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Interview of Anne Kinney by David Zierler on July 27 and August 18, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Anne Kinney, Deputy Center Director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Kinney recounts her childhood in Wisconsin and her early interests in science. She describes her undergraduate experience at the University of Wisconsin where she pursued degrees in physics and astronomy. Kinney discusses her time in Denmark at the Niels Bohr Institute before completing her graduate work at NYU relating to the International Ultraviolet Explorer. She explains the opportunities leading to her postdoctoral appointment at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore where she focused on obtaining optical data and near-infrared data to understand spectral energy distribution for quasars and blazars. Kinney discusses her work on the aberrated Hubble Telescope and her new job at NASA Headquarters where she became head of Origins before she was transferred to Goddard where she became division direct of the Planetary Division. She describes Goddard’s efforts to promote diversity and she describes her subsequent position as chief scientist at Keck Observatory before returning to Washington to join the National Science Foundation to be head of the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Kinney provides a broad view of the NSF budgetary environment, and she explains the circumstances that led her back to NASA to her current work. She describes where Goddard fits into NASA’s overall mission and she explains her interest in promoting NASA in an educational framework to children. At the end of the interview, Kinney conveys her excitement about the James Webb Telescope and why she is committed to ensuring that NASA is a driver behind the broader effort to make astronomy and physics more diverse.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 27th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Doctor Anne L. Kinney. Anne, thank you so much for joining me today.
You're really welcome, David. I was pleased and flattered that you were interested.
Absolutely. Okay, so to get started, would you please tell me, I know it's sort of still hot off the press, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation currently?
I'm the deputy center director of Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and that's of course a NASA center that has over 80 missions in all various phases, from Phase A through in-orbit operations, Phase E.
And so just to provide a little context, how long have you been in this particular position?
I started in the end of May, and began remotely under COVID, and have been working remotely just like everybody else on the Center since then.
So, you really haven't even been introduced to your new colleagues in person, essentially.
I spent ten years at Goddard Space Flight Center, so I would say maybe I knew about half the people at GSFC when I went there in May.
Most of the people you already knew?
Yes, that's right. That's right. So, it's really nice to be reconnected with them. I was away from Goddard for about five years, and so it's really nice to be back.
Wonderful. Okay, so let's start, let's take it all the way back to the beginning, Anne. First, tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
My parents are both from Wisconsin. My dad is 50% German and 50% Irish. So he partied hard and worked hard. Grew up in Packwaukee, Wisconsin. Beautiful little rural community with, you know, he grew up fishing for dinner and all that sort of thing. Really lovely. So, my parents both grew up in rural immigrant Wisconsin. Grew up in houses with no running water, no electricity, which was the standard then. And in both cases, they didn't get it in their houses until they were in college. They both grew up with mothers who had started out going to school post-high school, women's academies, in Wisconsin, and both of them were schoolteachers. So a great dedication to education on both sides.
My mother came from Dodgeville-Mineral Point, 100% Cornish community. Mining, a mining community. Again, an immigrant Wisconsin. It was a community that was 50% Cornish. So, lots of Cornish traditions, standard mixed-up American. All different ones. Now, my mother was a second cousin once removed from Frank Lloyd Wright, and she went and worked for Frank Lloyd Wright's sister in high school for two different years, and Jane Porter was very influential on my mom and helped her get to University of Wisconsin. My mother worked for a princely sum of $5 a month plus room and board, for Jane Porter. And that was enough for her to save up funding to go to school. My dad, when he graduated from high school, went off and worked as a lumberjack for a year. Partly to get enough money to go to college, and partly to bulk up so that he could play football, which was a great love of his. So, both of them went to University of Wisconsin. My dad was a--
Is that where they met, Anne?
Yes, they met at University of Wisconsin. My mother took great pride in the fact that she introduced herself. She had to walk across Bascom Hill alone at night, and she saw my dad and judged that he had a very honest face and asked him to accompany her across. And then the next Saturday at the football game, Fredric March—a very famous Hollywood actor from University of Wisconsin—was at the football game and my mother was trying to take a photo of him. I've been looking for it ever since and haven't found it. And dad saw her and said, “Oh yes, I wanted to ask her for a date.” And that's how it all began. And--
What degrees did they pursue?
Dad went into law school, University of Wisconsin, and mom was in social work. And then my dad then enlisted in the Navy. He was drafted but then he enlisted because he had a college education and he could become an officer that way. So he-- my parents had a year where they lived in all four corners of the States. They lived in Harvard for officer training, Palm Beach for navigational training, Seattle for when the ship was being built on Bainbridge Island, and then San Diego for the commissioning of the ship. And then dad went off to the Navy. He was on a small minesweeper. He was the communications officer on a mine sweeper called the Inaugural. And in fact, I'm in our childhood home now, and I just found the edition from the Inaugural Inquisitor, which was their weekly newsletter that was dated June 10th, 1945. It was all about Eva Braun having just married Hitler, but they both disappeared, and the Forces had taken over in the West, but the Eastern theater was still very active. It was quite a newsletter.
Did your father see combat?
His role as being on a mine sweeper, they would accompany the big envoys-- convoys, sorry, from Hawai'i to the Pacific and back again. And so, on a ship, they didn't-- he was not on any kind of an attack ship. That was what they did. But it was very dangerous. I mean, once they got back from one of those trips, and another mine sweeper took his place in the formation and got taken out by a kamikaze pilot. So, it was not zero risk by any means. They were in Okinawa shortly after it was taken over and they were sweeping all of the mines in the different harbors in Okinawa to make it safe for them to bring Naval forces on.
And meanwhile, my mother was a social worker in Chicago at the time, and she enrolled in the Art Institute, and took art and pottery and was very good friends with some very well-known artists. Mitch Cohen and she took pottery from Eugene Deutch, who was a student of Brancusi's, and I started collecting his pottery. Of course, I have a collection of my mom's pottery. Which was beautiful mid-century, with these potent colors. Really gorgeous, potent colors.
And then he [my dad] came back, they met at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and he had to actually go back and spend six months in school to finish his law degree. And then they went, he got a job in Lancaster, where I am now. And after they were here a year or two, they went to Frank Lloyd Wright and asked him to design a house for them. And he was willing to do it as a concrete block house, because my parents didn't have any money at all, you can imagine, and--
Do you know how famous he was at that point?
Oh yeah, sure, sure. It was 1952. He was-- hey, my mom in late high school was spending Sunday evenings in the living room where they had cultural evenings with string quartets and poetry readings, and there was Frank Lloyd Wright, you know? He was Welsh and she was Cornish, with about 50 years in between, I think. 60 maybe. Yeah, yeah. They knew.
Anyway, dad said he'd quarry the stone, so he came back and started quarrying stone, and then dad contracted the house and built it, and mom had had three children and did all the cooking for the crew that built the house. And so that would have been about when I was three years old, and I think that has a lot to do with why I went-- why I was so attracted to mathematics and science and ultimately space, because the thing, if you see early photos of the house with these gorgeous stone walls, limestone, midwestern limestone with tons of fossils in it and at angles of 60 and 180 degrees, I mean it's just beautiful. And it looks like a spaceship in its early incarnation.
And you think that was formative for your own scientific interests?
I think it was. I remember this enormous realization when I was maybe six years old, that the house is a double hexagon with a parallelogram going in one direction and another parallelogram in the other direction, and then the dividers go like this as you go bedroom, bathroom, bedroom. And I remember this enormous realization that the acute angle in the bathroom was the same as the obtuse angle in the bedroom. And yes--
Yep. Although it took me years to figure out that's what I wanted to do, but still. Yeah, the... And of course, it didn't hurt that my father taught himself celestial navigation in the Pacific in World War II, and so if we stepped outside, he was looking up and pointing at stars, and he could identify stars if it was 3/4 cloudy, and there were three stars up, he could tell you which ones they were. Because of course, they're always the same ones. They're the brightest ones, you know? Vega and Betelgeuse and Rigel, I mean, it's the Northern hemisphere, you know where they're going to be. [laugh] It's not that hard to figure out what they are, if you know them. But of course, he got a huge kick out of the fact that he always knew the night sky better than I did.
Anne, it sounds like you developed an interest in science before your formal exposure to it in school.
Oh absolutely, yeah. And then in eighth grade, we did have-- I remember eighth grade was the first science class, and I remember just absolutely loving it. And of course, I remember that was also the grade I was in when Kennedy was shot and killed, and everybody was crying in class, including myself. So yeah, yeah. I did. And I didn't formulate the-- I had no words for the fact that this was something I was really interested in. I remember playing that I was a scientist down in the woods with my cousin Bill. We'd play with the duckweed and pretend we had little samples and stuff like that, but I thought I was just playing, and of course I didn't become a biologist.
This is a theme that perhaps we'll return to over the course of our conversation, but I'm wondering at this point, as a young woman, as a girl, as a young woman, if there are any people in your life who are really serving as mentors or encouraging you that science was something that women could go into, and it was something that you should be encouraged to pursue? Or not?
So, there was a lot of history in my family of women who were in careers, so my grandmother's older sister Mary went to Madison and eventually became the secretary for the Governor of Wisconsin. And in that role, she eventually met Robert Moses, who was sent out to Wisconsin to learn legislation. And ended up marrying him after-- she first became his secretary, and then she married him. And my grandmother's younger sister Emily went out eventually to-- she was the first woman to graduate with a Masters in economics from the University of Wisconsin, and she went out to New York and eventually became the head of the Women's and Children's Department of Labor of the state of New York, and that was at a time when it was just highly unusual to have a woman in that kind of leadership role. So, we had a lot of women in our family who were very much outside the usual careers.
My mother's family was a matriarch and my father's family was a patriarch, so you can imagine two very strong-willed people who were very strong believers in education. So it wasn't specific to science, but it certainly was an atmosphere where education was incredibly important. In my father's family, he was the first one to go to university. In my mother's family, there was a precedent from her aunt, but still she worked her way through college and did it by herself, you know? And they were very big proponents of education as a manner of really developing yourself. So not science in particular, but certainly non-traditional careers.
Were you a standout student in math and science in high school?
I certainly took every single math and science class that was available to me. But, I'm from a small town where I was smart enough to not get the best grades. Small towns can have an attitude of the highest-status people are athletes and cheerleaders. And to be branded as smart was not something that I was going to risk. So, I was in the Honor Society and all that, but I did a lot of drawing and a lot of hiking, and all different things, and so academic excellence was not, that was not an identity for me. I don't think I had any idea how smart I was, just because it wasn't, I don't know. It was just a different culture. It was not that kind of a push-push-push culture.
And what colleges did you apply to? Where were you encouraged that you would be competitive?
Oh, you'll never guess. University of Wisconsin. I only applied to one school.
Oh, that's it?
Of course. Of course.
Yeah. And I mean when we were little kids, my father would sing, “Do you want to be a Badger?” to us when we were going to sleep at night. That was our good night song, “If you want to be a Badger / then come along with me / by the light shining bright / by the light of the moon.” That was our goodnight song, and we went through the university all the time on the way to visit our grandparents. So, we really knew the campus very well, so it was extremely familiar, and very exciting to go to school there.
Were you thinking physics from the beginning, or you focused on that later on?
Later on. In the beginning I took philosophy and Greek mythology and theatre, acting, history. Lots and lots of cultural things. Which were hugely important to me. And--
And they had served you well later on.
Absolutely. And in the end, I ended up going into—after having a science career and getting tenure—I ended up going into management, and those things were enormously helpful.
Sure. Sometimes people are harder to manage than particles, right? [laugh]
Oh, they are infinitely harder. But then I went to school in the midst of riots and protests and stuff like that, and my second year at school, I actually went part time. I worked at a TV station, and I lived out on my older brother's farm. And so, I was commuting in a triangle every day. And that year, there were three strikes that closed down the university. Just simply closed it down. There was a strike against the war in Vietnam, there was a Black student strike, and there was a teaching assistant strike. And every one of them closed down the university.
So that next year, there was a great tradition of traveling in my family, and the next year, I got a one-way ticket with two friends, and took off for Europe, and hitchhiked across the continent to Greece, spent a couple months in Greece, went up to visit a friend from the university who was in Prague, then went down to Israel. I spent a year and a half on the road. Ended up going east through Turkey, through Iran right after the 1,000-year anniversary of the Shah of Iran's legacy. And went through Afghanistan, went to the Bamiyan Valley, saw the Buddhas thirty years before they were destroyed by the Taliban. Went into Pakistan, the war broke out, they were bombing the city that I was in. I was in Lahore, and they were-- I remember being in the zoo when they came over and started bombing, and the giraffes were running and the lions were roaring. And we finally went down to, oh, what is the port town? Starts with a K. Where the Wall Street Journal journalist was beheaded.
Oh, Karat-- Karachi?
Karachi. Karachi, sorry. And we got a flight out of there, went to India. And then I went to India, and the boyfriend I was traveling with died of hepatitis. We were all real sick at that point. And I came back. And somewhere through that all, I decided what I wanted to do was astronomy. So, I came back to University of Wisconsin and I enrolled in math, physics, and astronomy, and from my first time, I had covered all my requirements of English and a foreign language and all this stuff you had to do, and so the rest of the time I just did absolutely nothing but math, physics, and astronomy from then on.
What was it that clicked when you were abroad about astronomy that didn't happen for you while you were in Madison?
I think I simply had a chance for all the things to leave my head, and I think it came on me while sleeping on a beach in Greece. We were camping out, we were on a little island, it was just gorgeous. And what's funny is I have a very good friend who's Greek. A Greek astronomer. And that's how she became interested in astronomy also, was sleeping on a beach in Greece. So, there's something about the native elements of the world that draw you to them, you know?
