys, we thought human spaceflight were the big guys. We never asked
ourselves the right questions about what we really need to be doing.
We were embarking down that path. Space Station [Freedom] was under
way. We had the big Reston [Virginia] group really doing its systems
engineering, holding it together. Given its embrace of multiple Centers
in the agency, not a bad model. It attracted a lot of very good people.
Dan Goldin comes in and becomes Administrator. Initially things don’t
change very much. It’s still the George H. W. Bush administration.
We still have a pretty good relationship between Earth science through
Senator [Albert A.] Gore, who people are taking seriously. We also have
for instance the MEDEA [Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental
Analysis] project, which was something instigated by Gore as a senator,
which was then embraced by the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. I
can say on a declassified basis [MEDEA] involved looking at national
technical means data with environmental scientists to see what of that
data would prove useful to doing what EOS and Earth System Science were
all about, how those data could eventually—or all data through
declassification—be brought to bear on this problem. It was a
really good effort, and as I understand it, that is an effort that has
been brought back to life today. It was wonderful, and I was really
benefited by getting to participate. They didn’t need me but I
learned a lot, and I was just lucky to get included. Stopped here.
I will also comment that all of the scientists brought in were men.
A woman at CIA was in charge of it, but it was the worst example of
an old boys’ club I’ve ever seen. Not in the sense that
we worked badly or we went out drinking together, not that kind of stuff.
But you looked around the room and there was only male scientists. Every
single solitary one. It was very odd. But with a woman in charge from
the CIA. Which was not bad, it’s just ironic.
There’s a [presidential] election going on. Bill [William J.]
Clinton and Al Gore win. A number of things happen, but one of the first
ones is Dan Goldin moves Peggy [Margaret G.] Finarelli out of her associate
administratorship into being a very high-level assistant to the Acting
Deputy Administrator, who was by the way a wonderful man. Peggy goes
off and does that in her very capable way, but her capabilities were
way beyond that job.
Len Fisk gets ousted. In my view Len Fisk, who had come to NASA from
being vice president for research and management of the University of
New Hampshire—no land grant college or land grant university or
major university has ever had anybody with that portfolio—and
Len could do it. Len was a wonderful manager, and a first-rate scientist,
and a heck of a good person. He could see ahead too. He had every bit
of visionary business. If you ever need to look at why, you go look
at the EOS Building at the University of New Hampshire, which stands
for Earth, Oceans, and Space. But it is not accidental that it is named
the same thing as the Earth Observing System. They went and got an earmark
to build that building because they could see what was coming in a way
that professors at Harvard [University, Cambridge, Massachusetts] were
totally blind to.
So Len is out, and in my view Len should have been seriously considered
for president of Harvard or president of Cornell [University, Ithaca,
New York]. He was that caliber of leader. [He went to the] University
of Michigan [Ann Arbor], he went and was the department head. It’s
an important department, it’s a nice job. He went back to doing
his science. He’s continued to make strong contributions to the
community, he’s a happy man. But the people of the United States
did not get from him what they could have gotten from him.
The plan is [to] divide what had been his integrated Office of Space
Science and Applications—which had been together at this point
for more than a decade, but has oscillated between separate parts and
together several times in NASA history—to take it apart. Big new
Earth Science field is going to get to be its own Office of Earth Science.
Wes Huntress gets named Associate Administrator for Space Science. Shelby
is named Acting Associate Administrator for Earth Science. Somebody
gets the “indoor sports,” which means life sciences and
materials, a disparate group only joined together by their using the
fact that you’re in orbit to get you to very, very, very, very
small amounts of gravity.
Now there’s an important key thing that happens right here before
any of the other mess. You split up the turf; each of these areas is
going to need a certain number of management people. Now where there
was one secretary to the associate administrator [AA] there will be
two. There will be two secretaries to the deputy associate administrator.
My memory is you got to be a GS [government service level]-10 as the
secretary to the AA, you got to be a GS-9 as the secretary to the deputy,
[for] division directors you could be an 8, all the other secretaries
were capped at 7s. It’s an interesting pyramid. All of a sudden
there’s new opportunities. Same thing on the administrative side.
There’s going to be a few more people because it’s less
efficient when you split the organization up. It doesn’t get more
efficient, it gets less efficient in this particular case, and often
[this] is the case.
Small organizations are more efficient when they’re forced to
run lean. My businessman father-in-law—and mother-in-law—used
to say anybody who’s worth X at a big corporation is worth three
X at a small one. Because at a small one you can’t afford to have
anybody not clicking on all cylinders. In the government you don’t
quite work that way.
So there are going to be a bunch of opportunities here. This uncorked
an enormous set of racial tensions that frankly I was blind to and I
think so was just about everybody else. I learned more about good management—I
don’t know if I said this in another interview, but if I did it’s
worth repeating. What happened was there just began to be people on
the edge of filing suits, because it looked like all the plum new particularly
administrative positions were, quite honestly, going to white folks.
Not good. So Shelby and Wes Huntress, they had most of this problem
to deal with. I don’t know how the other people got out of it
but they didn’t go deal with it, they just went on their merry
way and weren’t a part of this.
They basically formed a team to listen to the complaints. Five people
were chosen for this team. Four of them were from space science and
only one was from Earth science, but that didn’t matter. There
was a person who was a secretary, there was a person who did low-level
administrative, there was a person who was a science manager, and there
was somebody else in there, and there was me. I was the only senior
executive. So there was somebody who was like a GS-7 and somebody who
was like a 10, somebody who was a 12 or a 14, and somebody who was a
15, and me. We were commissioned as a group to hear the complaints.
Since as a senior executive I’m management in Earth science, I
could not hear the complaints from the people who were in the Earth
science office and did not, but I sat in on the space science ones.
One of us was Hispanic, one of us was black. I was told that the person
Earth science was supposed to put on was the person who was our lead
budget administrative—get the grants out, make sure Shelby had
his budget stuff together position, like a GS-14, a really good person
in that job. Happened to be African-American. Lovely woman. I don’t
know why she couldn’t do it. I don’t know if she wasn’t
acceptable to people—because there was a clear sense that these
five people had to be acceptable. This is the one time in my life when
I was all of a sudden the acceptable one. You might say why was I the
acceptable one? The reason was because I’ve got interracially
Shelby always avoided management training, and so I always avoided management
training. Whether that was wise or not is anybody’s guess, depends
on the quality [of the training]. The management training I got was
really painful, but I took it to heart and I still believe it was pretty
good. I got it through serving on this group. We heard stories. Some
of them were really hard to hear, and you felt people’s pain.
And I didn’t get to hear the ones in Earth science. You also had
a sense that some of these people didn’t really perceive their
own abilities very accurately, that shall we say they viewed themselves
as more capable than they were, and they were already being treated
But there was one overarching injustice—and there probably were
some others, but there was one I saw. I wish I could remember the woman’s
name. She had been Jeff [Jeffrey D.] Rosendhal—who was the chief
scientist, I’ve referred to him helping me learn and get ready
to do the whole AO process—she was his right-hand person in dealing
with the NASA Advisory Council that we had to deal with, [and] running
the steering committee that had to approve AOs and AO selections. She
was a GS-12, African-American, didn’t seem all that really good
to me. Seemed okay, but I was never impressed.
She was always winning awards at NASA for her outside good citizenship.
She and her husband organized all these tutoring programs for poor kids
in the District of Columbia. She was always getting like the best public
citizen kind of award. Not once, I think several times. Who knew? It
all finally made sense. She’d been held down, she’d been
prevented from being promoted to GS-13 by some people at NASA, and I
think I know who they probably were, but by this time they’ve
retired. There were some people who were racists. There’s a lot
more of that still around than any of us care to believe or admit unfortunately.
It raises its ugly head in so many ways.
What I learned was you get treated badly like that. Through no fault
of your own, because of some characteristic of you in the eyes of others,
you don’t get the promotion and job accomplishment and job progress
you deserve. You can’t leave and go somewhere else, or you don’t
think you can, or you choose not to. You bottle up. You don’t
achieve, and you’re not as good an employee. You don’t work
as hard to be as good an employee because it’s not going to get
you anywhere. You’re demotivated. Then you begin to look like
you don’t deserve what you deserve. It all becomes a loop. The
nice thing this process did was rip that loop apart. I think almost
immediately this woman was a GS-14, which she deserved to be. I lost
track because she was in space science and I was in Earth science. I
assume she began to achieve more at work, not just outside. That was
an amazing lesson about discrimination.
We also went to touchy-feely discrimination training, which wasn’t
bad. You learn things there too. As a parent of children who were identified
by people who saw them as black, not as interracial—the President
[Barack H. Obama] we think of as black, but he’s interracial too
like my kids. I did learn things out of that as well, but this really
taught me. It also taught me another lesson. What we had here was actually
more of a socioeconomic educational background set of discrimination
than a racial one in my view. Yes, there was this critical example and
there might have been some other examples of real racism. But that was
the historical racism example that was just a poster child and to this
day is haunting.
