Transitioning to My Next Chapter

When Administrator Charlie Bolden interviewed me for my job in the fall of 2016, he started the meeting with a surprising question: “Thomas, why would you want this job? You are leaving a tenured position and you may be fired within a few months as the administration changes.” I reflected for a moment and answered, “because it is better to have an impact on this amazing program for a few months than to have no impact at all.”

This December, I will resign my position at NASA, about 3 months into the seventh year of the most impactful—and the most intense—job I have ever had: running the world’s leading program pursuing science in and from space, continually accelerating the speed of exploration and discovery, and inspiring millions to “dare mighty things.”

It has been a great ride. I resign as the longest continually serving associate administrator of science (*). This is not a goal Charlie and I had in mind when I started. Frankly, I just tried to do the best job I could — and help this science program I always loved and which has been intertwined with my career, from building part of an instrument as a graduate student, to proposing and winning multiple instruments and investigations, and finally, to my job as associate administrator.

I’ve had a tough time making this decision because I so love working with Team NASA Science and I doubt I will ever have a cooler job after this. There is no other job in the world that would let me work on more exciting missions, or that has more potential to affect scientific discoveries.

I am leaving for two reasons. I believe it is best for NASA, and especially the NASA Science community, and I believe it is best for me.

After 6+ years I feel I have had a chance to implement my best ideas. There are, without doubt, other great leaders with other amazing ideas that need to be tried, and the science community deserves the opportunity to give them that chance. Most importantly, the state of NASA’s Science program is strong and ready for that change now. It is a good time for a transition.

There is another reason for leadership change we do not like to talk about, generally. Each of us has weaknesses that also affect our organizations, and these weaknesses tend to weigh more heavily on organizations after a few years. That is why leadership changes are imperative for organizations who seek excellence.

On a personal level, I feel it is time for a change also. No, it is not because I am not having fun, or because I am less excited now, or because I’ve achieved any particular goal, or because bureaucratic forces are wearing me down. Simply, it is because I’m at my best when I learn new skills or gain new leadership experiences. I have achieved the key goals I set for myself when I took this job, and I will continue to struggle with the ones I am still struggling with, even if I stayed longer.

So, as I get ready for my final months at NASA, I want to tell our team members and partners how much I appreciate them.

First and foremost, I am thinking of our leadership team in NASA’s Science Mission directorate. I don’t think I have ever seen a stronger NASA science leadership team in my career as a scientist, but I know I am biased. We have an incredible set of talented individuals at headquarters doing hard work for the community each and every day. I wish more people could see the excellence and dedication I experienced for the past years.

But NASA’s science community extends well beyond that, to others at NASA HQ and Centers, to the growing number of industrial and academic partners, to our hard working colleagues in the White House or on Capitol Hill, and to our international partners, without whom we would not nearly be as good as we are. Thanks to all of you!

Exploring the secrets of the universe, searching for life elsewhere, protecting and improving life on Earth and in space are some of the most important and most impactful goals we can pursue as humans. And learning how to build excellent teams who can create historic missions today—and tomorrow—continues to be worthy of dedicating our lives to. I will spend a lot of effort recruiting candidates to apply for this most amazing (and challenging) job, and I hope many other friends of NASA will do the same.

Until I turn my badge in, I will continue to go “with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space,” just like Kennedy said during his famous speech 60 years ago, a motto I have used throughout my time at NASA. Then I will spend a lot more time with dear family and friends who have been my support system and a source of feedback throughout!

So—what will I do next? The answer is “take a break!”.  I have been notoriously bad at finding a new job while I am fully dedicated to the present one. Thus, my key goals in early 2023 will be spending time with family and friends, skiing on the Utah slopes, and going to the gym. I will also spend time processing what this most amazing job has taught me as a leader and as a scientist, and I want to talk to others about it.

After some time of focus and reflect, I will find what is next for me. And if I am very lucky, I will get to work with people who care as much about their work as my colleagues today do, each and every day!

(*) Ed Weiler spent more time in the position, but he did so in two appointments.