You're not talking about Chryssa Kouveliotou, are you?
Of course I am! Of course, she lives five minutes away from my house. So, you know Chryssa?
I interviewed her earlier this year. It was wonderful.
Oh, she's an amazing woman, yep.
Absolutely. So when you came back, what was the plan? Did you need to retake classes, or you weren't far enough along, where you were able to just declare the major from there and stay on track?
I declared the major from there and stayed on track. And got a degree with honors in physics and astronomy. You could not major as an undergraduate in astronomy at UW, it had to be physics with astronomy as a minor. Which was good, I think that was a really good background. And then my last year at the university, I met a man who was, he was in street theatre. He was a Dane, and we fell in love and got married and then I moved to Denmark from there. And I studied Danish for a year, and then I started up at the university, and I got a dispensation for the classes that I hadn't taken in Denmark but that I had already taken in the US. They sent me my transcript and I started up and studied for three years in Denmark in Danish, studied at the H.C. Oersted -- No, not Hans Christian Anderson. The Oersted Institute and at the Observatory, and then at the Niels Bohr Institute. I had nuclear physics with Niels Bohr as a teacher. [laugh]
Yeah. And one of the main lecture rooms was that famous room that has the photo of Einstein and Curie and the who's who of Niels Bohr. The who's who of the modern atom. That was the main lecture hall.
And what was it like to take a class from him?
Oh, he was a great teacher. He was very-- I mean, Danes are very, very down to earth. And he's just sit in the front of the class and we'd talk to him, and it was-- So it was also an important experience for me because Denmark is not a Victorian society, where there's a gap between men and women, and that gap in the US has gotten smaller, but it just wasn't there in Denmark, and it's not that-- women had women's careers and men had men's careers, but men and women were actually friends. They weren't like foreign allies, the way they were when I was young in this country.
And so, when I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, the guys just looked at me like I was a giraffe or some completely foreign object. I'd ask them-- I never had anybody to study with, I'd ask them questions and they wouldn't answer. They wouldn't talk to me. I remember wearing a skirt to class one day, it was an optics class, and it was one of those classes that had an auditorium seating. And I walked across the front of the room and sat down, and I had 40 pairs of eyes following me as I walked across the room. And after that, it was only blue jeans. Nothing but blue jeans after that. I wasn't going to do that again.
So, Denmark. I go to Denmark, and I immediately meet with two guys. There were not more female students, but the male students didn't treat you like an anomaly. And so, one of them was actually a grade school friend of my sister-in-law, and he's now an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute. Uffe Graa Joergensen, his name is. Very, very well-known astronomer. And so the three of us studied together once a week, and when it was time-- the system at that time in Denmark was the European system where you'd have one exam at the end of a year, not at the end of a semester, and it would be an oral exam. And you'd walk in a room and they'd have these little slips of paper and you'd pick one up and turn it over. And then off to the races. And so it was a very different system. But I had a group to study for exams with.
We would study together, and enormous camaraderie, and it didn't matter that I was a woman. Plus, the weird thing about me was not that I was a woman, it was that I was an American. And so, the weirdness of being a woman was upstaged because they didn't have any American students, for heaven sakes. So that was overall a really positive experience. And then I didn't end up finishing there. My then-husband got a job on Broadway. He was in theatre. And I stayed, because he got it after our third year, and I was just really getting into the school there. I stayed one more year. And then I moved to New York City. But then we'd been apart too long, and it didn't last. But then I matriculated at New York University and studied there with just a great, great group. Lived in the Village.
Were you far enough along in your dissertation research that you were able to bring that back to New York? Or you started from scratch, essentially?
No, I had to start by passing my qualifying exams. And there was no such thing-- Now, at that point, everybody has-- At this point today, everybody has lined up with a PhD, but at that point the degree you got in Denmark was like a glorified master’s. And you only got a doctorate when you were like 40 years old. It was a different system. So there was-- even if I had done a dissertation, it wouldn't have kind of resonated with the American system. And there were absolutely no jobs in Denmark. In fact, my friend Ufa was the only astronomer hired in a ten-year period in Denmark. Within the country. So once my marriage broke up, there was just-- If I wanted to be an astronomer, I had to come to America. If they had another position open up in the second decade, it was going to go to a Dane. Not to an American. So yeah, I came back.
I know NYU's program in physics has had ups and downs over the years. Where was it when you were there? Was it a pretty strong program, in your recollection?
Well, it's much stronger now than it was then. But as an astronomer, I was really in a unique position because there were three people there, Engelbert Schücking, who was a relativist, Al Glassgold, who was an interstellar medium guy, and then Patrick Huggins, who did radio astronomy. And they were just a wonderful combination of culture and science. And so I hung with them. I took all my classes with everybody else, but-- And being New York City, all of the scientists came through New York, and these guys would nab them and get them to give talks. Joel Bregman was there. He's now at University of Michigan. He was very well-connected. And he set up a joint astrophysics symposium with Columbia. And so every week we'd travel back and forth between the two, between Columbia and New York University.
So, for me personally, it was just a great atmosphere in terms of my getting lots and lots of mentoring and it was very positive for me, I think. Even though I don't think the university at that time was anywhere near where it is now. It still was just a terrific atmosphere. So when they'd have somebody through, I would always go to dinner with them. So, I really got to know a cross-section of the astronomical community, even though NYU is such a tiny astronomy presence. So, it's a funny thing, you know? Things are not always what they appear.
And how did you go about developing your dissertation topic?
Well, at that time, the big thing that was going to come on the horizon was Hubble Space Telescope. And so, my advisors were keenly interested in trying out this whole system with proposals and science from an observatory in space, and all that. And so, we were doing a lot of proposals to International Ultraviolet Explorer. Sort of as a way to climb the staircase and get used to that system. And so I was involved in some proposals to look at quasi-stellar objects. Which was not really the area of my advisors, but it was the area of Joel Bregman. And a lot of discussion from Columbia, New York University talks. And so we submitted some proposals and started getting data from IUE, and that became my dissertation topic, which was, you know, it was fun. So, interestingly enough, my first trips to Goddard Space Flight Center were as a graduate student in the same building that Meg Urry studied in and her husband, Andy Szymkowiac, building 21-- No, yes. Building 21 was where IUE was. And I first got to know her in an IUE meeting with... It was one of those situations where you're in a room full of people, just imagine, Raiders of the Lost Arc storage facility type room in there. On the other side, you see one woman, far away. It was the first time I saw Meg.
What were your opportunities following the defense of your dissertation? What did you want to do next?
Get a job.
[laugh] Were you thinking postdocs or were you looking at faculty positions?
Postdoc. I knew full well that I needed to develop my research abilities. And grad students were not as sophisticated then as they are now. I mean, they didn't write their own proposals. Never PI'd their own proposals. They certainly didn't have classes in proposal writing like they do now. So, I was very unexperienced. I applied for postdocs, and I got an offer from Northwestern University and went there, but I didn't like it and I immediately applied for jobs. And one of the jobs I applied for was at Space Telescope Science Institute.
Now, the reason I didn't like it at Northwestern was it was going back to kind of University of Wisconsin where you're totally the odd man out. You know, you're the woman postdoc. And all the guys are professors. And all the professors are guys. And all the fellow-- the students you meet and everybody you meet is a guy, a guy, a guy. Now, I really like men, but it's not-- that's not a healthy situation. It's really difficult, it's really stressful. You get a lot of attention but nine times out of ten, it's the wrong type of attention. So tough and lonely. Really hard. And I'm not saying postdocs aren't lonely for everybody. Heck, you move all over the country, all over the world, and you're often alone. But anyway, I tried to get out of there and within eight months, I went to Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
And at this point, Anne, as you're developing a professional identity, what are the areas where you feel are, you're developing your most promising area of expertise?
Well, that's a good question. So I go to Space Telescope Science Institute and it's like 1984. And God knows, the telescope isn't going to launch until 1990, which seems like an infinite-- of course, we didn't know it then. We were in the part of the curve where every year, the launch date stays the same. Every year, you're three years from launch. So honestly, all, again, like New York University, all the astronomy in the world was coming through Space Telescope Science Institute at that time, and so I just went to every single talk, every bag lunch talk, every symposium, and I learned astronomy.
I mean, I'd always been in physics departments, and I had done some observing as a grad student of carbon stars with my advisor, which was really cool. It was at Kitt Peak on the radio telescope. But I didn't have that kind of real basic knowledge of astronomy, so the first thing I learned was just plain, all the fields of astronomy. Stellar evolution, cataclysmic variables from a great guy, Keith Noll, who's been at University of Edinburgh now for many, many years. Or sorry, Saint Andrews. Saint Andrews. So, number one, two, and three, I learned the field. Which was great. And then I was also the instrument scientist-- or not in the beginning. I worked on the faint object spectrograph, one of the original instruments, and did some instrument testing in Sunnyvale, which was just really fun, working right next to the clean room where the Hubble Space Telescope was five stories tall… Well, that's a slight exaggeration. But covered with shiny mylar. It was just gorgeous.
Anne, I'm curious if at some point, you realized that your career trajectory was not going to end up in a faculty, academic kind of position?
It became clear to me afterwards. [laugh] But absolutely not before. One of the things that I think influenced me was that both NYU and Northwestern University, the faculty had these terrible conflicts within the departments. Just terrible arguments. And they never forgave each other. It just--
You mean, the astronomy and physics divide? Or you mean just generally?
In NYU it was just generally, and at Northwestern, it was astronomy and physics. They had been separate departments. I don't know if you know the name Al Hynek?
He was there. He was a wonderful person. Really enjoyed him. People hated him because he was so successful. He'd earned so much money on those books. And I remember suggesting to one of the faculty that we should have a little internal symposium with Al Hynek, and they were just shocked that I'd even suggest it. And I was like, “Let's hear about it!” No, no, no. So, I found faculty very closed-minded. And then of course, Al Hynek went to Arizona to start his UFO Institute, and he had a massive heart attack and died, which I always thought was tragic. He was a great guy. Really interesting. And oddly enough, he was-- I don't know if you know the name Ed Weiler?
Well, Ed Weiler later recruited me to headquarters, and Ed was one of the big proponents of the search for life. And it turns out that the dominant person in his academic career was Al Hynek. He was a grad student at Northwestern University and that was, it was Al Hynek who got him interested in astronomy. I found that out years after I first met Ed Weiler. Thought that was super interesting.
And at Space Telescope, what were some of your early and major projects there?
Let's see... I continued a lot of work on International Ultraviolet Explorer, and I did a project that I just loved, which was to combine-- And this was a long time ago, so you have to understand this actually meant something then. It'd be more trivial now, but I had a huge library of all the ultraviolet data for quasars and blazars. And then I went to the telescopes and got optical data and near-infrared data and combined them all for a spectral energy distribution for quasars and blazars. And then I went and expanded it.
And of course, they're basically flat. They're unusual in the objects in the universe in that they are very bright in the radio and very bright in the ultraviolet going on into the X-ray. But then I expanded it into all different galaxy types, SA, SB, SC, elliptical, all of the Hubble plot of different types of galaxies and produced a spectral atlas. And that became-- Now, that was a multi-year project. That took quite a while. But that became extremely useful in the era of the deep fields with Hubble Space Telescope, because they used spectral characteristics to try to do a rough red-shift estimate to get a rough distance in the beginning. So that's a highly quoted paper. So that was a big project that took a couple years, and I had some postdocs, and it was really, really fun.
How was the work environment at Space Telescope?
It was very aggressive. So I came out of there like, “You wanna fight?” [laugh] “You wanna fight? I'm gonna fight. You want to fight more? I'll fight more.” It was pretty tough. I mean, people were--
And why? Who were the customers, or what was the competition that would encourage such an environment?
So, Riccardo Giacconi really set up an environment of competition. His view of the way the institute should be set up is like city states in Italy, where they're all fighting each other and therefore, the-- In fact, there was a lot of commentary later about “survival of the fittest,” how it was an atmosphere of survival of the fittest and people were really aggressive. You'd get young scientists in to give a talk, and some of the senior guys would stand up and yell at him. I saw a talk once with a postdoc speaking in the auditorium, or in the conference room, and [laugh] a senior astronomer from Caltech who is now gone, Walt Sargent, stood up and took the pointer away from him and took over the talk! “Oh this isn't right, (grumbling),” you know? I mean it was not a fun environment. It was an environment where you always had your armor on, and if you didn't have armor, boy, you'd better get it to protect yourself. So, it's combative, I'd say, pretty combative.
Sometimes competition can be healthy, but in this case, it doesn't sound like that's the case.
I certainly didn't... it wasn't an atmosphere that I-- Well, early on, it was just so exciting with all the science and everything, but as I became tenured and-- the competition just never stopped. It just never stopped, and yeah, it was kind of tiresome after a while.
How long did you stay at Space Telescope?
Too long. I stayed there 14 years. I got tenure there, and you really worked hard to get tenure there, especially because launch was delayed for so long, so there were a lot of people above me who waited and waited to even be put up for tenure. And so they had to all go through the system first. And then I went through and got tenure. But then you sort of expect to just stay someplace once you've got tenure, but eventually I was recruited away, and so I left. I left the nest.
Now, over the course of those 14 years, did you rise in the bureaucracy to the extent that at some point, you were no longer doing science on a day to day, and you were managing other scientists?