We had people palling around with people who were their underlings,
their employees in some cases or people who were down a notch, maybe
not directly reporting to them. It might turn out that maybe those people
you were palling around with had gone to college. I would certainly
confess that I had a much easier time dealing with a college-educated
secretary than a non-college-educated secretary. I’d grown up
in a middle-class family that had been in the middle class for multiple
generations, with me being three. I didn’t necessarily relate
to everybody. One of the things I will say about my oldest kid, who
is interracial, is one of the blessed things about him is he can relate
to anybody. CEOs, fancy art collectors, the people of the highest taste,
the guy on the street, the guy pointing a gun at you, whatever, he can
deal with. I could not. I didn’t understand it. I think a lot
of my colleagues, particularly white colleagues more in management,
didn’t have that common touch that reached everybody.
So they were friends with people in the office, they didn’t think
anything about it. All of a sudden we’re in this reorganization,
there are job openings. The people they had befriended may have been
the most qualified but it looked like they were getting the jobs because
they were their friends. A bunch of people probably got promotions they
didn’t deserve but they got them, and the problem got laid to
rest. I’m pretty confident we didn’t have any racism left
that would have taken effect or been acted upon in the office. Things
were good, things were better. Things were never that tense again. And
it helped a lot of people’s careers.
I then became a division director with four branches under me: I had
an EOSDIS [EOS Data and Information System] branch, I had a mission
operations and data systems branch, another data branch, [and] I had
two science branches under me. I came to realize that I couldn’t
continue to be the buddy of some of these people. We’d hired Martha
[E.] Maiden. One of my former colleagues, Bob [Robert J.] Curran, had
left NASA Headquarters, and in the fullness of time had ended up working
for a person who was a support contractor. He knew me well. He picked
Martha Maiden out of his company and made her be the chief scientist
in their bid, knowing that she would relate to me well. That’s
pretty phenomenal. We got Lisa Shaffer in this, Peter [W.] Backlund
in this, oodles of people, Mary Blazek was one. Bob Curran got these
people together. They won, they became our support contractors, Lisa
got hired back into the federal government, Martha Maiden got hired
in the federal government [and] is responsible for EOSDIS to this day,
Peter Backlund got hired, ultimately went and now works for University
Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
These people were like social friends. Martha and her husband came to
my wife’s and my big party we threw for our 40th birthdays and
20th wedding anniversary. I had to stop doing that. Martha did feel
like kind of a sister to me. I realized I had to be much more constrained
and not socialize so much with these people. There were ones I certainly
related to and got along with, but what I couldn’t do for all
I couldn’t do for one. Hard, hard, hard lesson, painful, involved
some self-sacrifice. When people say it’s lonely at the top, this
is part of what they should mean, that you have to play fair if you’re
going to lead an organization—or it’ll be a lot better if
you do. I would also say there were always tensions within Earth science
because Bob Watson and I were Shelby’s proteges, and I used a
lot of my protegeship to argue for some people who Shelby couldn’t
stand. At the end of the day that created tensions. It created tensions
with Stan Wilson, which I’ve already referred to.
I don’t remember how long a period of time this was, but there
came a moment when Dan Goldin was confident enough that he could remove
Shelby. We were in a meeting somewhere with Shelby and he got called
to the Administrator’s Office and told he was out of a job. He’s
a career civil servant, you couldn’t literally fire him, but Shelby
at that point as a senior executive had accrued more than a year’s
worth of annual leave—he had all the years, he had the age, and
he retired. It was really painful.
NASA really as an institution deserves to feel bad for treating somebody
this way. Shelby came there as an okay researcher from the Naval Research
Labs and built NASA leadership. NASA was the leader in Earth science
in the United States—in the world. The US Global Change Research
Program would not have existed without what we did. We also dominated
the stratosphere. Shelby couldn’t have done it alone—I like
to think I helped, I know Bob Watson helped, particularly on the stratosphere
stuff, also in the Earth System Science stuff rather bluntly, a lot
of other people helped, virtually everybody helped. Whether Shelby liked
them or not, they got pulled in. The vision was good. It worked.
And what does NASA do? They fire the man. Why? That’s an interesting
question, and I’m not sure I know completely the answer. I have
some hunches. Shelby wasn’t popular with everybody. There were
some very powerful people outside in the professorships who didn’t
like Shelby for one reason or another. I certainly know some of them
had strong ties to Al Gore. Also at some point here Bob Watson leaves
and goes to the Office of Science and Technology Policy [OSTP] and becomes
something of a Gore protege. I think this all runs through the same
set of interpersonal relationships because Bob was as tight with these
people in the professorship as he was with Shelby, if not maybe even
Ironically, these are people who I knew and had relationships with also.
Whatever the forces were—Watson was at OSTP as Associate Director
for Environment, and he told me he just politically couldn’t lift
a finger to save Shelby. That’s never made any sense to me. The
only way it makes any sense is these other outside connections, which
may have been not unrelated to Bob moving to OSTP, and Al Gore—that
whole nexus may have had something to do with it. In any case, it happens.
It’s deeply upsetting. It’s pretty crushing to Shelby.
A couple of nice things do happen. One of them—Bill [William F.]
Townsend is the deputy, and he’s staying the deputy. It’s
a good thing it’s Bill Townsend. As I’ve explained before,
a man who is an engineer, project manager, program manager, also has
this full embrace of science—who knew? A kid growing up out on
eastern shore Virginia, gets out of high school, goes to work at NASA.
Ends up as a person who they spot as a young pretty-early married kid,
and get him to go to Virginia Tech [Polytechnic Institute and State
University, Blacksburg] and get a degree, and then he comes [back to
Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia] and he’s just wonderful. Who
Shelby had gone to Vanderbilt [University, Nashville, Tennessee] and
had a PhD. But who knew? He wasn’t like God’s gift to Naval
Research Labs. But boy, he was strong. NASA has that potential with
people. I certainly didn’t know I was going to do marketing or
be an advance planner. When I got my PhD I never thought I would work
for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and here I am
most of my career, certainly the best parts, the most accomplished parts
of my career were certainly there.
Bill Townsend does have a party for a number of us as managers with
our spouses and for Shelby and Jackie [Tilford] out at his house in
Annapolis [Maryland], which is sad, but it’s a nice thing. Peter
Backlund ultimately, once Charlie [Charles F.] Kennel is brought in,
organizes this big intellectual, almost like the professor going emeritus
kind of party, in honor of Shelby. As I said before, Charlie Kennel
makes it clear and says in that meeting nobody’s ever done this
before, no one has ever built a science program of this scope and this
quality in the federal government in the history of the Republic. It’s
true, and it’s still true. I don’t know the war on cancer
well enough, the Human Genome Project. But it didn’t ever work
quite the way it was built up by Shelby. US Global Change Research Program
is still there, and it’s in the process of getting well again
and maybe doing more of its real job again. It’s outlived his
service in the federal government. It’s quite a statement.
Now we go on and we’re under more pressure to downsize, and a
lot of the things I’ve already discussed. Reviewing EOS happens.
There is fortunately a magic moment when they put all the science back
together. That was earlier where all the science got put back together
under Bob, and I only had the EOSDIS and the mission operations and
There comes a moment at which Dan Goldin decides—I don’t
know this firsthand, but what makes sense to me and the way I explain
it to myself is the person who had been at the Space Council who had
been instrumental in his becoming Administrator has now become the center
director of the Johnson Space Center, and wants control of the Space
Station. This requires disestablishing Reston [Space Station systems
engineering group], and also Goldin decides to use it as a paradigm
for all of NASA Headquarters, all the different codes. So we are told
in Earth science that Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland]
is going to take over here in Earth science. It’s not that there’s
not going to be a NASA Headquarters, but also we’ve had to downsize
support contractors, which I’ve already described having too many
of. I think I see a way we can run Earth science from NASA Headquarters
effectively with 50 people, and I still stand by that, [it] was good
[as an approach]. I’m not sure they ever quite got to that point.
Earth science, not being a fair-haired child for Administrator Goldin,
figures the only way it can survive is to do what he says. The front
office basically just decides to do what Dan says. I still remember
Mike [Michael R.] Luther, who’s head at that point of spaceflight—and
I’m head of the satellite operations and the data system stuff—going
out for a meeting with a person at Goddard and being treated really
not very well. It’s clear that Headquarters above us have said
to Goddard you’re going to form an office and in effect take over
most of the management responsibilities from these guys; they’re
going to be nominally program managers, but program integration is going
to be done by this man at Goddard. Nice man, his claim to fame is he
had actually chaired the source evaluation board for the EOS Data and
Information System contract. He’d done a good job of that.
I thought he was pretty good. I certainly didn’t think he was
as good as me. I know he wasn’t as good as Mike Luther as a manager.
But you got to give him the job, and they tried to work things this
way. Space science under Wes Huntress, not being so much under the gun
and also being able because of heliophysics (solar terrestrial stuff)—they
were little satellite people. They’re good for technological innovation.
They’re very good if you’re measuring the solar wind and
the magnetosphere and the ionosphere because you’re flying in
the medium you’re measuring, so you interfere with it as little
as possible. Earth science we’re doing mostly remote sensing,
solar physics you’re doing remote sensing, astronomy is certainly
remote sensing. But you want to perturb a medium as little possible
to measure it. When you’re looking at the light coming from it
you’re not perturbing it really much at all. If you send laser
and radar signals in you’re perturbing it but very slightly usually.