NASA’s Postdoctoral Program

In many ways, our investments in graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the most important investments we make in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). These early career leaders are the talent pipeline of scientists that will lead the next generation, whether it is a new space telescope, a new modeling center developing predictive capabilities for the Earth that saves and improves lives, or new insights about the nature of our universe. We focus on these leaders by giving them time to grow, new opportunities, and also by providing then with a stipend commensurate with their achievements to date.

NASA’s SMD supports many graduate students and postdocs, most of whom work with academic partners who are engaged in our missions and research programs. We also have graduate students and postdocs who work at our NASA centers and gain important and unparalleled experiences. About 120–130  post-docs are funded each year for fellowships lasting up to two years through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP). With the recent award of a new, five-year contract to Oakridge Associated Research Universities (ORAU) for the management of the NPP, now seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the program.

Unique among postdoctoral programs, the NPP places its Fellows into NASA labs at NASA Centers. NPP Fellows work side-by-side with NASA’s world-class scientists and engineers on projects intimately related to NASA’s goals, objectives, and missions. The NPP has been open to non-US citizens for most of its existence. During the height of the recent COVID pandemic, long and unpredictable delays in the issuance of needed visas for non-US citizens resulted in NASA restricting applications to the program to US citizens and permanent residents. Happily, with the waning of the pandemic, visa wait times have become closer to the pre-pandemic norm and NASA is once again opening applications to the NPP to non-US citizens.

At the Fall 2021 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NASA announced that it was raising the NPP base stipend to $70,000. Additionally, stipends are adjusted upward to account for the local cost of living. These changes should ensure that NPP Fellows are paid a just salary for their efforts.

Under the new contract, ORAU has created a Participant Assistance Program that offers financial and legal advice to NPP Fellows and their families as well as providing support for their mental health. This new program was something that NASA hoped would be proposed in the re-competition of the NPP management organization. ORAU is also working with NASA Headquarters to define some optional professional development activities for the NPP Fellows, such as proposal writing workshops. All in all, the NASA Postdoctoral Program is growing stronger in multiple ways.

This growth, though, has brought with it new costs. Some of the cost increases are due to the higher stipends; some are due to the additional services being offered to Fellows. Much of the increase, though, has come from simple inflation over the last five years. Since the new contract has not been in place for a full year yet, the full size of the cost increase is not yet known. However, projections of the potential annual cost for the program as SMD managed it — 130 Fellows at NASA Centers and JPL — are quite large. So large that they could amount to a non-trivial fraction of the SMD Support Budget. In order to maintain a balance between SMD’s missions and research, the size of the SMD Support Budget must be controlled. To this end, SMD is taking the following steps:

  1. To reduce the likelihood of rapid changes or lasting reductions in the number of NPP Fellows, the number of SMD-funded NPP Fellows will be reduced by 10% for the next year or two. This reduction will not be spread uniformly among all the Centers and JPL but will, instead be borne by those institutions that have the largest number of NPP Fellows, as well as other rationales to be decided on. These reductions will be implemented gradually over the next few application cycles.
  2. Cost increases for the remaining approximately 120 Fellows will be paid for by the five SMD science divisions out of their research budgets.
  3. While the number of NPP Fellows is reduced, SMD will be gathering information on the actual costs of running the NASA Postdoctoral Program under the new contract. If the actual costs are significantly lower than current projections, then the number of SMD-supported Fellows may be restored.
  4. An independent review team under the leadership of Dr. Paul Hertz will examine the NASA Postdoctoral Program and determine the extent to which the current program meets NASA’s objectives.

NASA strongly supports all graduate students and post-docs in our science disciplines including the NASA Postdoctoral Program and expects this period of reduced numbers of Fellows to be short — only one or two years. SMD is confident that once the above-described analyses and reviews are complete, the NASA Postdoctoral Program will emerge stronger than before.

-Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Associate Administrator

-Paul Hertz, Senior Advisor to the Associate Administrator

-Michael New, Deputy Associate Administrator for Research