To a small degree. Not to a great degree. When I got tenure, I moved to the education group, and there I ran a small group of educators and scientists. But it was not a major management thing. Some people reported to me, and I had to do performance plans and performance discussions at the end of the year, and rate them, and stuff like that, but it was not management of a science program, really. I mean, we did some cool educational things, but yeah, not to a great degree. I did-- The thing that I got involved in, totally accidentally, that became my jumping stone for the next part of my career was—and it would have never happened if Hubble hadn't been aberrated. So, Hubble was aberrated, and nobody wanted to-- Nobody was interested in doing the first annual publication about results from Hubble. I mean, if it had been a success, man, these guys, if there was a camera around, they were like right in front of it and they just...
Anyway. I did it together with Steve Maran and gathered all the-- we had a symposium and gathered the first-year results, and like I say, if it had been an outrageous success, it would have never been me. And then Marron later was real involved with the space science updates.
Once the aberration was corrected, and results started coming out, and he started inviting me as being a talking head on these televised space conferences-- news conferences, that were at NASA headquarters. And so, I would come on as an unaffiliated expert, and it was just tons of fun, because I had permission to just track down whatever the result was... Usually they were not extra-galactic or quasars and blazars, which was my field. They were absolutely across the whole gamut of astronomy. And so, I'd go off and research them and learn all about them, and then I'd have my comments. And I was on those for a number of years.
By the time it was done, I think I'd done 40 of them or something. And these were hour-long televised news conferences. They weren't trivial. They were very dense. In fact, Lynn Kaminski, if you know that name, she used them for some of her classes later, to teach some of the classes. Because they took an idea and really tried to present it so that it could be understood by people at all different levels. And after I did that for some years, then-- And then later, Ed Weiler came on them. He headed up the astrophysics division at that time. And then he was promoted to be associate administrator for science mission director, or office of space sciences it was called then. And then he recruited me to replace him as astrophysics division director. So that was-- So I applied for that job. It was the first time I ever had a government job. It was a senior executive service job. So lots of hoops you have to jump through, but I was selected for it and went down to headquarters. 1999.
What did you see as some of the major opportunities for you personally and professionally in making this move?
That's much more thoughtful than I've ever been about my career. So I think one thing is very--
Did you see-- Let me rephrase. Did you see it as, you were going on the inside? Did you feel that Space Telescope, to some degree, you were on the outside, and this was working from the inside?
Oh, I absolutely felt on the outside at Space Telescope, but I didn't particularly think of it that way. I didn't, I saw it as just a great opportunity for something new to do, and I jumped at it. But I would say one, this is an observation. It's a generalization. I think it's pretty true. At least it's true of my generation, that I didn't go around seeking jobs. Practically every job I've had, people came after me. And I think that's a real difference. And Meg and I at Space Telescope, we had a private cabal where when they would have hiring opportunities, she and I would sit down in a room with a closed door and make a list of every excellent woman candidate—of course, the women always knew all the women because there were so few of them—every woman who would be a really good candidate, and then we'd make a list of all the reasons it was great to come to Space Telescope. We didn't tell them all the reasons it wasn't.
And we'd divide up the list and we'd call them. One, two, three. I'd have ten women, and she'd have ten women. And we'd talk them into applying. And my-- from that, at that time, my observation was that women were not out there applying for things. They would apply when they were sought. And maybe that's because they never expected to-- that anybody would want them. Because for heaven sakes, at that time, the field was not exactly welcoming. There were a lot of people who said, “you don't belong here.” And so, I did not seek employment elsewhere, even though I was not-- in the last couple years, I wasn't happy there. And I think Meg would probably have said the same thing.
What were some of your immediate projects and challenges when you came to headquarters?
Well, so it was an incredibly rigorous folk dance at headquarters, with a drum beat of reporting, you had a monthly, you had rat-a-tat-tat, you had all these missions. I mean, heavens, at that time, of the great observatories, there were four great observatories. Hubble had been up for a decade. Chandra launched in 1999. Spitzers was being built and was approaching launch. Fermi was in construction and launched in 2008. And so you had a budget, you had a very complex complement of missions, all of which ran over budget, and you had to prioritize them. And so just getting a grasp on that flow, I would say, was the biggest challenges. And then also the people I had working for me were all very accomplished scientists.
And so, managing-- Now, in the beginning, I was not the head of the group. In the beginning we were a matrixed organization, and I was the Origins, the head of Origins. But within a very short period of time, Ed reorganized so that astrophysics was one division, with all the people working in the division both on research and on missions. And under me, I had program execs who were the managers and program scientists, who were the science part of it. So, it was a different make up than Space Telescope, or than any university and the engineers and scientists worked together much more closely, because you had to do project management. And so it was a flow. It's not unlike the learning curve I'm doing right now, in my new job now, because I'm now at, the deputy center director is sort of at the NASA level and I'm looking at every single thing that Goddard does, and that's all four science divisions, and all the missions.
Actually, it's more than the four science divisions, it's also a lot of things related to capabilities in space. Just actually being able to do remote refurbishing of telescopes and things like that. So it's a very broad portfolio, and I'm learning exactly the same thing, what are the dance steps? I often say, when I goof something up, I say, “Oh, I haven't learned that dance step yet.” It's like the big challenge, if you'd asked about Denmark, the big challenge of studying there was everybody knew it so well. They knew the system so well, that they couldn't explain it. And it's the same at headquarters, it's the same at this level in Goddard. I don't even bother to try and ask people how it runs, because they can't explain it to you. They know how it works, and they know it so deeply and intrinsically that they have no words for it. So you just have to fasten your seatbelt and hold on.
And Anne, a broad question. When you got to headquarters, and you got the lay of the land, what did you detect were some of the broad mandates from a science perspective, from a political perspective, from a budgetary perspective. What did you feel in that regard were the most important things for you to keep an eye on?
Get the thing launched. Successfully. That's the ten most important things. And then it's just a question of, what is the launch order? I would—when we had our advisory committee meetings—I would just put up one chart, and that was the list of launch dates. And so that said, it was super important to keep your launched facilities producing science. So even though that's a kind of a flip remark, the one underlying principle that was really clear, is the science is what drives it. And so you pay attention to-- you never take a dollar away from something that is up and operating. You throw money at it so that it can continue to produce as much science as possible. So it's not that it wasn't hard. It's just that I never had any trouble prioritizing. You've got to get your next thing launched, and brother, is that a good description of the situation we're in now with COVID.
And that launch.
Where is the pressure coming from to launch? Where are you feeling the heat, so to speak?
From myself and, you know, what is the purpose of NASA? It's, to my mind, it is to obtain new knowledge. And I think Hubble is doing incredibly well after 30 years of operation, but it's at the stage where the sculpture's getting highly honed, and you want a new piece of clay, so you better get JWST launched. Where does the pressure come? It comes from the NASA mandate. It comes from the Hill. Anybody who's going to support the budget of NASA. You can succeed or you can fail. And it's a discretionary budget, so you better damn well succeed. It's the culture, it's... Where does it-- It comes from everywhere. It's got to work, it's got to launch.
What about from the public? In your position, were you in a position where you felt sort of broader public interests about NASA's overall mission?
I felt an enormous amount of public interest about NASA's mission, about the science that came out of the mission, and I think that's where I very quickly formed the picture that NASA's ultimate mandate is science. And never take your eye off of that as a motivation. So NASA works really closely with the National Academy of Science to hone that argument all the time, and of course astrophysics was the first one to do a decadal survey to look at what should we do in the next decade. And that was really successful. Thank you John Bacall, who wore out his shoes walking it around the Hill. And then of course, pretty soon everybody started doing it.
But I will say, at NASA, that science really did it first and did it really thoroughly, but there are reasons for that. Science isn't more like-- the population of astronomers, under 7,000, maybe 6,000, maybe 5,000 really active people in the United States. So, you can actually have something that resembles a conversation with a group like that, if you try to demand of the same kind of process of something like human exploration, it's a very, very wide set of stakeholders. It's not like astronomy, earth science, planetary science, heliophysics. It's much more. I mean those four cultures are very different, but meanwhile human exploration is much, much broader, and it's hard for them.
I think it's one of the challenges. It's hard for them to sit down in any kind of forum like that provided by National Academy of Science, and say, here we're going to list out, one, two, three of our large category, of our medium category, of our small category. Because it depends-- where you stand depends on where you sit. And they're not a bunch of scientists sitting at universities trying to push the envelope on understanding everything about all of the details about how galaxies first formed in the universe, back when there were no metals to help them form quickly or whatever.
And on that note, Anne, when you talk about the launches as, you know, there's a mandate to further scientific knowledge. What were some of the big questions in astronomy and astrophysics at that point? Where you saw these launches, and you can talk about them either collectively or one by one. What were some of the big research questions for which there was broad hope or anticipation that they would really move the ball forward on these questions?
So let me go back first to Hubble, because I think that's the best possible example. It was called Hubble Space Telescope because it was supposed to do the Hubble constant.
People forget that, that's a great point. That's right.
But what the real breakthrough that they made was they found the section of the sky that had the least of anything in it and they pointed at it for 400 orbits. And then they discovered the deep sky. So, you use a motivation for the next telescope and the motivation for James Webb Space Telescope was largely based on, what is-- back then, it was called the dark ages. That period when the universe first came through and started to shine. And what were the first things that broke through? I think we're going to have that mostly answered, largely answered, by the time it launches, and so anytime you push the envelope, the big thing is to have a new parameter space and you motivate it on a bunch of basic questions, but then the questions you answer-- with any luck, your homework has been completed before it's due, if you know what I mean.
The goals have been really attacked and perhaps honed, so that those original questions will get answered quickly. And I think that's the case, because these big telescopes take a long time to do. They're not, I used to call Hubble the "state of the art 70s telescope."
[laugh] And remarkably state of the art ‘70s is still producing amazing things.
Yeah, yeah. Isn't that something? Isn't that amazing?
So, what might be an example of those launches that you're referring to, where the original questions sort of changed as a result of what was coming back?
So, Hubble is certainly the best example, because it's been up there the longest.
And it's the one that I've been closest to.
Is there a truism, that after a while that question will answer itself? Because you don't know what it is that you're looking for?
Yeah, I mean yes. Yes. Absolutely. And the truth is that scientists are endlessly clever in devising methods to hone the techniques before you get there. I'll give you another example. At the National Science Foundation, the largest project that's going to come online in astronomy next is the large synoptic survey telescope. And the Vera Rubin Telescope.
She was my around the corner neighbor in Washington, D.C.
Oh really? That's great.
Yeah, so I knew her pretty well. Lovely, lovely woman.
Anyway, so it's a synoptic survey telescope, right? It's going to observe the whole sky over and over and over again, and anything that moves or changes in brightness, you're going to capture and you're going to have all these data systems that spit out all these targets. So meanwhile, a clever guy at Caltech, Shri Kulkarni, invents this wiki transient factory and he's using the Mount Wilson telescopes to do the same thing. And he's producing targets like this. So good on him. Good on him.
He'll have gone a nice, long way in kind of developing the-- on honing the science case for LSST by the time LSST gets there. I think LSST will have a ton of things to observe. It's totally dedicated to this. It's much, much larger. The whole architecture of it is oriented to be able to observe in this manner. And so, it will not be wasted, but the scientists never stop honing their technique, and they just use every trick in the book. Why stick to rules when you can do better than that? So, I think it's just the general case. These things take a long time to build, and the scientists eke away at the science, and so that's good news, because it means, like I said, you've finished your homework before it's due. You get to go onto whatever state the field is in at that moment.
How long did you stay in that initial role at headquarters?
Six years. And then things were overcome by... There was a change of regime, and that always takes out the top people, but it went down a little lower this time, and it took me out too.
You mean at the Presidential level or NASA administrator?
NASA administrator. But that's, change was presidential change, so yeah, the tail of that change took me out. I was a really good defender, by that time, of the astrophysics budget, and within a year, that budget had gone down by $300 million.
And when you say that you were taken out, what does that mean exactly? You were not a political appointee, obviously.
No, but I'm an SES, and I can be sent anywhere that they want me to. So they sent me to Goddard with zero notice. And that was pretty tough, because it was humiliating, honestly. But hey, I made the best out of it, and my time, those ten years at Goddard were just... One of the really rewarding things was that I could dig down and get things done. When you're at a headquarters level, everything you do is with a 2x4. You don't have... Oh, it's hard to describe. You don't have time—the fire hose is blasting so fast all the time that you can only go for the biggest topics.
I remember my deputy and I, I had a wonderful deputy, Rick Howard, who's still real active. He's retired but real active. And he and I perfected a method where we talked and listened full time at the same time. [laugh] So our goal was always to have full knowledge of what we were both doing, so if either of us made a decision, it would be naturally the same decision. And we would literally talk and listen at the same time. And it was a pretty adrenaline-driven time, but it was a hoot. It was really fun. And we did well, by the way. Got Swift launched, Spitzer launched and operating, and then got Fermi far enough along that it launched not that far after I left. Chandra was in full operations. So the four observatories all got up there and they've all been just real successes.
How much work did you have to do with Goddard before your switch over there?
Well, they did Hubble, so I brought a lot of my frustrations with Goddard to my job in Goddard, and I changed the things my group did. So within about two years, I was in the planetary division of Goddard. And within about three years, I was the Division Director of Planetary. And one of the ironies is that Goddard is farther away from NASA headquarters than JPL is, if you will. JPL goes there all the time and talks to people all the time. And Goddard doesn't. And it's a terrible mistake. And so I started changing that. I put it in people's performance plans.