[If] you’re flying through it, the only way to perturb it slightly
is to be as small as you can as a satellite so you go to the little
satellites. Mr. Goldin liked those.
I think Wes was pretty successful in just holding this whole revolution
at bay. They never said oh Goddard you’re in charge of our stuff
too. But Earth science, we felt we had to, we did it. Certainly undermined
the value of the job I had, of the job Mike Luther had. Then we got
to downsizing NASA Headquarters civil service wise. In the fullness
of time 40 SES [Senior Executive Service] jobs were moved out to field
centers. There were going to be 39, I made it 40.
What happened first of all though is in a very painful moment EOSDIS
began to be a subject of some controversy. The Goddard group wasn’t
really doing all that good a job. The contractor was wrong, there were
all these outrageous expectations and there was a lot of upset. I was
no longer the program scientist for EOS. They decided to have, in trying
to reach out to the Europeans, an EOS investigators meeting in Paris.
I didn’t think it was justifiable for me to go, so I didn’t
go. Ghassem [R.] Asrar is now the program scientist. Ghassem goes. Stan
Wilson has left the agency. Berrien Moore is there, Mark Abbott is there,
lots of people are there. From what I heard afterward, with Berrien
in the lead, they were all upset about EOSDIS and its cost. They write
a letter to me and Charlie Kennel complaining about it. Charlie Kennel
views that, I believe, as a threat to his getting his next job because
he’s not at NASA forever. He’s there for a couple years,
and on to another job. He’s already a member of the National Academy
of Sciences. He’s accomplished what he wants in plasma physics.
He’s looking to move up the line as a science leader. His mentor
is Frieman, who’s now head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
and is still mentoring Charlie even though Charlie is in his 50s.
Anyway, Charlie does not react well to this. There’s pressure
to define the costs. People don’t model the costs of data systems
very effectively, and they don’t give me good answers. But being
somewhat naive and idealistic, I figure if you’re in charge—[I
was] trying to feel like I’m in charge—you got to own the
problem. So I ended up taking responsibility for doing this. Went off,
had the project do all kinds of things. Project did an okayish job not
a great job, but I took the fall. Goddard deserved to take the fall
not me but I ended up taking the fall. So as this downsizing pressure
comes along, they basically say okay Dixon, your division. Admittedly,
my division is the one to get rid of. If you’re downsizing, I
fully agree, because we’re partly stuff that belongs with research
and we’re mostly stuff that belongs with the flight missions,
so I don’t fight that.
They’re going to combine us into one organization. They advertise
and let us compete to be the division director of that division. Mike
applies. Luther applies. I’m not even going to apply, but my employees
all are feeling vulnerable and I got 20 of them. My secretary in particular
is saying to me Dixon you got to apply. So three weeks left or something,
I apply. I give it my best shot, and I invest some emotion and some
self into trying to win. They pick Mike, and they should pick Mike.
Mike is the right choice; he really is the right choice. I may be this
leader advance planner type but this is not my job, and not where I
would have been the better choice. He was clearly the better choice.
I’m a little upset, but I’m not terribly crushed. On the
other hand I don’t have really that much to do.
My employees are by and large cast to the bloody wind. They have to
go off and find other things to do. Some of them catch on. Martha for
instance does manage to take over EOSDIS, some of them go to Goddard.
It’s a mess. It’s not good for any of their careers, with
maybe one exception. I had one GS-13, she goes to Goddard and moves
up the line, does a great job in data systems type work. Vanessa [L.]
Griffin is her name. A lot of them were already GS-15s. Some of them
were GS-14s and weren’t going to ever make 15. But still it wasn’t
good for their careers and I always felt bad that all these people from
Reston—I got ten people from Reston. Half my division were Reston
alums [alumni], people who’d been counseled to come work for me
because I was thought well of. I really felt sad about them.
I’m there without portfolio. Senior executive without portfolio,
hanging around. This plan to move SESs out is only beginning to be developed
at this point. So Kennel has got me, I no longer have a division, and
people are trying to call it the overall data system view. I’m
chairing the Interagency Working Group on Data Management for Global
Change at the working level. Charlie Kennel says to me go pull this
together. And we come up with all these ideas of a federation, a data
system of data systems. Like an internet is a network of networks. We
get scientists involved, and we’re pulling—because the Earth
science community is dependent upon the data systems at NOAA, not just
EOSDIS. It needs all this data together. The more it functions in an
integrated common way the better.
That theme by the way comes up in a different way. There’s an
interagency group led out of the Department of the Interior, usually
out of US Geological Survey, called the [Federal Geographic Information
[Committee]. It’s dealing with geospatial information, information
that can be located to a place on Earth. It could be in three dimensions
or two dimensions depending on whether it’s surface or in the
atmosphere, but generally geospatial data. Could be below the surface,
like the oil wells.
Geographic information systems technology has gone from its nascent
days around 1970 at Harvard in the School of Design to ESRI [Environmental
Systems Research Institute], the company that I think even today has
80 percent market share in geographic information systems in the world.
Same guy, Jack Dangermond, goes home to California to his family landscaping
business, and his family landscaping business becomes ESRI. Of course
he’s enormously wealthy, great guy, he’s a great public
citizen, as far as I know no children. He and his wife are philanthropic;
he’s very committed to helping do the right thing. This technology
is coming along, it’s not very user-friendly—it used to
be you’d take a semester course to learn to be somebody who could
use geographic information [systems], a college-level semester minimum
to get so you could really even use the software. But the software was
so powerful, it was worth it, and they kept making it better and more
user-friendly and more powerful. It’s critical, and it’s
behind all these things like Google Maps and all that stuff today. It’s
just oh of course. It’s like oh yeah I have a word processor—it’s
that kind of statement to a person who deals with geospatial data. Oh,
GIS, of course. It’s gotten to be that way now, but wasn’t
that way quite then.
As a mark of the fact that we were now in the information age, this
interagency committee where I am named as the NASA rep [representative]
is chaired by Bruce [E.] Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior. I’m
the most junior person at the table. There are other people who are
Senate-confirmed presidential appointments. I think there’s an
assistant secretary of agriculture representing ag. Most of the people
are career guys and gals, most of them guys. He’s very well staffed,
Secretary Babbitt is. He’s been a governor. Generally good governors
know (I think) or get a feel for being more executive than the typical
politician does, and he has that feel. Although predisposed to resist
and be very turfy, I say, “Hey, Secretary of the Interior,”—he’s
chairman—“we’re going along,” which was the
wise decision, and stood us in good stead there.
But I remember this incredible day. They’re talking about data
standards for roads. There’s working groups for roads, and working
groups for water features—what we’re trying to do is get
standards so if you’ve got geographic information at the US Geological
Survey and geographic information at the US Department of Transportation
the roads will line up. Would be nice. Is a road the side or the median?
Made sense to me for it to be the median, but people had chosen for
various reasons different things. Then you’ve got all the states
and localities might have chosen yet other things. “Well, we’ve
got a paper street, so it’s the median of the paper street, which
is the right-of-way”—which often is your front yard, not
the median of the actual asphalt or concrete. You get the idea.
Guys from the Department of Transportation say well, Mr. Secretary,
we’ve really got some problems with this. They’re hemming
and hawing and saying basically we don’t want to cooperate—not
in so many words. Secretary Babbitt just looks across the table at them
and says so today at lunch with Secretary [of Transportation Federico
F.] Peña, you want me to tell him that his department has decided
not to cooperate on this. These guys could see their careers going up
in flames, it was like they were running out of the room backpedaling
backwards. It’s like no, no, no, no, we’ll cooperate, oh
yes sir yes sir yes sir, sorry we even raised this. It showed the power.
That was for me the most potent symbol I ever saw that we were now in
the information age. A cabinet secretary was chairing an interagency
working group on data standards for information systems. The fact that
he was in the chair made it a far more effective group. Even people
like me wouldn’t have been anywhere near so cooperative.
NOAA and NASA had to cooperate internationally—partly because
of weather, meteorology, oceanographic data, partly because we were
part of an international organization, and in doing Earth System Science
you certainly had to be. You needed the data from the whole world, and
you needed all the people cooperating. You need the in situ data from
other countries where you can’t necessarily get access or afford
to be there. We hit upon something where we couldn’t commit to
the national standards because we had to commit to the international
standards. We brought that to him, and he understood, and we didn’t
get beat up for it. It was understood that we were committed to the
standards to the maximum extent, except where those national standards
were being overruled by international cooperation concerns. He understood
the problem we were dealing with, which wasn’t just US infrastructure.
So I’m without portfolio, we come up with the idea of a federation.
I was going nuts. My heart wasn’t completely in this, but somehow
I managed to do something that people, I think, thought was a good job.
We’ve already got these Distributed Active Archive Centers [DAACs].
