Meeting CIRES Director Dr Abdalati

Former NASA Chief Scientist, and Co-Chair of the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space (http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/ESAS2017/index.htm), Dr Waleed Abdalati (http://cires.colorado.edu/administration-council-fellows/waleed-abdalati) is the Director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES, http://cires.colorado.edu/) of the University of Colorado. CIRES is the host institute for my fellowship. My visit to Dr Abdalati had the dual purpose of thanking him for his hospitality and asking a few questions on space issues.

CIRES and the aerospace sector in Colorado have a long record of achievements and Dr Abdalati, to put it simply, wants more.

In Dr Abdalati’s opinion, collaboration in aerospace goes only up to a certain point beyond which the various partners involved walk away because individual interests prevail. There is an ongoing effort to create a single structure that helps the sector capitalise its existing capacity and potential. This is a struggle, partly, perhaps, because the partners involved are, individually, already quite successful that they are reluctant to accept change. Yet, the challenge is to establish a more united front that allows the sector not only to take advantage of opportunities but rather to create opportunities. According to Dr Abdalati, the existing alliance between academia, industry and government, provide perfect conditions but aerospace in Colorado is not yet in a position in which it can actually shape the policy agenda for the sector.

Dr Abdalati believes that government funding is the guarantor of a strong aerospace sector. A commercial-only business model is not enough for this sector. Government funding is fundamental for the development of the space market. Arguably, if government did not provide funding, companies would shrink their activities to whatever they can sell to commercial customers. If simple commercial considerations were applied to space activities we would be missing out on a tremendous societal value.

Government funding is not subsidy, Dr Abdalati points out. It is a response to essential needs that could not otherwise be satisfied. It is a reflection of the fact that  space data is essential in many domains and nobody other than government will ever pay for acquiring such data. Ultimately government space investments generate economic value and do make the space market grow. The problem, form a political standpoint, is that it is not possible to draw a straight line from funding to beneficiaries.

In Dr Abdalati’s opinion, there is a future for interpretative services but it will be a function of accessibility and cost of data. Perhaps the key to success will be in adding value to combinations of different data, from different sources including from GNSS and non-space sources (be it ground-based, ocean-based or airborne). In this context, space-based observation will remain very important for value-adding companies, but it will not be the only important source of data for them.

Social demand can be a driver for the aerospace sector development, particularly if there is an economic incentive linked to it. That is the case with Earth observation, it has social ramifications and there is an economic dimension to it. Perhaps the initial driver was science, but today the social dimension carries an important weight. Dr Abdalati explains that, in the Decadal Survey, throughout the process of prioritising science objectives a significant variable is the social dimension. The question often asked is: Why do we care about this objective? The social dimension is there.

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