So just to cut back to the question you asked, one of my big frustrations was, for example on Hubble, getting the real information from Goddard. I'd ask them a question, you know, me, division director, I'd ask the lead of Hubble a question, and they'd do a set of charts and they'd review it at their level, the next level, at the next level, and then the center director would review it, and then they'd rewrite it. And then by the time it got to me, it had all actual information removed.
So, what I did is start whenever I could, I hired people from Goddard who'd play baseball with the people at Goddard even though they came to headquarters. And so they always knew what was going on. They didn't have to have it through a chart package. The official communication-- And this was bad on headquarters also. Because any information we get from you can and will be used against you. That's not a good culture. And that was the kind of headquarters/Goddard standoff. And that has really changed now, so I'm very happy about that. So, we had a lot to do with Goddard. The-- let's see, I left in ‘06. ‘03 to ‘04 was the change from full cost accounting, which actually effectively removed a lot of money from science, and that was a real struggle, and then when I went to Goddard, I had to deal with it on my end. Am I actually answering your question?
You are doing great. Keep going.
Oh. Oh, okay. So I was recruited to work for a guy I truly respect at Goddard. He was the planetary division director, Rich Vondrak, and in these rough, stressful situations, a lot of people behave badly. I met Rich Vondrak at headquarters and he was a gentleman all the way through. So, he came and asked me to be his deputy and in the hierarchy of government, that was like two steps down from the job I had done, and I said, “Rich, I'm going to pretend to think about it, and I'm going to call you tomorrow and say yes.” Give me a job where I can learn from somebody, and this guy was just brilliant in every way.
So, I went and worked as his deputy and the first thing I did was, there were these terrible disagreements between the planetary budgetary people at Goddard and the headquarters budgetary people. Well, I knew the budget people at HQ, so I took our budget gal, and I said, “Let's go down to headquarters.” And we had a meeting. My budget gal, real talented woman, Cheryl Barrington, made a list of questions, and we went through them all, and every single question was, they had a different timescale than we did. This is the folk dance, right? They're on-- They're doing a waltz and we're doing a square dance or something. Our timescales are different, our language is different, so when one person asks for something, the other person thinks they want something else. And we straightened out vocabulary and we straightened out timescale.
And the second meeting, our to-do list was like a quarter as big. Our third meeting, we just had a nice time, and our fourth meeting, we invited them for a tour at Goddard, and they were just thrilled, because they got to see all the stuff we were building. They just loved it. And so, we completely became best friends with the budget people, which was totally helpful to us. Instead of throwing projectiles over the fence, we went and had a parlay with the enemy and became friends instead.
And so similarly, with all of the scientists, I put it in their performance plan that they needed to talk face-to-face with their program scientists downtown once a year minimum, if not two or three times, and encouraged them to go downtown. They always had at headquarters, they always had science talks. Encouraged them to go and give science talks and just in every way tried to get the folks at headquarters to understand the science capability of the people at Goddard. And so, we just did a whole bunch of things to improve our communications, and then we attacked improving our proposals. So, when I had been at headquarters, there had been... I need to tell this story in a way that doesn't annoy my Goddard affiliation.
It's kind of an interesting story. It was a competition for a mid-infrared instrument on James Webb Space Telescope, and this is the instrument that Ed Weiler was always threatening to cancel. And was always ridiculing the scientists over it. And this was the one that made me lose my temper. I have a terrible temper, but I only lose it at this stage in my life like once a decade. I lost my temper with Ed Weiler. Yelled at him for 15 minutes straight out, in his office with the door closed. And then he ended the meeting. He said at one point, “Oh, I don't think we're getting anywhere with this.” So, I walked down to my office, I sat there for a minute, and I thought, “Well, that was a really dumb thing to do.” And then I walked back and at that point he'd had his cigarette break, and I apologized to him. And what was really bothersome is that it didn't bother him a bit. He was just fine with somebody losing their temper. But he had a lot of respect for me after that.
Anyway, we got the MIRI instrument and then we did a competition between the centers for it. And Goddard-- and people were supposed to send in a written one, and then we were going to have a live presentation. And it was JPL, Ames, and Goddard. And Goddard just did a-- they did such a bad written one, and I think they did it so badly because they didn't realize they really actually had to compete. And then they came down for the presentation, and the presentation was September 11th, 1901, and--
2001. 2001. And we're sitting there, and somebody gets up and leaves the room, and they come back and they say an airplane has flown into the World Trade Center. And so, this is just how-- So this is a story about how absolutely dog-headed, goat-headed, pig-headed people at headquarters are. I said, “Well, we're all here, let's finish the competition.” [laugh] And we stayed there all day as the two towers came down, and then by the time we came out, the town was empty. Now I'm just telling stories. The town was empty, the whole government had been closed down. The huge traffic jam was gone, and the streets were empty. And the JPL guys went and rented a car and drove back, and the Goddard guys drove home, but they didn't get it. Because they had completely-- So you asked about Goddard relations. That was a really tough one for people. That was an important instrument, and they didn't get it. So, when I went to Goddard, I stayed away from astrophysics, and I was really happy to go into planetary. And I really learned a lot from it.
What were some, culturally, what were some of the differences in sort of shifting fields to planetary?
A lot more women in planetary. A lot smaller field. Completely different culture.
Would you dare surmise why there's more women in planetary? What might suggest why that would be the case?
It's a much newer field. But honestly, when Space Telescope hired up, the percentage of women in the field was much better than what they hired. They were just operating under an old-world system. Planetary, the real breakthroughs in planetary were a NASA thing. And it's just a, I think... Okay, now I'm going to-- I think universities are more backward than a place like NASA.
I really do. I'll give you another example right off the bat. You look at the leadership of Goddard Space Telescope, and 19% of our upper management are African American. Extremely talented African American. That percentage in the country is 17%. And we have attracted, kept, mentored, and promoted excellent talent who are African American.
That's an extr-- Just to interject there, that's an extraordinarily important point, as we're, you know, within a month from #ShutDownSTEM. And this broad issue about, how do we address inclusivity and under-representation? And you're asserting that NASA and Goddard, they're sort of leaders in this regard.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So it's a topic that really interests me, and it's a topic that I see universities as being... They're so busy talking about the meaning of "the" and they're so frontal-lobe intelligent, that they sort of can't make progress on things like this. They think they're entirely merit-based, and they don't recognize the degree to which their system is an aristocracy, a bona fide old-fashioned aristocracy. And it's one of the things that made me want to return to Goddard especially. Goddard is a really special place. And so I've started an activity at Goddard to try to-- I will not do this activity, I will not own this activity. Because of my position as deputy director, I can call people and answer the phone. And so I'm gathering a group of really talented people and we'll figure out who leads it. It won't be me, but it's an effort to increase STEM participation from African Americans, and I think Goddard is uniquely well-suited to do it.
We live in Prince George's County, predominately African American suburban area with very strong, talented middle class, and we had our first meeting, and my God, the people who came to it were just, they had so many ideas and such dedication to it. We're going to start. We're going to look for something very robust but limited to start with that we can build on. And honestly, part of this comes from a discussion that I had while I was at National Science Foundation. It was a discussion led by two Stanford professors, Artie Bienenstock, who you have probably heard of.
I interviewed him.
Oh, I bet that was a great interview.
Oh, was it ever. He's such an amazing person.
He's a wonderful person. And then Peter Michaels from Stanford. And they were immediately taking up the topic that we don't have enough people in STEM in the United States of America. What we've been doing for years is recruiting international. What we haven't been doing for years is looking at the 20% of the members of the country who are not engaged in STEM, and we really have to now pay attention to that and get that involvement in STEM. And it's-- the thing about STEM is it's a door-opener for an enormous range of activities that call on an enormous range of talents and affinities from the people who enter it. So you enter mathematics and physics and engineering, and all these other doors open for you. So, it's not about being an astronomer. It's not about being one particular thing. It's about opening the doors to motivation because these are hard things.
I remember when I changed over from sort of humanities to science, where I was surrounded by white boys, I remember thinking, “God, these white boys work hard!” I never did another thing in the evening. Every single evening, I was home on my little desk that was about the width of my laptop, working. Doing problem sets. And so, it's not that it's easy, it's that you want to open that motivation to show people how valuable it is to do something that engages your intellect and that has so many future opportunities for you.
So, we're kicking off this-- and I got the idea at NSF, also driven by my deputy who's African American, a materials scientists, incredibly talented guy, Sean Jones. That I got to hear his view on it, and it was very enlightening. So, I take back everything I said about universities, except I do think it's true. As a young woman, the universities were not particularly welcoming, and in comparison, at the time when for example, Meg was doing the Women in Astronomy conference, the first of them, the industry, aerospace industry, was much more proactive and diverse in engaging women than universities were. Universities were like, “Well, we want to hire them, but they have to be good.” And that's the comment I hear from African American colleagues all the time. That that's what people say as if the natural assumption is they're not good, right? And it's so patronizing and insulting.
Anne, just to stay on the chronology so we have the timing correct, what is your title, your initial title, when you move over to Goddard?
Oh, my first move to Goddard?
I lived in a closet, and I was assistant to Laurie Leshin, who headed up the science miss-- the Code 600, the Science Code. So I was an assistant. I called myself "Anne-maiden." It was a nothing job, in other words. And then...
Did you feel like you were sent to exile? Was that part of it?
Oh yeah. The AA wanted to send me to Glen Research. And she was talked out of it, because I'm not sure what I would have done at Glen. Cleveland, Ohio. And Goddard I knew pretty well, and Goddard has an awesome reputation—not that Glen doesn't, it's just that it's not as massive. So oh, yeah, yeah. I was kicked out. Don't let the door hit you on the way out sort of thing. NASA headquarters was pretty rough. Pretty rough and tumble. You had to have a thick skin. And I mean--
Which you got at Space Telescope, though.
I did, I did. But there's a point where you just get tired of it. You get tired of being around people who are basically abusive and it's just not...
And how long did you stay in that initial position at Goddard?
Not long. They quickly made me head when Jim Green became... Anyway, they asked me to head up the science proposal support office at Goddard. Which was an office that did read teaming and helped make sure that all the proposals submitted from Goddard were compliant. So, I did that, and then later that was really useful to me, because I knew all the things that they could offer, and I made them as mandatory as I could for planetary, and we really increased our win rate in planetary, so that was super. So I did-- that was my second position. I also chaired a source evaluation board for a $50 million building. So that was really interesting. All those early jobs allowed me to meet everybody across the center.
And then when I went into planetary, I worked... I didn't have as much interaction, but I already knew those people, so it was really good to have that. So my third position was deputy division director for planetary, and then my fourth position was division director for planetary. So that, all those transitions-- I don't remember exactly how long they took, maybe three years, something like that. And then I just worked with the most wonderful people in the planetary-- oh my God. And we hired 45 people. And the young cohort was very diverse. Really great group of people. And we ramped up the competition that Goddard did for planetary. Which was really nice.
And where did you move from there?
From there I moved to Keck Observatory, where I was the chief scientist. And I was there about two and a half years. And that was... So I would say my one big accomplishment-- That was wonderful in many ways. It's a great group.
And you were obviously on-site in Hawai'i?
Yeah. So I got to live in Hawai'i for a couple of years, which was amazing. And partake in the culture there, for better and worse. That's the place that objects to astronomy and calls it colonial, which is really, really tough. But the--
Sure. And as chief scientist, how much of it is actual science, and how much of it is administrative?
Well, so I considered myself the sort of representative for science on the observatory, and so I was real involved with the science meeting that was held once a year, and I arranged to hold a Keck session at the American Astronomical Society. And I interacted a lot with all of the different scientists in California who have to do-- So, met and interacted with just wonderful people. So, I did not do my own research, but I had stopped that when I went to NASA headquarters. There was just no way you could do your own research. So the science involvement was more like putting together science themes for meetings, and then eventually I was the one that wrote the proposal to renew the five-year grant with NASA. Because NASA has a sixth of the time on Keck. And so I wrote that proposal with a lot of inputs from different people in California, and won that proposal. So that was about a $25 million proposal. That was great. That was sort of the last thing I did. But it was--
But in terms of the science that was coming in from Keck, what were some of the exciting developments during your tenure as chief scientist?
Well, the cosmic imager came on board, the Chris Martin instrument was actually installed, and it's one of these two-dimensional, three-dimensional spectrographs, where you have a pixelated spectrograph where every pixel has a spectrum. And so, you can take a-- you can take an image. If you can imagine a long, rectangular tube, you can take an image in this plane, and in the long pixel direction, you can take a spectrum. And oh my God, the data that came out of that thing. It was put on the telescope and it'd just knock your socks off. In one observation period.
And in what ways? What were some ways that these observations were really moving the ball forward?
So that's a question that I would love to have a little time to refresh my brain on. Even right down to the name: Cosmic Ionization... Imager, I can't even--
But these are fundamental discoveries, though? This is big stuff that's happening.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And it was a spectacularly successful mission after all of the disasters that you go through on your way to getting something either to the telescope or to the launch pad. It had as colored a history getting to the telescope as NASA missions had. It was a huge instrument. The most expensive put on the Keck telescope. And Keck is... I don't know how it's doing today. It's in competition with the Array Alma, but it's a phenomenally successful telescope, and one of the reasons is that the instruments are all like work horse instruments. They're not like these super specialized instruments. You can use them for 20 years, and you're still doing groundbreaking science. So, if you don't mind, I will go back and refresh my brain. It's been through several major marathons since that time.
Now, did you want to stay on longer? Is your tenure there, two and a half years, is that relatively short, or that's about average for that position?