We talk about ways that a data system can participate. We called ourselves
a confederation of data systems, because that got you away from the
idea of primacy. Lot of states’ rights in that idea; individual
data systems would have their own privileges. Bruce Babbitt was off
working getting data standards for the geospatial data, so we didn’t
have to necessarily be impositional. We worked on interfaces for data
exchange, things of that nature. It was a wonderful experience in some
sense. We wrote it all up, and Charlie Kennel was really impressed with
Then we’re sitting around and I’ve done this, and I don’t
want to keep doing it. I don’t have a division to run, I don’t
really have a science portfolio, and I don’t know what’s
going on. I’m like this floating person. So I’m out there
trying to apply to go be a university person. I quickly discover that
the university science community does not value service that you’ve
done in the executive branch at all. They believe that they should have
the right to come in and do things like be associate administrators
or be directorate heads at NSF. They don’t believe that the people
who’ve done that service inside for science have a right to come
do jobs on their campuses. I was more qualified to be a vice president
for research than I was to be a dean, and more qualified to be a dean
than I was a professor. But they insisted that you’ve got to be
a professor to be the dean. I understand that, but it rules out people
like me because I left the research world so young in my career.
I also didn’t want to leave Washington. My wife and I love it
here. It’s our kind of place, and the kids are still growing up.
Academic jobs look like they’re just out of my reach. Nobody likes
my resume. I apply to be Assistant Administrator of NOAA for Oceanic
and Atmospheric Research, a job for which I believe I am fully qualified.
They don’t rate me as highly qualified, they barely rate me as
qualified, they don’t even consider me. I thought I was probably
still qualified to take over the National Mapping Division of USGS.
That doesn’t come my way. Not unlike what’s happening to
Shelby by the way. Shelby is on the outside, he goes from having about
nine different potential jobs to getting none of them. So I’m
not getting other government jobs in Washington. I’m casting about
for what to do.
I finish Charlie’s assignment, and Charlie is leaving. He’s
going to go back and be the chief academic officer at UCLA [University
of California, Los Angles]. So he’s gotten past—the EOSDIS
disaster has not gotten blamed on him. He’s got his big job coming,
and he’s very pleased and proud of it. He’s been a professor
at UCLA, now he’s going to be like the top academic official there,
just under the chancellor.
A man named Jim [James G.] Lawless had been a manager of life science
kind of research at [NASA] Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California].
Jim had done a stint as Shelby’s deputy, much as Wes had. Jim
[and I] decide to go to lunch together. He has now just spent just shy
of a year being the chief scientist at the GLOBE [Global Learning and
Observations to Benefit the Environment] Program. At this point I’m
getting a little discouraged. I don’t know what I’m going
to do next except just sit there as a dolt at Headquarters being the
person they can’t fire. By the way, Charlie has left, and they
don’t have anybody to replace him.
Jim says, “Well, I’m leaving GLOBE.” He’s the
second chief scientist at GLOBE. The first one came, Barry [Barrett
N.] Rock, did a great job, left. The key is if you leave before 12 months,
even a day before 12 months, your per diem is not taxable. If you stay
that anniversary day, your entire year retroactively becomes taxable.
Your entire per diem becomes taxable income, because you’re not
really on travel; it’s not really travel expense being reimbursed.
So there’s a big incentive to get out of there before the tax
man gets you.
They’ve been looking around, and think they’ve got some
candidates for being the chief scientist at GLOBE. I liked the idea
of GLOBE, but I liked the idea of GLOBE because I was then, and I am
still today, on the board of the Virginia Environmental Endowment. I’m
actually its longest-serving director. I’m head of its board,
which is something I’ve always had permission to do. I was appointed
to that board by a federal judge.
Virginia Environmental Endowment is a small grant-making organization
but a 501(c)(4), not (c)(3). It was formed by initially Allied Chemical
[Corporation] taking $8 million of money and putting it in the endowment
and agreeing to have nothing to do further with the endowment as part
of a federal judge reducing their pollution sentence for Kepone pollution
of the James River from $11 million to $3 million. The federal judge
appoints the US attorney to be the first president of the board and
appoints some other people. There’s seven members of the board.
After a while the board begins to turn over. Early in its turnover,
I get appointed—there was an earlier turnover. Actually when I
went on the board Tom [Thomas K.] Wolfe, the author, was on the board.
Judge [Robert R.] Merhige appointed me. I actually replaced my mother-in-law,
because my parents-in-law were two of the seven original directors.
They left the board, I went on. A woman named Jinks [Virginia] Holton,
former first lady of Virginia, and the mother-in-law of the immediately
past governor of the Commonwealth—she and I joined the board together.
Through that I had become aware of work through the Izaak Walton League
in Save Our Streams where they have volunteers—not scientifically
trained volunteers, including schoolchildren—out there taking
measurements of streams, macroinvertebrate measurements in particular.
They are in the Commonwealth of Virginia at that time, and probably
still today, the primary source of information about the waterways of
the Commonwealth of Virginia and the state of the waters environment.
If EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] needs data, most of the data
is not collected by the state, it’s collected by the Izaak Walton
League Save Our Streams program. It shows me amateurs can collect good-quality
data—if it’s good enough for regulation it’s good
enough for research—and do it as volunteers with training. So
I believe in the GLOBE precept. Briefly stated, GLOBE was—and
is, or at least should be still—a program involving kindergarten
through 12th grade students all over the world collecting research-quality
environmental measurements while improving their achievement in science
and mathematics educationally and raising the community’s awareness
of the environment.
I would now argue that it’s not K-12, it’s K-16. GLOBE’s
critical thing is because data are of research quality, they are therefore
acceptable for student research. If you want to teach students how to
think like a scientist and you never have them act like a scientist,
you cannot learn to be a scientist. It’s like saying we want kids
to know how to write and never asking them to write. It’s stupid.
We ask them to be able to effectively deconstruct and analyze text,
but we don’t do that in the sciences. We think a science research
paper is go to the Internet and look up facts about ozone depletion
and write what in essence is a history term paper. That’s not
science research and it doesn’t teach anyone to be a scientist.
The right way to do it is inquiry. To do inquiry you have to be able
to look at data—preferably collect some of it or you can also
use other people’s. You can also deal with modeling eventually.
But it’s nice if you actually get your hands on the data. Some
of it is yours, you understand how it’s collected. You ask that
data questions: hypotheses, testable questions, whatever you want to
call it. You use whatever mathematical skills you have, even if it’s
just very primitively as a kindergartener. Certainly arithmetic is enough
for a lot of things. You do that in the environment, it actually is
research, valuable. But the key is that it’s useful for students
in order to do inquiry. That is the cornerstone of reforming science
and engineering education in the world, but hopefully in the United
National Academy has said that very firmly in its 1996 study laying
out its recommendations for National Science [Education] Standards K-12.
I think it’s been said longer than that. [Mevil] Dewey of the
Dewey Decimal System was pointing this out a century ago. The science
community for certainly decades has embraced this as the way to go.
GLOBE—because of the quality of the data, your data and data like
it collected by other schoolchildren anywhere in the world—you
can ask questions and expect the data to make sense. Made-up data, it’s
just impossible to make made-up data susceptible to having real questions
asked of it. Mother Nature, the laws of nature, hold the data together.
You take it reasonably well, with scientifically valid protocols and
calibration and all the things—which are also steps you need to
learn to understand to think like a scientist: how good is this data,
what’s it good for, how well can it be used—these are incredible
questions in Earth System Science that underpin EOS.
In an earlier talk I know I mentioned a key thing is when you’re
just doing operational weather forecasting you didn’t have to
do calibration, but if you’re looking at decadal trends in climate
you’ve got to calibrate the best you can. You’ve got to
intercalibrate between one satellite instrument dying and the next one
starting, so it’s better if they overlap in orbit. You’ve
got to have in situ measurements to calibrate with what you’re
seeing remotely and what’s really happening in the system you’re
observing. It just goes on and on and on. GLOBE teaches kids that, teaches
teachers to teach kids that.
I believe in the GLOBE mission. I obviously still do, although [now]
I see the mission somewhat differently. I believe in it, and you heard
me say some things that are potentially interpretable as criticism of
Al Gore, but this was Al Gore’s baby. In the paragraph in his
book where he proposes the GLOBE Program, he criticizes Mission to Planet
Earth. He says, “I’ll show you a Mission to Planet Earth,
let’s get these schoolchildren out there collecting data.”
So I went from doing the program he was criticizing in that paragraph
to being the chief scientist of the program he was proposing. That is
irony. But I loved it, and I loved both of them, and they’re connected.
We had at that time science principal investigators selected through
the National Science Foundation backing every measurement. Every measurement
protocol had a science group standing behind it who was committing to
use the scientific data the students would provide. That element has
gone away in the program, but interestingly enough—I was at GLOBE,
and I’d become the chief scientist, and I’d been there maybe
a year. We’re having a science conference for GLOBE. I’m
missing my old NASA days inside. I’m not bemoaning to anybody,
but I’m in this brave new world and I’ve left my old world.
Scientist after scientist stands up and talks about the use of their
[GLOBE] data in concert with satellite data, and I saw the connections.
We gave every school a subset of a Landsat [satellite] scene, when that
was a big deal and hard to get and they were expensive. We bought the
scenes, had them carved up, and gave them to schools, and provided free
software that was developed at Purdue [University, West Lafayette, Indiana]
and maintained by Purdue for free. We would teach the trainers of countries
and US cooperating partners how to use that software to analyze their
Landsat scene and locate things, and we GPS-ed [Global Positioning System]
everything. It was just incredible and wonderful. The ties to the satellites
were amazing. Didn’t tie to everything—blue-water oceanography,
we weren’t going to put the kids out in boats, but you get the
Charlie Kennel leaves and I pop off to GLOBE. About a year into it they
finally advertised to replace Charlie, and I’m thinking about
applying. They’re not really openly advertising, but I’m
still a senior executive. My job has been transferred to Goddard. Peggy
Finarelli by the way is at GLOBE. Lyn Wigbels is at GLOBE. By the time
I get there Peggy is the deputy, Lyn is in charge of international affairs—so
you’ve got these three NASA SES Headquarters refugees there. Peggy,
Lyn and I are each assigned to different field centers, and I’m
at Goddard. I expressed some interest in applying to be [associate administrator],
and it became very clear that that was not a good idea. Fortunately
the person who really pointed that out to me was Lisa Shaffer, who’d
been my deputy. It wasn’t right, and ultimately Ghassem Asrar
stepped into that job. Poor thankless situation for him at the end of
the day, but he stood the test for a number of years and did that. That’s
how I went off to GLOBE.
This is, I think, also important for NASA oral history. It’s painful,
but once I went to GLOBE, I still had a lot of these people who’d
worked for me or worked with me. NASA is in essence implementing a program
which had my fingerprints all over it. I’d go back and visit at
NASA Headquarters. Two hours at NASA Headquarters would depress me for
a day and a half. Things at NASA Headquarters were so down that after
a year the people had been down so long they didn’t remember where
up was. What had been enormously exciting, particularly in the 1980s,
just dynamic as could be—the management jobs inside the Earth
Science Division under Shelby were jobs of immense community leadership,
intellectual leadership. Great excitement and great accomplishment.
The people were accomplishing miracles. They were doing amazing stuff.
Those days were waning. They were building EOSDIS, they were building
EOS. Things were getting there so the work was important. A lot of research
was still going on, but in terms of the esprit de corps, the good feeling,
and it’s not back now. It’s better, but it’s never
gotten that good again. Part of the problem is it’s a lot easier
to both attract leaders and inspire people to go beyond their ordinary
capacity in these kind of management jobs, which were really leadership
jobs of segments of the field, backed up by money to make grants with,
by satellite missions to guide or formulate. It isn’t that good
now, and part of that is it becomes much harder to attract the best
people. The good people you get, you don’t turn them into great
people. They don’t go beyond their ordinary capacity. I’m
afraid we’re still in that situation. It’s better. It’s
way better actually, but it needs to get better still.
That will be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that once NASA
transitions its human spaceflight to something more similar I believe
to the vision President Obama has laid out, which is a more balanced
vision. It’s a vision which will restore Earth science to where
it should be and where Earth System Science needs it to be, which is
not do everything, but it does need a $2.2-billion-a-year buying power
by fiscal year 2014. The President’s 2011 budget runout projects
it will be back to that buying power, which it should have never left
but did. It lost $1 billion worth of that buying power. That’s
all good stuff, but it has to be well done. You can’t afford to
invest that much at NASA if the NASA stuff doesn’t become high
morale, high achievement just like it was. I’m hopeful, but it’s
not there yet.
I want to go back and say one of the other wonderful things I learned
through the Interagency Working Group on Data Management for Global
Change dealt with libraries. The [US] Department of Agriculture, USDA,
was represented by their Ag Library people. People in the library world
and the information science world are together. One of the symbols of
that is a woman came to work for me. She came as a loaner to me, like
an IPA [Intergovernmental Personnel Act]. Kathleen [M.] Eisenbeis. Kathleen,
just before she got there, won the prize from the American Library Association
for the best library PhD thesis of the year. It was written about Landsat
data. I began to understand that the sense of library and data system
and archive—they’re not separate worlds anymore, they come
together, and that’s an important point to recognize, and I think
When we got all that money to go do EOSDIS, I was very turfy, and we
all [at NASA] looked down on Tom [Thomas N.] Pyke, who had been head
at NESDIS [National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service].
He was sort of a client of ours because we bought his satellites and
data systems for him, particularly his satellite data systems for him—not
his ground-based data systems, not his archives. He was responsible
for all the satellites and all the data stuff at NOAA. He’d come
out of the National Bureau of Standards, now NIST [National Institute
of Standards and Technology], had been involved in setting standards
that enabled the Internet to exist, etc. We didn’t think much
of Tom. We looked down on him.
We looked down on NOAA pretty much all the time. There were some people
at NOAA we had awe of. The people at Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
[GFDL], particularly Jerry [D.] Mahlman. Some of the people who worked
for him, Susan Solomon and the other people at the Aeronomy Lab in Boulder
[Colorado]—we funded those people. The people at the GFDL wouldn’t
take our money. Jerry Mahlman was very suspicious. He thought NASA would
put political constraints on him. We never did that. I explained that
with Jim [James E.] Hansen. We weren’t going to do that, but Jerry
didn’t want it. He didn’t need it, he did okay without our
money. Susan Solomon was a grantee. Most of the people in the Aeronomy
Lab got extra money out of NASA. They were as good as anybody around.
Maybe better in Susan Solomon’s case, most knowledgeable person
about the stratosphere and mesosphere on the planet.
Working with those people was great, but in general we looked down on
NOAA institutionally. What a mistake. We cooperated with them but we
looked down on them. Tom got a lot of that feeling. That was a really
classic mistake, and it came in two forms. One is when we were creating
Distributed Active Archive Centers for EOSDIS, we chose the US Geological
Survey’s archive at the EROS [Earth Resources Observation Systems]
Data Center to be our land-surface data center. They were supposed to
get the HIRIS [High Resolution Imaging Spectrometer] data, the MODIS
[Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectrometer] land products, they’d
get the US copy of the Japanese ASTER [Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission
and Reflection Radiometer] data, they’d get the Landsat data.
There’s more land-surface data in Sioux Falls, South Dakota than
anywhere else on Earth. That was a really smart move. It was forced
on me by Shelby and Len, but it was the right thing to do. We didn’t
do that with the National Climatic Data Center—now run by Tom
[Thomas R.] Karl—in Asheville [North Carolina]. We could have
so helped, EOSDIS money, on upgrading NOAA archives and helping the
problems they couldn’t get adequate funding for through NOAA.
But we didn’t do it, and that was somewhat my doing. We did do
it with one of the NOAA data centers, and that’s the Snow and
Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. Still an EOS DAAC, an EOSDIS DAAC
as they called it. Snow and Ice Data Center did wonders for us. There’s
some convergence at what was called the Alaska SAR [Synthetic Aperture
Radar] Facility [Fairbanks] where we were going to keep SAR data. I
don’t know how that’s all worked out really, because that’s
mostly foreign data.
The other mistake is—Tom is a real data system maven. I didn’t
know data systems. I was a really awful choice to put in charge of EOSDIS.
If I had simply gone to Tom and gotten his and his people’s technical
help, EOSDIS would have been far better and a much better success. You
say well how do you know that? Well, because Tom is the one who took
me on as head of GLOBE to be the chief scientist. Then I had to become
his deputy when Peggy Finarelli retired. Then, under the aegis of the
Senate Appropriations Committee, they zeroed GLOBE funding at NOAA.
NASA at my urging did step in and continue its $5-million-a-year commitment,
which they’re still continuing at exactly $5 million a year, and
took over the GLOBE Program.
I had to take over from Tom, who by this point was the chief information
officer of the US Department of Commerce and certainly needed to not
be doing GLOBE anymore. But still cares about GLOBE to this day, as
do I. There are a bunch of GLOBE alumni who are still GLOBE people in
a network out there. That’s how I learned how good Tom was on
data systems and how connected—I came to just have a lot of admiration.
He’s got quirks, I’ve got quirks, everybody’s got
quirks, but I came to have a deep admiration and realized how we had
misjudged him and how someone of arrogance—and this is maybe a
broader lesson—we misjudged the people with whom we should cooperate,
people whose advice we should go get, people maybe who we should go
It’s humbling, but it does go back to are you committed to the
agency as like a person, agency as a corporation, or are you committed
to the mission. Now for NASA in Apollo of course those became synonymous.
For too much of NASA they’re still synonymous as the fantasy of
Apollo. That someday we’re going to be told a destination, a schedule
and all the money you ever want. The agency only got to do that once.
Those days are not coming again. It requires significant humility to
go recognize when and where you need to deal with others, how to cooperate
and support them in their missions, not just them support you in yours,
and where to step beyond your narrow agency mission to the leadership
mission that the nation and the world needs.
I hope as we move forward in human spaceflight beyond International
Space Station that the international partners are brought to the table
before we stake out everything. Going back to when I was a spokesman
for Earth System Science, which I think I spoke about somewhere back
in there, leadership was the key thing to that whole Sally [K.] Ride
study [NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space: A Report to the
Administrator], because NASA was about leadership. You can almost hear
the management consultants. Lunar base, manned sample return from Mars,
unmanned sample return from Mars—NASA leadership, NASA monolithic
singular leadership. Well, you don’t have any choice in Mission
to Planet Earth but to do it cooperatively with the rest of the world.
You needed their data. There was no way to do this on just the US taxpayer.
There was no way to get access to all the data that you were going to
need for the ultimate mission.
We pitched leadership as this is leadership where people will follow.
Not simply say oh that’s leadership. They would say we’re
joining. I know I said this before, but it’s worth repeating.