It's relatively short. I did find it-- I mean, I did find living in Hawai'i to be very difficult. And a part of it is, you know how when you go to take a trip, you drive to the airport as your first step? In Hawai'i, your first step is a five-and-a-half-hour plane ride to California. Anywhere you go. Or if you're going the other direction, it's a five-and-a-half-hour trip to Guam. That's just the nature of it.
And then the other thing was that it was like going back in time to when I first started in the field. And there's something about Hawai'i. So in the observatory, there were only two technical women at the entire observatory. And if you did one of these things, one of these mind things-- I used to do this at Hubble. Just imagine you take every person from the director down to the janitor, and these institutions do have a rank order, and you'd be able to do that for every single person up and down. Where do the women live in that order? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve... 350 people, by the time I left, it's now at 750. And when I was there, the women were mostly in the lower half because they were all support. Most of them secretarial at Space Telescope Science Institute.
And then I move around different places, and all of a sudden, there's actual women, there's African Americans, Latinos, it's more mixed. There's Asians and all that. I go to Hawai'i, and there's two technical women of all of the technical staff. Now you're going to ask me how many people there were. There were 80, 90 people. It wasn't that big, but the technical people, it was back to a ratio of one out of 15 or something like that. Or one out of 20. Now, when I started the field, it was 5%, then it got up to 15% in astronomy and 7% in physics. Physics has always been half of astronomy. Initially, Hubble was in the 7% and it got up to 15%, but it was hard, and it's not just-- like the comparison with Denmark, where they were all men but they weren't from a Victorian society. You might find it funny that I refer to America as a Victorian society, but--
[laugh] You make a good point.
It's Victorian in its attitude towards sex. And by the way, Denmark is not.
It's not Victorian. And even though men did what men did, and women had careers that were definitely, had a stamp of female on them, still men and women had, excuse the phrase, intercourse. On a regular basis that was on a friendly basis that was absolutely not sexualized.
Right, right. Just colleagues working together?
Yeah, yeah. That could be friends and, like my two buddies I had lunch with once a week to study with and do problem sets with. They were guys, it was just great. I was really good friends with them. Hawai'i was back to, you're a man or you're a woman. And so it wasn't real easy. And so yeah, I was [laugh], somebody asked me to apply for one job, and when I called someone and asked for a recommendation, they suggested I apply for another job which was the National Science Foundation job, and that was the job that I took then.
Now, were you recruited for that? Were you looking for a new opportunity? How did that play out?
Well, so I knew that I was not going to be happy there, just in Hawai'i in general, and so--
It's hard to fathom that sentence, how “I wouldn't be happy in Hawai'i.” [laugh] But that just goes to show you how significant the issues are.
Yeah, and you really need an extended family in Hawai'i. So, the guy who took the position after me, the first time I privately discussed it with him, I encouraged him to apply because I thought he'd be great. He said, “Oh, I'm going to leave my family where they are, because all of the scientists are in the mainland of the United States.” And by the time it was over, he moved his whole family over. And you cannot survive there if you don't have an extended family on-island. It's just too hard to be that physically far away from your family. So anyway, I started applying for this one job and then as I said-- when I asked somebody I knew quite well if he'd be willing to serve as a recommendation for me, he said, “Well, we're looking for a person for NSF. Send me your resume.” So, I sent him a resume, and next time I was in DC I went and talked to them and they were real interested in me, and so I applied and went to National Science Foundation.
Anne, did you have any concern that moving over to NSF would be a move away from, how do I put this, from basic research? Even as high up as you were operating at NASA, and with all of your administrative opportunities, there's still that immediate mission of the science. Did you feel either beforehand or when you got there, that you would be somewhat removed from the immediacy of science? Or that was really not part of the equation?
I wasn't removed from the immediacy of science. It was five times as much science. It was--
Astronomy, physics, mathematics, materials research, and chemistry. That's-- So I was the assistant director for five fields. Astronomy was one of them, and it wasn't the biggest. The biggest was materials research. Astronomy was the one that had the most facilities, but this was-- I led up the group that funded physical science in United States. I mean, it was an amazing position, and--
So, I guess the basis of my question, in terms of immediacy, is you know, there's no more greater immediacy than when you're looking from a telescope, right? That's as immediate as it gets. And then there are gradations from there, right? There is now, you're managing the people. So, I guess my question is, obviously, in your role in this capacity at NSF, you're involved in such a fundamentally important way, but did you see it as a way that was also not actually doing the science itself, but supporting it? Or you did not think in those terms? I guess would be my question.
I didn't think in those terms, because at Keck I didn't do any observing at Keck.
I observed the observers.
Which was amazingly interesting and rewarding.
So you were getting closer to the science in some degrees, and more broadly-conceived when you went to NSF?
Yeah. And of course, the big challenge was that it was five fields, and what was the field I knew the least about? Well, that would be challenging to say. But one of the best things we did in the beginning—and I'm sorry we weren't able to continue it—is we would start our staff meeting with a science result from one of the five, and we'd vary between the five of them. And these were just a miracle machine. This is like the driving force behind US science. The tragedy is that you could take that budget for mathematical and physical sciences, you could double it tomorrow, and you wouldn't even hear a change. It would just be sucked up into the field immediately.
There's way-- What I'm saying is, there's way more scientific capacity in the country than there is support. And so, my feel was that NSF should have either double its budget, or it should double its budget within three years, and it should quadruple it within five if you want to keep the country where it needs to be with science. And I see that as of critical importance to the country. This is not optional. It has to happen.
What were some of the big cultural differences in, you know institutionally, when you moved over to NSF?
So compared to, actually both NASA and Keck, both of those places are, “Let's build it, let's get it either on the telescope or on the launch pad, and let's do it.” And meanwhile, “Before we even build it, let's conceive of it.” Which is a very creative pillow fight with-- that people in the country are used to engaging in and engage in it very actively. So that kind of action-oriented thing... So one of my central tenets from being at NASA headquarters to start with, is not much accepted many places. It is that in these government positions, you're actually doing something pretty simple. You're trying to figure out the best, smartest, most effective people to fund, and then you try to fund them. And I believe that you want simple systems. You don't want just a huge Rube Goldberg machine? Do you know those?
Rube Goldberg, the shoe falls down and it kicks the thing that falls into a pot of water and the water drips over and the [??]. You don't need super-complex rules. Keep it simple. Have very high-level goals, and don't micromanage it. The people at NSF are very, very dedicated. They are very smart. And they like complexity. And that was kind of a dissonance for me. Because I think you don't have to make it harder than it is. The people out there in the world, you don't-- I believe the creativity is in the field. I don't believe it should be in the people who manage the money. I don't think it's-- give them the reins and let them run with it. And now, NSF would say, “We do that.” That we are-- The phrase for years was, “We are curiosity-driven.” And that's not exactly what I mean. I mean, don't hamper the calls for proposal and saying, "This must be bigger than this but smaller than that and wider than this, but narrower than that." And make all these really complex rules. And so I didn't like complexity in National Science Foundation. I thought they made it harder than it needed to be.
And Anne, when did it start to dawn on you that there was this existential need to really ramp up the NSF budget? How did this thought process-- did this sort of happen over time, or did you just sort of get the lay of the land, and you said, “I see where we are, and I see where this needs to go?”
Immediately. It needs to be a much-- it needs to be doubled to four times the budget. And how you see that in detail is, so the people who worked for me at NSF ran panels. Competitive panels. These guys fund maybe one out of five proposals, or one out of four proposals. You ask them, “How many could you fund and be assured of excellent results?” Double the amount. No question. We turned down things that should have been accepted over and over and over again. And what that means is, for the-- And in addition, the amount of the grants has not increased for 10-15 years.
So in that amount of time, state funds have decreased the universities, federal funds have decreased the universities, salaries have increased. Tuition has increased. Student loans have increased. There's no place to go. And so, today's highly successful scientist out there in the world can maybe get half a post doc, a grad student, and two weeks of summer salary from one grant. And it used to be 15, 20 years ago, they could get a month of summer salary, two or three grad students, and a postdoc. Well, once you can only get half a postdoc, which half do you get? [laugh]
The top half or the bottom half? You have to submit two proposals and so you force everybody to be submitting more proposals, and then your acceptance rate goes down, and there's the wheel going in the wrong direction. It's a very, very difficult problem. But the scientists in the end are just writing too many proposals. Now, NASA has the same problem. No doubt about it. The NASA rate has also decreased. But science and funding in this country needs to be a bigger priority than it is, because it's the driver. The number of stories out of NSF that had to do with early investment from NSF turning, 30 years later, into LIGO. Cracking open the sky, winning a Nobel prize. Or the stories of activities that turn into the startup companies that are now doing Google. There's just an endless number of those stories. So it's a real driver, and we need to continue to fund it the way it needs to be funded. I don't-- And it's one of those government-only things. Who's going to support it, if you don't?
Anne, how well-positioned were you once it immediately dawned on you how the budgetary environment needed to be entirely revamped? When you moved over to NSF initially, were you well-positioned to sort of be an agent for change? Or that would take some time?
That wasn't even really my job.
I mean, that was the director-- So here's the way it works. The director of NSF and the head of NASA both work for the president. So I give the director of NSF an enormous amount of credit. At that time, it was France Córdova, for being completely apolitical and completely engaging the people in Office of Science and Technology for the president in what NSF was doing. Shake hands, talk to the people, be there for them, give them everything they need. I really give Doctor Córdova an enormous amount of credit for doing that. But so, it would be beneath my level. I mean, if she weren't in agreement, she could respectfully resign, and that would be her prerogative, and that's about it. So, you know, that's one of the difficult things of working for the government. You do work for the administration. You don't sit back and talk politics. And that said, I believe wholeheartedly that NSF needs twice the budget. See, I'm not talking about my agency, so I can talk about… [laugh]
Of course, of course. Anne, who were some of the most important individuals and/or institutions that were your partner during this period?
Do you mean across government or across...?
No, I mean in terms of the sciences that your mandate was to support. When you talk about supporting, you know, across the board in the physical sciences, who were either-- just to get a sense of the people you were working with on the outside, beyond government. Who were those kinds of people? At what level would you be-- I mean, I guess the question is, university presidents? Who are we talking about that you're working with on the outside?
I certainly had a lot of meetings with VPs for research. That was more the level that I was working with, was VPs for research. Of course, France Córdova herself had been the president of Notre Dame. So, I'd say the director of NSF was more working at the president level. One activity that I was really active with was the quantum information science from OSTP. So, people from NSF were in and out of the doors at OSTP a lot. And that was an important connection to make. Important and ongoing in every activity.
Obviously, each of the branches of physical sciences have unique needs in terms of funding, in terms of support. What were some of the commonalities, though, that you detected in terms of how the NSF could support each of these branches?
So the biggest difference between the five branches, two of them were very facilities-heavy. The heaviest budget-- So the easy way to think about it is $1.5 billion, five divisions, $300 million apiece. 3x5=15. And that's not exactly true. Some were a little bigger, some were a little smaller. Take that pie chart for each one of them. Astronomy was 75% facilities. So NSF had an attitude of, oh, what was the phrase that was always-- Oh, appetite control. The way they did facilities was-- it was handled out of an MREFC account for equipment and facilities when it was being built. And then when it was built, the operations costs would be taken out of the division that it served. And so, astronomy had the most facilities and so most of their money went to operations of those facilities. And it was something like 24% went to R&A grants, and so that was very hard on astronomy, as you can imagine. Now, it's a much smaller field than physics, it's a much smaller field than chemistry, materials research, or mathematics.
So, in that sense astronomy was very well funded, but astronomy has also been in a discovery phase. The next largest was physics, and they had a-- they maintained a policy that I disagreed with of never spending more than 50% on facilities. And I think this was kind of backlash from the superconducting supercollider, where what happened at that point was that department of energy started doing all the accelerators. And so, NSF sat back and said, “Well, we'll pay for the scientists to participate and DOE will build the thing. And so, we won't have operations costs, we'll have research costs.” And that was the way they preferred to do things, and of course they had a committee that supported them completely, because the committee wanted research grants. So, I thought that was putting the cart before the horse. I thought they really should always ask the question first, is what science should we do, period? And then follow it by the facilities and there's always a solution. But that was the physics approach, and I didn't force them to try. I didn't try to force them to change.
And then the third was materials research, and they had a smaller percentage yet again of facilities, but they did have-- they had the MagLab down in Florida, which I got to visit once. It was a real thrill. And then they had a higher percentage of institutes and centers and research grants. And then chemistry, they had the smallest amount, finite amount, of facilities, and had maybe 75% going to research grants and they had centers. And then math doesn't have facilities, but they do have math institutes—which are five-year institutes, sometimes ten—that are then renewed on a regular basis.
So that was kind of the portrayal, as you went through the five different divisions. Very, very different cultures, and that's one of the challenges, is how different those cultures are. And so active. Every group was so active, and so sort of over-saturated with intellectual content and just plain the daily work of doing these proposals, but they don't have time to sit down and sort of learn the culture of their neighbor. And they don't, in a kind of an emergency-driven environment, have the need to, although it would very much benefit them to do that. So these places are pretty, the people who work there are extremely dedicated and they work extremely hard in every, not just math and physical sciences, in all of the different directorates.
And in terms of the policy workflow, what were some of the things that you heard from your outside partners that you would need to sort of kick up the chain, and even involve Congress insofar as ultimately they're calling the shots on budget?