When I walked in to give the ultimate briefing, like ten minutes of
vugraphs, in the old NASA Headquarters Building, to Administrator [James
C.] Fletcher—and Neil [A.] Armstrong was at the table, I never
got to see him and they didn’t introduce me to anybody. The lights
were such that they were enough in my eyes I couldn’t make out
the people around that little U-shaped table, that little bitty Administrator’s
conference room. I got to come in. But as I’m walking in the door
Administrator Fletcher is saying to Neil Armstrong, “Now this
is a case of leadership where other people will follow.” We had
them, and we did. In the fullness of time, we haven’t done a lunar
base, we haven’t done a manned Mars sample return although I know
somebody’s done an asteroid. We have not gone to the surface of
Mars with human beings, and we’re not going any time soon because
we don’t know if human beings can survive the trip. Mission to
Planet Earth, at least the low Earth orbit part of it is there.
We had in mind a whole geostationary complement that’s never happened.
I don’t know if it will. But geostationary observations are still
there on the operational basis and the suite of low Earth orbit stuff
is there. I think hopefully the replacements will be there before the
stuff that’s there dies. It will go on.
Since this is really Earth System Science at 20, I think GLOBE may be
actually a nice symbol. It became far more than Mr. Gore had in mind,
wonderful as his vision was, because it was real students taking real
data. But it also was sharing that data. It’s cooperative. You
go to meetings with GLOBE students and teachers. I went to two GLOBE
Student/Teacher Conferences. At one of them I was almost being treated
like some ridiculous rock star by these teenage, giggly Japanese girls.
It was just hysterical. They were terrific, and they had done this wonderful
data collection, which is how they’d gotten the privilege to be
the ones representing Japan with their teacher. They’d done great
work, and they liked me because I’d talked to them on the phone
or sent them emails helping them do the analysis.
At the first one of these we were in the forest outside Helsinki, and
we had students from Africa who’d never seen a forest. We had
a hailstorm, and there were kids who’d never seen a hailstorm.
These were teenagers, and you would see kids walking arm in arm—boys
and girls walking arm in arm a little more than chaperones maybe liked—but
you’d see them building ties. There were kids there from China.
There were kids there from Egypt. There were kids there from Israel.
There were kids there from the United States. There were kids there
from Japan. There were kids there from Argentina who got there because
the woman who ran GLOBE in Argentina was playing golf and ran into the
president of the country and said it would be bad if our children didn’t
get to go, and he arranged for them to have the money to take a school
group from Argentina with their teacher chaperone types to this meeting.
Second one I got to go to was in Croatia. The Croatians joined GLOBE
when the cannons were still hot in 1996 [after the Balkans war]. People
in GLOBE said how can you do this. They said how can we not. They wanted
a tie for their children back into the world. They were, at least at
the time I left GLOBE, for several years before, the number one GLOBE
country in the world. A higher percentage of their schools were in GLOBE
than in the United States.
We got GLOBE leadership in Benin. We got GLOBE leadership in Finland,
in Germany. It’s so bizarre, all kinds of crazy places. Country
coordinator from Bahrain. Wonderful. A country coordinator of GLOBE
in Lebanon at the training in Cyprus—she was Druze. We had Qataris,
three men and a woman. They were great. They were hysterical, had a
great time with each other. She really wasn’t supposed to shake
hands with the men when she was being congratulated for having gone
through the training. She did once and then she didn’t the second
time, and we all understood. I watched Croats and Serbs, teachers—because
they can speak Serbo-Croatian to each other, same language, different
written letters—I watched them talk across the table in the training.
In the end for NASA, and more generally for multiple agencies and multiple
governments, when you are more concerned about getting the job done,
when you are not so turfy about supply—leadership is not an economic
commodity. Getting to be in the administrative leader position may be
something only one person gets to do, but I’ve cited many examples
where people were leaders who weren’t in that job or weren’t
in that job yet or were better leaders before they got that job. It
is something that can be done. Cooperation is something that can be
done. Investing in the mission that is worth it can be done. It can
surmount everything from international tensions to just simple bureaucratic
rivalries. That’s what you need to do. The wonderful thing about
Earth System Science is it requires it.
like to ask you about how you’ve been able to continue your vision
and your mission as part of the staff at the House of Representatives.
Butler: First of
all, you need to get the next transition. I’ve been at GLOBE for
seven years, it’s clearly time to move on. I’ve coedited
the Teachers’ Guide through three different editions. Every protocol
in there has my fingerprints all over it.
NASA says, reacting to some administration pressure, that they’re
going to privatize GLOBE. So I run, not very well admittedly, a process
to select somebody to be the partner in a cooperative agreement notice
to do GLOBE. We choose the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research,
which I would have to say has proven to be a mistake, and I think they
know I feel that way because they have not done a first-rate job. They
have not done a second-rate job in my view. They’ve got leadership
problems there and a whole slew of other things.
So what’s NASA going to do with me now? Once before I went to
GLOBE and now at GLOBE my string is run out. They’re going to
park me in a closet somewhere at Goddard. As a senior executive I’m
going to be responsible for overseeing this cooperative agreement notice,
which I could do with 5 percent of my time. To be fair, if you’re
Ghassem Asrar—at this point he’s still the associate administrator—he’s
beginning to have people say on advisory committee meetings, I’m
told, well we had a real sense of mission and vision when Dixon was
here. You don’t need Dixon sitting there in the wings when you’re
the associate administrator, that’s just not right. I’m
not a real threat because I’m not coming back to be associate
administrator, that’s not happening—but you don’t
need that symbol sitting there. So nobody’s going to know what
to do with me. I’m not ready to quit.
I always dreamed, from my congressional science fellowship, of going
back and doing appropriations for Mr. Obey, [Representative] David [R.]
Obey of 7th District of Wisconsin. I spent my congressional science
fellowship in his personal staff office when he was in his sixth term.
He has just announced his retirement from the Congress. He’s been
there now over 40 years. As a matter of fact, President Obama came to
the celebration for his 40th anniversary of joining the Congress, and
it was just wonderful. Prez [the president] didn’t stay long but
he came, gave him a hug, said unbelievably appropriate and wonderful
words about him, and left.
I’ve come back from the second of these Student/Teacher Conferences
I’ve gone to over my years at GLOBE. GLOBE has been privatized,
September 1st everybody’s got to be gone. My people, some of them
are going to work, moving to Boulder. A lot of them are looking for
jobs, a lot of them have moved on with their lives—it’s
a real mess personnel-wise. We’re tidying up things, we’re
packing up, we’re trying to transition all the stuff to UCAR—all
the records, all the everything, which I hope to heaven they preserve.
Then I get back from Croatia and there’s a phone message that
I’ve gotten a call from a man named Scott Lilly. Scott was the
legislative director of Mr. Obey’s office when I was a science
fellow. Really the best way to say it is he was Dave Obey’s alter
ego for years. Democrats are in the minority, it’s 2003. Mr. Obey
is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Therefore
he is in charge of minority staff, which is maybe 20 percent the size
of the majority staff. But it’s appropriate, and a lot more appropriate
than when he first went into minority because the staff had grown from
maybe ten to 23. It’s been treated nicely, it’s built up
a real capability.
There’s a message from Scott Lilly on my phone. I thought he’s
called, I really want to go. So I pick up the phone and I call Scott.
Scott says, “I got this crazy idea. We need somebody to be the
minority clerk for the Energy and Water Subcommittee.” I said,
“I’m your guy.” That phone conversation ends, and
a day goes by. I said, “Is it what I want to do? Yes.” After
two days I call Scott and I say, “Scott, what do we do?”
and he said, “Come up and see me.” So I go up and see him.
This is like early July, almost exactly seven years ago.
I say, “Scott, what do we have to do to make this real?”
He said, “Shake my hand.” I shook his hand. He said, “Fine.”
I said, “When do you want me?”
He said, “Now.”
I said, “I got all these people. They’re going through all
this aggravation, trauma. I think I need to stay with them,” so
I put him off for five weeks. They did indicate I needed to come up
and sit through the Energy and Water full committee markup as an observer
to see what I was getting into. The position that I was going to occupy
had been vacant since the 1st of June. They didn’t call me the
first day it was vacant, but they had this idea, [and] Scott told me
the job was mine. He did tell me he was going to retire. In fact he
didn’t retire for another six months, but I was his last hire
on the Appropriations Committee staff.
It’s ironic and maybe important. Tuck [it] away in the archives
of NASA, although it’s not so much NASA history. While the position
I was going into, minority clerk for Energy and Water, was vacant, one
of the other members of the staff under Scott was fulfilling it. A young,
terrific guy named Rob [Robert] Nabors [Jr.], who was really the utility
infielder. When Scott retires, even though he is the youngest person
with a clerk-like job on the staff, Rob takes his place and becomes
the minority staff director. When [Democrats] take the majority he becomes
the majority staff director. When President Obama becomes President,
he becomes the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget,
which after a while he leaves to become special assistant to the White
House Chief of Staff Rahm [I.] Emanuel. Rahm is phenomenal. [Nabors]
could cover a subcommittee like that while covering a couple others
and do a great job. It was just amazing. I learned a fair amount from
him, but I didn’t have long enough contact for enough.
I went to do Energy and Water. Energy and Water is a subcommittee of
Appropriations, was in 2003 and I would say continued through till the
end of Republican control of the House, and maybe even into the early
days of Democratic control of the House, the most bipartisan place left
in the House of Representatives. Appropriations was traditionally pretty
bipartisan. That was beginning to fall apart, but Energy and Water—thank
goodness for all those Corps of Engineers water projects and even some
Bureau of Reclamation water projects—kept it together.
There was pretty much a bipartisan consensus about what to do at the
Department of Energy. It was and remains a subcommittee that believes
in all of the above. If you’re going to deal with the energy crisis,
deal with all the different energy technologies. That actually isn’t
its biggest job; the Department of Energy [DOE] is primarily a nuclear
weapons and cleanup after nuclear weapons agency. The Obama administration
started that it’s gone back to having a much larger portfolio
in energy, but we began that work some time ago.
So how have I kept my [credentials] alive? First of all, I think the
idea behind hiring me was you had a PhD physicist dealing with the Department
of Energy so no one at DOE—nobody in the weapons program, no arrogant
person from a weapons lab—could ever stare across at the committee
staff and say oh you wouldn’t understand, to [try and] hide things
from us. I was in the club, I had the union card. They couldn’t
say it to me—even if it was true they couldn’t say it to
me. By and large, it didn’t turn out to be true most of the time.
I didn’t have to know detailed physics of nuclear explosions.
I did have to remember physics I’d long forgotten, but I had always
been fascinated by nuclear weapons. I had always been fascinated by
nuclear energy. All of a sudden I have to do them. I got to see the
first constructed plutonium trigger as they’re called, or plutonium
pit as they’re called inside the agency, as close to me as I am
to you that was made. Over a decade [ago] in the United States, environmental
problems shut down our ability to make nuclear pits [when the FBI raided
the Rocky Flat DOE facility in Colorado].
It was wonderful. But my real value was the fact that I’d been
a program manager. Most of the people who come to Appropriations come
from budget offices or congressional affairs [offices] or now a few
people are even coming from other committees and member offices. I’d
run programs, and my knowledge as a person who had actually run programs
made the biggest difference. When the Department of Energy said oh no
we can’t have a competition that competes people inside the labs
with people in the outside university community, I could look across
the table and say there’s one federal acquisition regulation for
the government. It applies at NASA as much as at DOE, and I have run
those selections, I have made them work that way. You can do it, I’ve
done it. They went back and asked the lawyers and the lawyers finally
said that of course you can do it. I never quite got them to do it as
intimately as I wanted, but in essence they took that on and started
doing it, at least in their science solicitations. Desperately needed.
If you don’t do it, the labs will ultimately decay in quality.
Just as NASA centers did before we started doing it—particularly
the Langley [Research] Center got improved in the way I’ve referred
I have a great time, I have a great rapport with the Republican chairman.
But what am I really doing? To the extent that there’s any tie
back to all this Earth System Science stuff, it’s climate change.
But it’s not the understanding of it; it’s the how are we
going to deal with it in an energy policy. The energy policy is a problem
for us anyway because it’s wrecking the balance of payments, it
threatens international security, oil prices are going through the roof,
certain less-than-ideally-friendly nations that hold a gun to our head
for a critical supply that’s needed for the economic viability
of the United States. Energy policy has the nice by-product of it makes
the country more secure. It makes the country’s economy better—it
helps the trade deficit, therefore the economy writ large. It also happens
to be what’s critically needed in most cases to deal with climate
change: mitigating greenhouse gas warming. I get to work on that.
Mr. Obey, while we’re in the minority, remembers back to [James
E. “Jimmy”] Carter administration levels of spending. I
get ordered to pull together an analysis of where we are versus where
we were. I initially don’t do a very good job. Rob is a little
patient with me, [and] I actually pull together a wonderful piece of
work as an Appropriations staffer, looking back at the whole appropriations
level of government investment in energy research across all the technologies
going back to the Carter administration. I have the entire budget history
year-by-year of the Department of Energy. I have online the ability
to get the inflation adjustment corrections, which I then apply. I make
graph after graph, I write up stuff, I talk about CAFE [Corporate Average
Fuel Economy] standards for mileage of cars—it turns out in a
nutshell by the time I’m writing this report, nuclear, all renewables
together, and even fossil energy research investments by the United
States government have fallen to less than 25 percent of what they were
in the fiscal year ’80 budget of Jimmy Carter in real dollar buying
power. The good news is conservation, which is the best leverage investment,
has only fallen to 54 percent of what it was. On the Democratic side
we start noodging to come back. Mr. Obey gives speeches using this information.
Mr. [Representative Peter J.] Visclosky, who is the ranking Democrat
on the [sub]committee, I have to give him exactly the same stuff.
Particularly when you’re in the minority, the staff works for
the chairman, not for the subcommittee chairman. For the ranking, not
the subcommittee ranking. But when you’re in the minority there’s
only one of you for a subcommittee, and you’re a lot tighter with
the full committee. It’s not like there’s a front office
doing full committee and you’re off in separate subcommittee offices,
the way you are in the majority. You feel very much like the chairman
or the ranking member’s personal person, not the subcommittee
ranking. If you’re subcommittee ranking, it’s not quite
the power position. It’s the in-waiting position, so you’re
not as sensitive to [not having the minority clerk really work for you].
Mr. Visclosky used the same stuff. I feed it to a speechwriter and help
lay out all the technical stuff and he gets a professional speechwriter,
and gives a great speech laying all this stuff out and making these
points using anecdotes from his own life, terrific speech. That was
[Democrats] take the majority, January 2007. The fiscal year 2007 appropriations
bills have not passed. The decision is made to get out of the year and
we’ll do a yearlong continuing resolution, but we will have some
extra money to use that we can provide anomalies. [An anomaly to a continuing
resolution is any change to the funding levels or conditions contained
in the previously enacted appropriations law.] First thing we do, $300
million extra for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy area at the
Department of Energy. That’s taking them up I think from $1.1
billion to $1.4 billion so it’s not an insignificant increase.
That increase I think lays the stage for what was done through the stimulus
program. I don’t do [energy and water] anymore so I haven’t
gone back and done the analysis, but I think it helps.
Then we start working on the fiscal year ’08 budget. Now I’m
the majority clerk, meaning I’m the person in charge of the staff
of the subcommittee doing Energy and Water. Mr. Visclosky is now the
chairman. It is not a good year in many ways—I have enormous problems—but
in a leadership sense it’s worth covering here. I put my foot
down and we made sure that we add $300 million more to renewable and
conservation. Also at the end of the day [the appropriation] sacrificed
science increases that had been projected because at the very endgame
in December we’re having to do an omnibus appropriation—fold
a bunch of bills together, pass it, it’s late, we’ve been
in a continuing resolution for ten weeks—and in that process have
to cut some significant money out. The Democratic Congress had aspired
to $20 billion more than President Bush will sign off on. So negotiations
happen, we have to cut a bunch out of energy and water. We’ve
put a major emphasis on nuclear nonproliferation. I’m not backing
off on that, we hold on to every penny of that. We take some hits in
nuclear weaponry, we take some hits in nuclear cleanup but not too badly.
For conference—with Pete [Pietro V.] Domenici being the ranking
senator but still very influential on the Senate side—we take
renewable and conservation R&D [research and development], treat
it just about as well as we were going to anyway. I cut 300 million,
400 million bucks out of the science budget for the Department of Energy
Office of Science. They still get an increase that’s slightly
larger than the amount of earmarks that had been added in that account.
They don’t get really very much. But we put the priority where
it belonged, first on nuclear nonproliferation. We have to give money
to the Corps of Engineers politically, they actually get extra money.
It’s crazy, but that’s just politics. It’s not bad
for the country’s infrastructure either. And we put the money
on renewables and conservation. To the extent we have to, we put some
money in nuclear energy, which I also don’t feel bad about. Science
takes big hits but we get there. Cleanup takes some hits but we get
through it. I don’t get through it, but eventually with only slightly
extra cuts my staff manages. One of them has to take over, because I
get deathly ill and am out of there.
When I come back full-time, I’m reassigned to a different subcommittee,
not as the clerk. And this is where it really makes a difference again.
This is when all of a sudden I’m at the Earth System Science at
20 conference. I’m assigned to the Commerce, Justice, Science
Subcommittee. Since I’m still really not clicking on every single
cylinder, they start me out with the National Science Foundation, which
is in the first interview, and the Office of Science and Technology
Policy. I don’t do NASA.
But I’m given a hunting license to deal with climate change issues.
I’m sitting next to the person who has the Department of Commerce,
including NOAA. My clerk has got NASA. I know the guys over on Interior
and Environment Subcommittee who deal with the USGS and the Department
of Interior, who’s the other really important agency that’s
not in the Commerce, Justice, Science portfolio. So I make noises about
climate change. I learn about STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering,
and Mathematics] education because the chairman tells me to learn about
STEM education, which GLOBE has prepared me to do. I know what inquiry
is, I understand.