Oh, you know, it's the usual thing with any kind of cost overruns, and a huge dedication to trying to keep things in-cost and everything you're doing is-- so that's the difference between the facilities side of the house and then the research side of the house. I would say that one of the long-term worries is—if you looked at where LIGO was when it first started as a funded project—there's so much pressure on today's budget that I'm not sure that something like LIGO would have been funded in today's environment, because it's too risky. I think that if you compare today's world to 30 years ago, people are much more risk averse.
They want to know the future to such a high degree that they're not going to have any future. If you know the answer today, it's probably the wrong answer.
Anne, I have to tell you, this is such a-- It's such a remarkably strong, recurring theme that I hear from people at the National Laboratories, across the sciences. People are saying, who have the kind of institutional memory that you have, right, just how different it is now than it was 30, 40 years ago. And that you look at what we have now as a result of being not risk averse. And it's really, it is quite sobering in terms of broad, structural trends where science in the United States is headed. It is a very powerful point made all the more powerful, especially by someone with your perspective. So that's extraordinarily important to just sort of state that as clearly as possible. So then I guess obviously the follow-on to that is--
Let me just tell you a story. Hold that thought and let me tell you a story that directly relates to that. When Riccardo Giacconi got the Nobel Prize, we threw a party for him at NASA headquarters with the administrator, and he said to me that he never could have done the research that he did in Italy. So, he came here as a young scientist, and he did X-ray emissions. And the thing that makes me want to lie down and cry is that I think it's quite possible if he came today from Italy, he wouldn't be able to do it, either. I mean, I think we--
To make it even more upsetting, when you say Italy, it's like, we looked at what Italy was going through with COVID in February, and now we're Italy.
Well, that's right. And--
And it's not an unrelated observation, is it?
Yeah, no, not at all. And in fact, if you look at Europe from 30 years ago, I would say their biggest problem is that the guys at the top and, yes, it was always guys at the top, had all the control over stuff down here, because it was so tight. And now I think it's more like that in the United States than it used to be.
So then of course, the obvious follow-on question there is, here are these broad structural changes. How do you reverse the flow?
I think I have another meeting. Is our two hours up? It can't have been two hours.
Okay, Anne I'll cut it here.
[End Session One]
[Start Session Two]
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is my great pleasure to be back with Doctor Anne L. Kinney. Anne, thank you so much for joining me today.
You're very welcome. Very pleased to talk with you.
Okay. It is August 18th, 2020. And today we're going to pick up on your tenure as head of the directorate for mathematical and physical sciences, MPS, at the National Science Foundation. So the first question is, how did this opportunity become available to you?
I was recruited for a job that would bring me back to the East Coast from Hawai'i. And Hawai'i was a wonderful place to be, a very difficult place to be. So, I was interested, and I asked someone at NSF for a recommendation, and he said, “Well, wait a minute. You know we have this position open, would you be interested in that?” And so in the end, I sent my CV both places. Interviewed both place, and ended up going to the National Science Foundation to head up mathematical and physical sciences. Which was a great opportunity.
Did you see this as a step up in terms of administrative and policy responsibilities?
Oh absolutely. Because this covered all five sciences. Materials research, chemistry, physics, math, and astronomy. And NSF is the main source for ground-based astronomy in the US, or at least a very prominent source. Obviously, Keck is mostly independent of NSF. It's a private, California-based telescope.
And in terms of the policy process, the people who are coming to you, the decisions you're making, and the decisions that you're presenting up the chain, can you sort of give a sense about the flow of information and policy recommendations, and where you fit in within MPS in that role?
Let me see... So, any organization like that-- So the budget was maybe $1.3 billion or $1.5 billion for mathematical and physical sciences. And as with any budget, most of it is very much entailed. It's committed already to a suite of sources in five different divisions. And the divisions are somewhat stove piped. So, if you can think of five different sciences, take 1.5 divide by 5, you have approximately $300 million per division. And they're all very much pre-committed. Certain percentage for research and analysis, a certain percentage for facilities, and so you're-- In a leadership position like this, you're steering an aircraft carrier. If you want to turn at a right angle, it takes you 15 miles. And given the bureaucratic nature of National Science Foundation, and the huge number of stakeholders, it's pretty hard to do that.
So, you sort of do the best you can, but having new ideas and new opportunities is rare and precious in an environment like that. And honestly, one of the greatest challenges is that National Science Foundation is very under-funded relative to the capacity, the scientific capacity, of the country. And that was enormously frustrating, especially coming from NASA, because NASA supports astronomy with a budget that was approximately the same as the mathematical and physical sciences budget, and yet astronomy is a very small field. Astronomy and planetary and earth science and heliophysics, but still. Astronomy is a very small field. Mathematics is a huge field. I became very concerned when I was there about the support for mathematics and most especially the support for graduate students. And that's the kind of thing that is of deep interest for the sort of scientific future of the country, because math is so critical to everything we do.
And so one small thing, very small thing, I was able to do is bring some extra funding into mathematics to focus on fellowships for grad students. Because grad students just get no funding, and the irony at National Science Foundation is that a great, great way to argue for funding is to be more mission-oriented and NSF has a great fear of missions, or facilities. They'd call them facilities there. But they have a great fear of them, which is termed “appetite control.” And so the way facilities are handled at National Science Foundation is that they have a separate MREFC fund to build facilities, but then when the thing is built, the funding responsibility, the operations funding responsibility, goes to the individual division.
And so, for example, astrophysics had 75% of its budget going to pay for facilities, and a very small budget for R&A. And in comparison, physics made an across-the-board decision to not spend more than half of their funding on-- Not, sorry, not spend less than half of their funding on R&A, to always have 50% of their funding available for R&A. And of course, the physicists of the country really supported that approach. And yet, if you look on the larger scale, all of their facilities, well they're lucky, the physicists have a relationship to DOE that's somewhat similar to what the astronomers have with NASA. DOE builds the facilities, and NSF pays for research on those facilities.
So, there's other types of things that I dealt with. That was the Gordian Knot I dealt with was the challenge between facilities and Research and Analysis and the challenge between mission or a very specific guided approach versus what was termed there as "free-range." I think a previous MPS director, Mike Turner, called it “free-range.” Not a very attractive [laugh] perhaps.
Anne, how much of this, the Gordian Knot and the bureaucracy, how much did NSF's reputation precede itself? In other words, did you know going in that you would have these structural hurdles on Day One, or was this sort of like learning in real time for you?
It was both. So, all of these agencies develop their own culture, and it's very much like the small town I'm in in Wisconsin right now where I grew up. Lancaster looked down on Fennimore, and looked down on Platteville, and they looked down on us. And NSF looks down on NASA and NASA looks down on the NSF. That's just some kind of tribalism we all live under. So from NASA's point of view, NSF was very bureaucratic, and indeed, it was. I did find it bureaucratic, but NASA's bureaucratic also. So, I was expecting it, and yet, I didn't have the same depth of background in NSF that I had at NASA. And so there, to my view, they spent so much time-- by far, their biggest constraint was funding, and instead of focusing on any possible way they could increase the funding—
Of course, they worked for the President. They were in Executive branch, just like NASA. And you're not supposed to do that. But NASA finds a way to have its contractors do that, or the contractors do do it. But instead of spending their time trying to grow the program, they spent their time dividing it into smaller and smaller amounts that they'd invoke incredibly complex rules on how to allocate this funding, and--
In what ways-- How did you navigate these waters? What are some good examples of how you figured out essentially how to beat the system, work around the system, just to get the best science policy you could, moving everything forward? What would be some good examples of that?
Well, one of the few examples I have is of allocating extra funding to mathematics for their fellowships. Another thing that I always try to emphasize is, I put together a communications team that worked with the office of legislative and public affairs very closely, so that we were constantly gathering great scientific stories and getting them into a form that could be understood and communicated. And so that's really, honestly, one of the most important things you can do. The fields of mathematical and physical sciences are not trivial to communicate. Some of the results from mathematics were just outrageously goofy, interesting, crazy mathematics. And you'd have to pound on those ideas quite a while before you could communicate them. All of these sciences develop their own language, and none more so than mathematics. And so you have to translate, translate, translate, translate. And I think that's something that NASA has done way better than NSF. I don't know if I mentioned, when they first queried me about NSF, I googled NSF and the top response was National Sanitation Foundation.
So that's another thing-- France Córdova paid a lot of attention to that, and she did some really high-level public announcements for LIGO and for connecting the LIGO detection of neutrinos with a blazar that was, you know, had a simultaneous emission. So that was really good that she did that. So that was one of the ways in which I tried to impact it. We had a really good little group that focused on that and reached out to the five divisions and would draw stories in and send them up to the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. We were by far the strongest source for scientific stories.
And were you ever concerned that you had intellectual biases in terms of your own academic background? How would you guard against making sure that all of the sciences received your equal attention and not, you know, there weren't any ugly step-children just because you're a physicist?
I would spend as much time as possible talking with the division directors from each group. If anything, I'd say I was more biased towards mathematics. Just because it was so outrageously interesting. And graspable. I don't believe in regrets, but my one regret is that I didn't have more mathematics at an earlier age. So, it's not hard to be equally interested in all of the fields, because the things that they're working on are just so fabulously interesting. When you sit down and talk to people.
How much work did you do in Washington more broadly? With the administration up on Capitol Hill, how involved were you in the sort of broader science policy constellation in D.C.?
So I was involved with OSTP with their quantum information science activity. And I went with the head of physics and attended those meetings, and was involved as that program was put together, and as it had a kick-off and all of that. And we'd do budget briefings on the Hill. But it's somewhat choreographed, the conversations when you're working for a group like that. No agency wants rogue players communicating on the hill because they really want and need one message. So, it's pretty choreographed. We had several people that were working at OSTP, and that was really nice because that added an extra level of depth to the understanding that the administration had of National Science Foundation.
What are some examples of... The frustrations are obvious in terms of the bureaucracy, but what are some examples of policy or experiments or missions that you were really central to that otherwise would not have gotten off the ground?
I don't think-- I think that in this day and age it takes longer than two and a half years to get something off the ground, so that was the approximate time I was there, was about two and a half years.
But of course, you followed the things that you were involved with and how they have evolved since.
Well, I jumped into a firehose when I came back to NASA. So I would say the main thing that I have followed is actually related to STEM education. And so my deputy, Sean Jones, at National Science Foundation is African American, he's a materials science researcher. Very, very smart guy. And we did a lot of thinking and talking about African American involvement in STEM and meanwhile, the head of my FACA committee—Federal Advisory Committee to advise on mathematical and physical sciences—she had been at Dow Chemical Research. She was a chemist and had a very successful program there that they did between Dow and MIT, where they brought in cohorts of African American undergrads and would bring them in a couple months at a time, they would work together with faculty at MIT, and then they would go out in the world, and they actually kept track of these folks and found a very high success rate. Not that they came back to MIT, necessarily, but the thing that happened, the magic that happened there, was that they had a cohort to work together.
And this is something I really identified with from the lack of female colleagues I had as an early career person and how difficult it was to be surrounded by men and have no language for what you were dealing with. That's something that Meg Urry and I spent a lot of time talking-- it's almost like we developed a language to deal with this situation we were in. There was no way to describe it. There was not much precedent for it. So, I came to Goddard, and expressed a desire to start an effort for increasing the percentage of African Americans in STEM and had a very positive response from my boss, Dennis Andrucyk, the center director, and from the associate administrator of Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen.
And so, I kicked off an activity where we've gotten together now several times and are trying to put together a sustainable program that would help introduce African Americans at different levels—middle school, high school, undergraduate, and even support in grad school—to help them get through this pipeline that can be pretty negative. One of the things about Goddard that makes this possible is that there's a really good cohort of professional African American engineers and scientists. Science is hard to break into, but of course, the number of engineers to scientists is ten to one, 20 to 1 in the country, and so there's a very robust population of African Americans. For example, senior executive service in Goddard, 19% are African American. I mean that's just really positive.
That has to be an industry in government leading kind of statistic, I would think.
I don't know the degree to which it's intentional and the degree to which it's just a result of--
Really good policy over many years.
Yeah. It's just that there are more African Americans in engineering than in science. And these guys made it up through the system. There is a seriously talented cohort of African American engineers at Goddard. One just got hired away from GSFC to NASA HQ. She's one of the deputies in our flight projects directorate. So anyway, I'm now talking with my Deputy at NSF who is now in the position of Assistant Director of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. And we're going to see if we can't do something together between NASA and NSF on internships for African Americans. And one of the challenges here is, NASA has a really good internship program. NSF has a really good fellowship program. But these things are very, very competitive and so if you are not amongst the first-ranked schools all the way from kindergarten -- It's not quite that bad, but you get my point. You don't make it in. And so this would be a program that would be unabashedly African American interns.
Now, Anne, at the two-year mark, were you thinking it was time to move on, or did the opportunity at NASA sort of present itself and you were not thinking along those lines at that point?
The opportunity presented itself and I had, of my entire career, I think the ten years at Goddard was the most rewarding. Because of-- what you look for is something where you can be effective and you can affect positive change. And I had been able to do that at Goddard. Many places you're just too tied down, either-- I don't think we do a very good job of defining these scientific administration jobs. So, you're so busy that you can't get anything done. That's my observation. In government, everybody's concerned about cost and the size of the programs and things like that. I remember going on vacation a year ago in April to—with my sister who has since passed—to Ireland, and I was at National Science Foundation. And my boss was really mad at me that I didn't phone in for the weekly meeting from Ireland.
That was enough for you? This culture was too much?
It was. And everybody there totally accepted it. I mean there was no time they were not at work. Mornings, afternoons, evenings, weekends, vacation, there was no time they were not at work. And yeah, I mean I think--
Work-life balance was not part of the institutional vocabulary.