I was shying away from organizing a hearing. When I was doing Energy
and Water I kept my hands off of NASA. I figured my colleagues—that
would be interference with their turf. Climate change, I’m given
an excuse to interfere with people’s turf, so I did. But I’m
also an asset. I know satellites. Nobody else knows from satellites
other than the people up on the defense [sub]committee dealing with
the defense satellites. So I’m useful. As the year goes by and
I get stronger, they give me NASA science, aeronautics and education.
Then end of the year comes, starting in the new process for the fiscal
year ’11 budget, but also leftover pieces of ’10. I have
all of NASA as a responsibility. So what am I able to do? I’m
able to advocate for a return to the right observing system. I don’t
know if it made any difference, but I was so upset, I wrote a memo.
I sent it to the Office of Science and Technology Policy; I sent it
to OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. I don’t think OMB ever
actually got it because of email, but OSTP did it. President’s
budget did everything I dreamed it should do to really—almost,
with one minor exception, everything needed to upgrade the observing
system parts. There’s some other things still needed.
I have a much more balanced view of space- and ground-based now and
how much is needed in ground-based. That’s really the growth area.
The satellite set will get back to being a fairly big complement—it’ll
need to evolve some. But ground-based is where new technology is going
to enable measurements in the soil, below the surface of the ocean and
right above, under tree canopies—that’s automated, consistent,
calibrated, networked. That’s, I think, where the revolution will
come. Take a decade or more, but we’ll get there, and the revolution
will begin very soon in that kind of measurement systems. It already
has begun really in the ocean. I’m able to advocate for those
Now I’m more worried about trying to make sure we have the information
to inform good policy decisions—so that people would know beyond
a shadow that this climate change problem was real, and how real it
was. We didn’t want to exaggerate it. No scientist I have ever
known wants the results to be more fearful—the Earth keeps serving
up scarier and scarier climate change stuff. Scientists do not want
[climate change or global warming] to melt the Greenland ice cap. They
do not want it to flood all of southeast England, south Florida. They
don’t want 1 billion people on Earth to be environmental refugees.
Nobody wants that. Our job as scientists, the people who still really
are practicing scientists, is to give their best judgment about what
it looks like is going to happen. Somebody tells them here’s a
mitigation strategy, they have an obligation to say how well it looks
like it might or might not work. That’s the scientist’s
role. They’re human; they want it to be better, not worse. That’s
why they’re giving the warnings. That’s why they do the
IPCC, even though it takes away from their own science research.
Energy policy is really mitigating climate change, which in many ways
is also meaning really mitigating environmental change. We’ve
now seen a nonclimate environmental change in the Gulf [of Mexico] that’s
not so good [2010 BP oil spill], and energy policy is related to that
as well. You don’t have to drill where it’s so dangerous
and so deep if you’ve got alternatives, and the alternatives come
to market. If you send the right price signals you’ll make the
right decisions about deep-water drilling, which I’m not prepared
to say is yes or no. I just know you don’t mismanage the technology.
Going on from there looking forward, it’s now—much to my
sadness and certainly not anticipated by me 30 years ago—the fat
is in the fire. The climate change is happening. It is upon us. It is
too late to not have significant climate change affect us, affect our
way of life, affect our infrastructure. It doesn’t have to be
a disaster, but it does need to be anticipated and particularly anticipated
in various ways we manage it. If the water fall in the Sierra Nevada
[mountains] is going to be more intense but not snow, we’re going
to need reservoirs because we can’t count on snowpack to store
it for the growing season. We’re going to need to physically store
it for the growing season. Something that in low-tech ways is being
done in the Himalayas today as the glaciers melt, is to build catchments
that then can keep areas irrigated when it’s needed in the growing
season. But you got to know, you’ve got to anticipate. If you’re
going to go put your energy-intensive server farm somewhere, you would
like to know there’s going to be enough affordable electricity
there. It just goes on and on and on. Things like that.
We’re going to have to make adaptation decisions, and those adaptation
decisions in my belief are going to get down to things at the local
level. The primary environmental decisions in the United States are
not made at EPA, they’re not made in the federal government, they
are not made by state governments. They are made by city and county
zoning boards. That is where we really make environmental policy that
really matters in the United States the most. Clean Air Act is important,
Clean Water Act is important. We’re cleaning up the Chesapeake
Bay in part because of zoning decisions or land use decisions about
buffer zones in farming, about chicken ranches and all their poultry
waste, about hog farms.
These are all land use changes, land use decisions. That’s where
the action is. We’re going to have to make adaptive decisions
about land use and other things that are very localized, that do not
lend themselves very well to all that much satellite observation and
are going to require granularity in the observing system that’s
going to require being at the surface. And we’re going to need
every schoolkid and amateur and automated system and robot that isn’t
flying we can get our hands on to know enough to get to where we can
empower the adaptation decision.
I get to still care about and have an influence on the observing, the
informing, the documenting—I get some minor influence on the mitigating.
But everybody gets the mitigation game now. And lots of great, bright—brighter
than me—good people are working at it. DOE is awash with renewable
energy money now, more than they probably know how to intelligently
spend. The pendulum has way swung. I think we’re probably going
to get some decent nuclear energy progress, but it takes time. That’s
like the space business, you work on something for a long time before
you see the benefits there. They work on decadal, longer timescales,
like NASA flight missions do.
Now I think the real thing is building the science and engineering educational
structure in the United States. I’m not going to build it, but
I’m helping the Congress go after making the funding decisions
and green-light the right things to finally do the right things in science
education. They’re going to be essential to the future economic
competitiveness of the United States, and to building a body politic
that can deal with issues that come in decadal timeframe. We’re
not the frog who sits there as the water starts to boil. That’s
not a human being. We don’t have to be like that, but we’re
acting like that to some extent. How do we get beyond that? By, in my
view, being better educated in how to think like a scientist, not just
how to think like a social scientist and a humanitarian or humanist.
It’s not just the humanities and social science. We have to have
within our body politic most of us able to deal with quantitative information,
drawing qualitative conclusions as necessary, and asking questions of
those things—not being blind to that. The sharper and better we
are at that, the more we will achieve economic prosperity, and the more
we will deserve the worldwide leadership that that economic prosperity
and that disproportionate use of world GDP justifies. The only thing
it justifies is if you use it well, and you got to use it well to benefit
NASA deserves a $2.2-billion-a-year Earth science budget only if it
is doing that within the community observing and documenting Earth System
Science. Informing policy decisions in the process, and informing investment
decisions—public, private, individual. That’s a big theme
as I see it, and that’s how it all works. Some of that hasn’t
changed, career sweep, but it sure has gotten a lot clearer. It’s
gotten a lot more substantive. It’s like things have been colored
in. But some of that, particularly some of the moral framework, has
never been gone.
like you have a whole lot more to do.
Butler: Well, I
hope so. I hope to keep doing it; I hope to keep making a contribution.
That’s what I’m here to do. If I don’t have a contribution
to make, then hopefully I’ll have the wisdom to go do something
else or go watch other people do it. And it’s really nice. The
[Capitol] Hill jobs are less demanding than the job was at my most intense
periods at NASA Headquarters. I don’t wake up in the morning saying
I’m off to be the wizard anymore, but there are times when we’re
staffing the movement, the conferencing of an appropriations bill—which
is my favorite time, because that’s when it becomes real—when
we are pushing an agency to do better, when we are able to inspire,
when we are able to empower—and by we I mean people like me staffing
the elected representatives and pushing the executive branch to green-light
the good stuff—to empower people to do the kinds of things that
I got to do at NASA, that Shelby Tilford got to do at NASA, that Bob
Watson got to do at NASA and OSTP and the World Bank, and person after
person has gotten to do—it’s quite something.
The fact that it isn’t quite that wonderful every single day is
okay. It’s just a package, and it’s not a bad package. It’s
a package I’m very happy to do. The odd thing is I’m willing
to say I’m happier having my job than almost any of my colleagues
Wright: Maybe because
you have so much. Like you said, it’s that bringing it all together
to make it better.
Butler: Yes. Scott
Lilly, when I was interviewing to be a congressional science fellow
in Mr. Obey’s office, said, “What are you here to accomplish?”
I said, “I’m here to learn.” At that time that’s
why I was there. I didn’t understand the process, I didn’t
know how power worked, I still probably to some extent don’t.
But I was there to learn, which is then a knowledge that empowers you.
When people ask me that today of course I have good answers, and when
people asked me that once the EOS vision was there, when people asked
me at NASA—I knew what I was there to do. When I was at GLOBE
I knew what I was there to do. On the Hill both in Energy and Water
and now in Commerce, Justice, Science I know what I’m there to
do. That’s really a good thing.
Wright: Well, I’ve
kept you for a while, but it’s been so much good stuff so thank
you so much. I appreciate all the time that you’ve given to the
glad to. It’s fun for me because I didn’t keep notes, and
I didn’t keep a diary—which I should have so I could have
gone off and written a book. I have met a man this year who actually
did his PhD research in part on the things I left in the files at NASA.
This, almost in a certain personal sense, gives me a sense of well you
got to plant something in the NASA oral history. It’ll be there,
not just those papers. It’ll be there in your voice. It’s
nice because it’s an opportunity to share what one has learned,
and hopefully that’ll provide a little wisdom, a little caution,
and a little perspective.
Wright: And a whole
lot of information. Thanks so much.
[End of interview]
to JSC Oral History Website