Oh, it was part of the vocabulary, but it was totally hypocritical. It was totally not believed in. It was do as you say and say as you do, I mean it was not followed. And so I constantly felt guilty that I wasn't working 24/7, but...
And were you confident knowing NASA from previously that even though you're coming into a new position at a different time, that culturally, NASA is always going to be NASA and these issues are at least not going to be as pronounced as they would at a place like NSF?
People work really hard at NASA, but they do a better job of saying you're allowed time off. And yes, I knew the culture very well, and the guy, my boss, Dennis Andrucyk, who reached out to me, he and I knew each other very well. We'd worked together across-- between science and engineering, we had worked very closely together. He headed up the engineering directorate when I was there, and I was division director in planetary, and planetary had to compete for all of its instruments. And so we reached out to engineering and said, “Take our hand, we'll do this together.” And so he knew me real well and I knew him real well and I was very comfortable in going to him. His type of leadership is something that I truly believe in. It's to give authority and responsibility to the same people.
And what was your initial title when you got back to NASA?
It's deputy center director of Goddard Space Flight Center. So it's a center, but with about 10,000 people responsible for 84 missions. So, I've been drinking from a firehose for two and a half months. [laugh]
Anne, what is the-- how well-defined was your portfolio before you entered into this position, and how much have you been able to sort of define it in real time? In this very recent past?
Oh, I'd say maybe 25% I've been able to define real time. One of the things is this STEM activity which I think will really be hugely-- [laugh] I'm really, I'm very excited about it. And then I've stirred up a few other pots as well that I think will be very positive, kicked off an activity-- And these are not things that I will-- I will not be the owner of these things. I will kick them off, stick with them long enough to make sure that they're robust, and then be their advocate so that they can succeed.
So, there's also an activity on Earth science that I've kicked off, and an activity having to do with looking at the consequences of COVID that I've kicked off, looking at a suite of complex missions with launch dates to figure out how we can best satisfy our launch dates. So those are the things that I've done. Working very closely with my boss. And then I'm a monthly status review person. And so I spend a lot, a lot of time listening to the status of everything and trying to-- NASA's big challenge is that it thinks the world is a chart.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I have a chart package here. I can show you. It's 30 charts long and I'll be able to describe what I mean by that by showing you these charts.
You'll be sound asleep by the time I'm done with them, and you will not have gotten anything out of it. And I'll talk so fast that you won't even be able to listen, and you won't be able to transcribe your tapes, and you'll (babbling noises). And each chart is going to look like Encyclopedia Britannica. Except with five different colors and 35 arrows and four symbols, and embedded in those symbols, mini symbols, and... They have an enormous need-- I mean, in all of these positions you have to be ready to say, “I don't know the answer to that question, but I'll get back to you.” There's an enormous inclination to just become an encyclopedia so that you can, you know the status of everything at every time, but then you don't spend enough time thinking about things. And I think that's, in all these jobs, I think that's an enormous challenge.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that you're stirring up that you're excited about for the future?
[laugh] Well, I mean, the thing that is... Well, some of them I can't talk about actually. I can talk about the STEM thing, that's-- The other two are a little bit too sensitive to talk about right now. But so, the STEM activity—I got together an ad hoc group at Goddard. It's, I think there's 12 of us. Seven are African American, five are various Euro/Northern-Euro whatever, and really dedicated group. Really just rich with ideas about how to-- exactly what to do and how to do it to be encouraging and engaging with early career, pre-career African Americans to expose them to STEM so that they may-- I mean, the thing about STEM is it's a door-opener. And there are many, many, many doors that open. And STEM is what NASA, NSF do, so it's what we have to offer.
The part of my thinking behind this actually came from a conference that Artie Bienenstock held. I think I mentioned this to you before. Talking about how what a huge difference there's been in Europe and China so that those students are not coming to America. And how Americans have been a little bit lazy and not getting the entire American population up to speed and engaged in STEM. Because they could just recruit people, bring people in from other countries. That's not happening as much. We have to really pay attention to the national demographic and get that last 20% involved in STEM. And plus it's a brain trust issue.
So, we're looking for ways to jump on things that we already are very good at and we're very good at internships. We do them all the time. We've done our first couple of classes of remote interns, where you mail them a laptop and they connect. That's how we're all connecting now, as you and I are. You send them a laptop and connect them with their group, and it's off to the races. So, Goddard is especially suited to do this because number one, it lives in Prince George's County, which is the largest suburban, African American county in the country. And two, it's got a phenomenal cadre of professionals. And these are all people who have school, who have kids in local schools. And so, they have a serious, vested interest in those schools. And so we're-- the big trick is that each of those 12 people has 12 ideas, and that leads to a lot of things that we have to sift through and focus on. But I think this next meeting, we'll be able to do that. That's one of the things, but that's two hours a week as opposed to everything else I do.
Yeah. But obviously, that's a very precious two hours a week to you.
It is. It is, because I think it's really, really important, and I think the events in this country of the last four months have shown how critically important it is to offer paths forward for people, and to really reach out and engage populations that have not been as engaged.
Anne, what have you learned about how Goddard fits into the overall NASA universe? And in what ways is that advantageous for the kinds of science that you want to promote, and perhaps, what challenges are there because of how Goddard is situated within NASA overall?
So NASA has ten centers, and there are two that are most similar, I would say, that are the largest and most scientifically-oriented. Jet Propulsion Lab and Goddard Space Flight Center. And the difference is that these are the two that really do the majority of the scientific missions. The flagship scientific missions. Large astrophysics, large Earth science, planetary, which has typically been JPL, and heliophysics. So there are also more scientists working at these places. Goddard probably has the highest cadre of scientists. JPL has a tougher work environment where if missions get cut, people lose their jobs within a few weeks. And of course, Goddard is about 1/3 civil servants, which are mostly tenured. Not all of them. Some of them are temporary appointments, but most of them are permanent appointments.
And let's see, the other part of your question is, what are the hinderances in this structure? Well, there are some-- there's always some logical disconnect, and one of those is that you know, the evolution of politics in the country means that the politicians get their hands further into the pickle barrel every single year. I was at headquarters six years, and I noticed that progression for six years, where people were more and more interested in what funding was coming to their state and their county. Politics is not necessarily the best answer to the question of there to invest your scientific funding. The question being where to invest. The investment comes from tax dollars, and there does need to be attention paid to investment across the nation. So, when you're in these federal systems, politics do play a role, and... I don't know, I'm not being very coherent here.
No, I mean the question is, it's sort of Goddard, the opportunities are, that Goddard is sort of front and center in terms of NASA's overall mission, but it also has its own field to work in and that presents opportunities as well.
The real opportunity of a place like Goddard is the magical mixture of science and engineering under one proverbial roof. In NASA’s competition model, the scientists push the engineers for the technology that allows for the next great idea to be developed, to win in competition, be built, and in the recent example of OSIRIS-Rex, to orbit an asteroid and pick up samples. Now, I would say the positive side is that the science cadre is just top rate at Goddard, and engineering and flight projects, top rate. And so, you get that kind of mind meld going on and you get great missions, great instrument concepts, really cutting-edge. And the scientists never stop. They never stop pushing the envelope. And that's the part that is the most gratifying to be around.
Anne, now that we've sort of talked right up to the present day, I want to ask you for the last part of our conversation, some sort of broadly retrospective questions about your career, and I think a great place to start would be all of the space missions that you've been involved with over the course of your career. Hubble, Spitzer, Wilkinson, the Galax program, Chandra X-ray Observatory. I want to ask you sort of broadly, what missions have you been a part of that stand out in your mind as missions where you really were front and center in contributing to truly advancing knowledge and what we can know about how the universe works?
Well, let me completely reverse it and say, when you work on these missions, it does make you humble. And any of this work is done in an enormous team.
And so, I think I described about the opportunities that arose for me in Hubble wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been a failure initially, because I was one of the co-authors of the first year of Hubble results, and I would have never been allowed to do that if it had been a success. The big guys would have been elbowing. I would have had an elbow in my mouth to get me out of the way. And then I--
Anne, let's just interject right there, because that's such an important point. Because it says so much about how science works, how science policy works. Can you explain in a little bit more detail how an initial failure can be spun into a-- not only a success, but an ongoing success. Amazing ongoing success. How does that happen, specifically with Hubble, and what are some of the broad takeaways from that story?
Well, so when you have something as high-profile as Hubble, it can kind of bring out the worst in people. And so, there were certain people at Space Telescope Science Institute, if there were a camera around, their face would be right in front of it, you know? And people are-- I do [laugh] I'm going to... There is a certain aspect of science that is pretty narcissistic. And it somewhat has to do with the way universities, they want every person to be famous and a Nobel prize winner. And so that person has to be the first author, and that person doesn't necessarily lead to the building of teams. And as, especially astronomy, gets more complex, you have to do everything in a team environment.
So, if Hubble had been a success right off the bat, I mean the results, the initial results, would have been stunning. Knock-you-over stunning. And every scientist at the institute would have been in the front row for having to do with every result that came out. It was a pretty aggressive atmosphere. People would-- [laugh] I was at a talk once where a postdoc was giving a talk and he was standing at the front of the podium with a pointer, and a senior professor from Caltech got on the stage and took the pointer away from him and took over his talk. That's what it was like. So it was embarrassing. I saw a lot of behavior that embarrassed me.
So that first publication would have been hijacked. It would have been taken over by one of these senior guys who just seemed to have unquenchable need for attention. And instead, I co-authored with Steve Maran, who was the press secretary for the American Astronomical Society for years. He was really good at it. And then later, when he was on the panels that did results on Hubble, he invited me to be a generalist on those panels. And that was really, really fun, because I had permission to just dive into a topic, learn everything I could, talk to everybody about it, and then go on these television panels. And they were hour-long, televised programs. At the time, I never listened to them again because I didn't want to be self-conscious about it, you know? But when I've listened to them since, they were incredibly dense with information. I mean, basically they would present all the quotes and all the discussion of the science topic, so that writers could listen to it, and they could write their own original article on it. And that was the exposure that led headquarters to reach out to me for the astrophysics division director job.
So, then I eventually left Space Telescope and went to NASA headquarters. But so, there's certain behavior that I find kind of repugnant, and that kind of endless search for attention is something that I don't particularly care for. NASA very much works in teams. There's a lot of... In fact, the thing that we're speaking on right now is called Teams. But everything is based on people working together, and so people's ability to work in a team and to give other people credit and to bring their best ideas and share them freely, those are all things that are highly valued at NASA. And those are things that really resonate with me. So the values are something that I really share.
Now, that's on the sociological side, but in terms of the science side, in terms of discovery, what are some of those missions that really stand out in your mind as really, really helping us better understand how the universe works? What were some really satisfying moments or interludes for you where you said, "We really are part of something where we now understand things that we didn't understand before"?
So, I guess a couple of things that I would point out are of course, Hubble moved into a more distant universe. It basically doubled the size of the universe, so that was pretty profound, and we realized that galaxies are very similar a very long way back. And that was a different view of the universe. Chandra basically found that black holes were ubiquitous. When I was early in my career, black holes were considered mysterious, veiled creatures, God knows if there's even one. And now, there's one the center of every single galaxy. So that was Chandra, changing the... You know when you go to the optometrist and they say which is better, this or this? That was changing your vision on the universe.
And then the discovery of exosolar planets, which was done by a good friend of mine, Geoff Marcy, that went big time and eventually, NASA built Kepler and they reaped thousands of planets from that. And now TESS is also discovering dozens of new planets and thousands of new candidates. So, the two areas that have been so, so changed since my early time in the field are the presence of exosolar planets-- I mean, people used to laugh at Marcy for trying to do this. And likewise, black holes. Highly rare, highly unusual, and now we know that they're absolutely everywhere.
And then of course, with National Science Foundation, it was the discovery of gravitational waves. And eventually the discovery of neutrinos that weren't linked to an event in a blazar, which was clearly a black hole eating some material and spitting it out. And so, one thing that I was very pleased with at National Science Foundation is that I could fund an upgrade to LIGO to prepare for a higher degree of sensitivity in the instrumentation for LIGO. And that was really nice to be able to do that. It was not solely me making a decision. It was my pushing for something at the same time as funds were made available, so you're working in complex environment in these cases, and to stand up and say, “I did this,” is a little bit of a misnomer.
Anne, you've been involved in so many projects that-- very broadly conceived. The public understands and appreciates, at least on a basic level, what space exploration is and why it's important, right? In a unique way in science that so many other endeavors are not really understood, or not really very well-appreciated by the public. I wonder if you can reflect on your thinking about how to best communicate both science and science policy to the public, and why that's important? Both for the public and for the various institutions that you've worked with over the years.
So when I first went to National Science Foundation, France Córdova asked me a similar thing, and I said, “Well, can we get a TV station?” So, NASA has its own TV station. And so, they had the ability to say, “Okay, we've got these great things happening, let's do a press conference on them.” And they do live, hour-long press conferences. And meanwhile, Space Telescope Science Institute had a whole group that worked on public affairs announcements, and they did something that I think was really profound and had a long-term consequence. They had a summer science writer’s workshop, where they would invite people in for a week or two and they'd have all the astronomers come and talk to them about all the zoology of astronomy. Every different animal and how it behaves and why it's interesting, and things like that. And so they basically educated a generation of journalists in the country, science writers in the country.
And those things, I think, were deeply important. They're deeply important. I mean, basically, Hubble created-- I don't know if you remember that period of time where Hubble results would be on page three of the New York Times. Upper half. They created that science space in the front part of the New York Times. Hubble did that through these communications. I think it's hugely important. It's hugely important to—
So one thing that people never recognize is that science is mostly the evolution of language, and we don't translate it. I don't know if I told you the story about taking math in Danish? And how-- So, I married a Dane, moved to Denmark, studied Danish for a year, and then matriculated at a graduate level. Took math and physics and astronomy in Denmark, and my family, my Danish family, they weren't mathematicians. They weren't scientists at all. And there's no such things as a mathematical dictionary. And so I'd be reading these texts, and I'd take them to my husband and say, “What does this mean?” And he'd say, “I don't know.” And I'd read it over and over and over and read-- this word would crop up different places. And eventually I could kind of back-fill and figure out what it meant, and it was always something trivial. Totally trivial.
One example I remember is “nth.” First, second, third, fourth, nth. There's no transla-- you look up “nth” in the dictionary, and think you're going to find anything? No. So these trivial blockades are not recognized, and they say that a science class, these intro classes you take, Astronomy 100 or Math 101, you know? Introduced more new language than foreign language classes. So we need to recognize and translate the language, and it's not that hard to do, but the truth is, people love having a language other people don't understand, because it means they're smarter and they're this and that. We have to get over that. How to do it? I don't know. I mean, NSF was making a real effort to try to get more of those stories out and have more of a platform, but this overcoming of the language is a huge issue. It's a huge issue in mathematics.
I'm curious the extent to which your interest in educating the public, even at the youngest level, you know, with endeavors like Amazing Space for children to become more turned onto math and science and astronomy, right? Have you had the pleasure, have you been at this long enough now where your educational efforts have sort of borne fruit over there years, where you see more people being interested in these things, and more opportunities becoming available to them as a result? Or are all of these things sort of still too early on in their gestation?
Oh no, one side result is the fields are much more diverse than they used to be. And that's not just due to my efforts. And somebody like Meg would have, she'd have specific grad students that she was raising. There is now an education-- a degree in science education. Which I think is super important. So yes, I think that you've seen a real result of all these efforts in terms of many more women in science and people understanding how much of it is education, not-- It was always, always presented as inherent ability. You either have it or you don't—and by the way, men have it and women don't. And by the way, white guys have it and black guys don't. And I think people are really understanding now that there's an enormous brain power there that needs to be evoked and cultivated. So yes, I think you're seeing a result of these investments.
And to stay on that topic, such a big theme of our talk, today and the last time we spoke, was so many of the structural challenges that women in science face, right? And so my question is, obviously, you've been around long enough to see significant change, and you've also been around long enough to see places where things really have not changed. So looking toward the future, what are the things that you're most optimistic about in terms of real development in just sort of the climate in which women can work in science? And what do you see as some of the ongoing and real challenges that continue to demand the attention of everybody who's committed to making science a more inclusive environment?
So-- I think that it's already pretty clear that women are going to pass these hurdles faster than African Americans. So, I think that's a big challenge. I think there's a rural and urban challenge as well that's very serious, and that people are totally oblivious to. And so-- I'm in my small town that I grew up in, fewer than 4,000 people. The opportunities in a place like this need to be equal to the opportunities in urban environments. And I think [laugh] maybe COVID will teach us how to do that. I hope it will, I don't know if it will, or if things will just get worse. That's-- the future is hard to predict, especially ahead of time as... what's-his-name said. To get through the pockets of culture and find ways to engage all of the really profound brainpower. I think that's going to be a challenge that needs to be taken on. It's the gap between those who have and those who don't have, basically.
I mean I feel that I am extremely lucky, because my parents were both so dedicated towards education. If you look at my family, my grandparents would have been born in the 1890s, and that was basically 40 years after Wisconsin became a state. Both of my grandmothers went on to education past high school, and that was extremely unusual. Both of them became schoolteachers. That was not unusual. That was the main profession for women who were not yet married. So, I came from a family that really believed in education. What if you come from a family—
For example, the people who work on farms in this area in Wisconsin, they're mostly Hispanic migrant workers who move around constantly for the work and whose kids go to local schools for a while, but the parents are not terribly dedicated to education. So how do you overcome a situation where the parents don't have that dedication to education? I think that it's important to plant those seeds and to water them. And I don't know how to do that, how to get a dispersed access to education. I think that's going to be super important for the future of this country.
And you see NASA as being central to so many of these challenges?
Yes. I hope so. Because ultimately it takes more than a face-to-face experience. I mean, NASA is really small. It's a real small part of the national budget. NSF is tiny. It's a tiny part of the national budget. How do you leverage those resources to get to people in a town like Lancaster, Wisconsin? Under 4,000 people? How many voters are there here? And yet, there's real brain power in places like this. There always has been. There's real brain power in the minority populations that have not been engaged. These are tough questions. There's not a magic wand that you're going to be able to pass over and make a solution.
Do you see opportunity in the future as NASA and Goddard come up with new projects to integrate these cultural and sociological issues? To sort of bake them into the projects themselves so that these are not two sides of the same coin, but they're really actually one broader endeavor? Not only to push the science forward, but to empower more people to be a part of the science?
Well, ironically, NASA for a long time just made a caveat decision in science that some percentage of every science mission would be spent on education. And then in their infinite wisdom, NASA headquarters swept that money up into an education department, and it left the missions. And I think that was a mistake. I think it's better to have it baked in, as you said. But that was a model of the 1990s, and it has been kind of reversed in the endless search for more money. So, part of the question is how to do this without having it be the government dollar, and that I don't know.
Is there any other option besides government support?
If you're doing something that is truly needed by schools, I think there'd be a lot of interest in it. Then it would be local. So to try to find a model that is a hugely in need of school systems that are constantly looking for content and top-rate, first new things. Then there'd be maybe a way to connect people to do it. Again, these are really difficult things. I've spent so much of my life in science and in things closely related to government that I started to think of two flavors in the country. Those that pay taxes and those that spend taxes. And there's a tipping point when too many people are spenders, then what do they care about the people who are earners, you know? So I live in Washington, DC. That is my actual residence, and I'm probably the only resident of Washington, DC that doesn't think Washington, DC should have the right to vote.
Oh that's interesting. Why is that?
Because everybody works for the government. Who do you think-- they're going to vote for more money for the government, whatever flavor that is. But that's what they're going to vote for, and so the country is not an endless source of funding.
Yeah, anyway. I'm a Wisconsinite, so I'm a social liberal and a financial conservative, what can I say?
[laugh] Anne, can you talk a little bit about the James Webb Telescope? What's so exciting about this project and what you think are some of the ways that it can move our fundamental understanding forward?
So I'm going to harken back to something that I said in our first conversation, which is that these missions are always created for one purpose, and by the time you get them launched, you've usually accomplished many of the original goals. One great example of that, for example, is Chandra, where we knew very little about x-ray astronomy when Chandra was launched. And then Chandra ended up finding that black holes were absolutely ubiquitous. Nobody described that when they said, what are the top science goals for Chandra? Because they didn't know you'd be able to do that.
And likewise, James Webb is the largest infrared telescope by an order of magnitude that's ever flown, and one of the things that it claimed it would do is to uncover the dark ages when the universe first became ionized. And you could see through it. And so by the time it's launched late next year, cross your fingers, cross your toes, cross your eyes, I mean I think it'll still be able to do those observations, but I think everything else will just be unscripted territory. Absolutely unscripted. Because you haven't seen it before. The scales will fall from our eyes and we will see things we never saw before. And people have been notoriously bad at predicting those things.
So it's important to just keep an open mind for what might be learned, because we just don't know at this point.
Do you want to wager any guesses or any things that you're personally interested in as a scientist? Any big mysteries that you think maybe the James Webb Telescope will help shed light on?
I mean I could, I don't think I'd be terribly original. I think that they might be able to do biosignatures of life on exosolar planets. Atmospheres of exosolar planets. As you go--
Is, biosignatures of life, is that sort of a fancy way of saying it'll help us figure out if life exists elsewhere?
Mmhmm, yeah. And so, if you look at, try to see planets around a bright star in the optical, you're trying to find one out a billion photons. If you do it in the infrared, it's one out of a million photons. And the farther to the infrared you go, the better your chances are, and so that's one thing that James Webb will help us with. And at the same time, people are doing a lot of work in the ground on Earth. Trying to understand what the signatures in the atmosphere would be of life. I mean, life is a condition of non-equilibrium producing, say, extra oxygen, and so that will, anything like that in an atmosphere will result in a spectroscopic profile that may be detectable.
So, I think that would be one really exciting thing. People are trying to do that all the time now, and once Webb is launched, I think we'll have a better grasp on it. And that's one of those things that just completely changes your vision of where you stand, as where you sit. I mean, who we are compared to the broader universe, if it turns out every single planet has some kind of signature. Well, it's not going to be every single planet, because we know the planets in our solar system. Only one of them has an active signature of life right now.
In what ways can the Webb telescope identify those signatures? What exactly does that mean?
Well, it would take spectra in the infrared, as far into the infrared as it could, to look for these spectroscopic signatures. Absorption line signatures, very specifically. I don't know if you are into spectroscopy at all, but it's either an emission line or an absorption line. In this case, it would be absorption lines where the light goes from the local sundown through the atmosphere and then reflects up through the atmosphere, and when it's coming through the atmosphere into your line of sight, whatever is in that atmosphere will absorb it according to the amount that's in the atmosphere, so that's one of the ways you can get a spectral signature of composition of an atmosphere.
In what ways might the James Webb Telescope help us understand better the origins of the early universe?
Oh exactly what I was saying before, uncovering the dark ages, it'll get us as far back as possible into the distance past to help us understand how galaxies first formed the early, very early formation of objects in the universe. I don't think it is well-understood yet. Do they start big and go small? Or start small and go big? Those things will all be seen by James Webb.
Anne, for my last question, I want to ask you, your trajectory in science has just been remarkable, and of course, there's much work for you to do. And so I'm curious what opportunities in the administrative realm do you see for the remainder of your career, that would best-position you to continue your ongoing work, not only in discovery, but in the cultural, socioeconomic, and educational interests that have also been a passion of yours throughout your career? What might be some administrative opportunities that you could see that would best-position you to make the greatest contribution in all of these areas?
[laugh] That's a question I haven't thought of before, administratively. I'm not even entirely sure what that means.
I mean, it's been a theme of our conversation that in each role that you've had, it has presented you with a unique set of opportunities and challenges to do all of those things, right? And as you gain more stature and seniority in the field, you sort of have a greater worldview of what's available to you as your responsibilities grow over time. And so the closer you get to the pinnacle in these institutions, the better you probably appreciate how those opportunities change over time. So, I'm sort of curious what some of your next career moves might be, if you would focus on what allows you the greatest opportunity to continue on in these advancements?
So, one concept that I had some years ago that really surprised some of my colleagues is that there's advancement beyond which it's no longer much fun. And I look at what my boss does, a center director, and I don't think that's as much fun. I think sometimes there is such a thing as flying beneath the radar, where you have a little more opportunity to be creative because you're not quite in the spotlight. And that's an opportunity I plan to take plenty of advantage of right now, working with Dennis. And partly because of who Dennis is. He welcomes that creativity.
But once you're center director, I'm sure you've read Gulliver's Travels and you know the story about the Lilliputians tying Gulliver down. That's sort of what these jobs become, and it's almost inevitable. So, I like the idea of flying beneath the radar and trying to cultivate change from a lesser pinnacle than the top pinnacle, if you will. And everybody thinks a promotion is a promotion, but it isn't always. So I guess that's the thought I leave with you.
[laugh] Well, Anne, it's been an absolute delight spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to connect initially. I'm glad you realized that the initial time we would have together was certainly not enough to cover all of the remarkable things you've done over the course of your career. I know how busy you are, so I'm quite appreciative of this time with me. So, I want to thank you so much for doing this.
Yeah, thank you. It has been interesting. You've posed questions that I'll go off and think about some more. In retrospect, I have been able to work on something at Goddard that, administratively, I was able to do because of the position—so instead of my answer to your question where I discuss flying under the radar, I would like to just write a paragraph or two about that. Of course, it is a project I could not have done if I were Center Director, so flying under the radar is not entirely irrelevant.
At NSF, I became very interested in working to increase STEM opportunities for minorities. There is a severe lack of minorities in major universities in STEM fields, and in general, the STEM workforce is made up of approximately 3% African American, for example, while the national percentage of the population is 18%. Upon arriving at Goddard Space Flight Center I first verified with my Center Director, Dennis Andruzyk, that he also felt this was important, and that it fit within the duties write large of GSFC. I reached out to several people I knew at the Center, who in turn reached out to people they knew, and we formed a coalition of the willing to discuss what could be done to encourage STEM careers. This was a small and very engaged group of scientists, engineers, and managers that was 75% African American. They had a variety of experience, but all of them were very serious about making something happen by the following summer, summer of 2021.
As a group, we decided that the place to start was an intern program for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students who come primarily from HBCU’s or majority minority high schools. We went about this using the structure that NASA already had in place for intern programs, but put extra support in place for students to make sure they would succeed, and would have a cohort to turn to for help. Now as we are about to kick off our first minority-emphasized intern program, we are expecting approximately 30 students. Our hope and plan is that this will be the first of several years that the students spend either virtually, or on-Center so that the interns can have long lasting impacts on the projects that they work on. Each year we will add 20 to 30 students, with a cohort growing to approximately 100 student interns, a number large enough that the students can begin to mentor each other.
[laugh] Wonderful. Thank you again.