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December 13, 2019 - Meet the USGS Landsat Project Scientist and Landsat Science Team Co-Chair

Chris Crawford likes to say his roles with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as a research physical scientist, the Landsat Project Scientist, and co-chair of the Landsat Science Team are akin to staring down a foot of snow on the driveway.

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Color photo of USGS EROS Scientist Chris Crawford
USGS Landsat Project Scientist and Landsat Science Team Co-Chair Chris Crawford

You can’t shovel it all at once, he says, whether you’re talking about snow or the analogous avalanche of work that comes with holding down three job responsibilities at once.

It’s a lesson he’s learned well since joining the USGS Landsat Project at EROS in March 2017 after spending four years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as an early career research scientist. At EROS, Crawford initially served apprenticeships under EROS Chief Scientist Tom Loveland on the Science Team, and under EROS Science and Applications Branch Chief John Dwyer on project science. Two years later, with Loveland retired and Dwyer heading in that direction, Crawford took over both those roles.

Since then, he said he’s known moments of satisfaction on the job, when accomplishment felt like a snow-cleared driveway. But it is a fleeting feeling, he added. There will always be more snow.

Crawford talked about that and more in this question-and-answer session.

How do you view your role as the Landsat Project Scientist?

“My role as project scientist is to maintain science and applications programmatic continuity. That’s kind of a packed statement. Listen. Represent the user community. Provide oversight on management of the consolidated Landsat global archive from a scientific viewpoint. Enhance mission capabilities. Define science and application needs for future missions. Evolve data products.”

Do you rely more on your own personal experience to conduct your duties as project scientist, or is it more about seeking input from the broader community?

“I listen more to other people than I impose my own viewpoint. I try to be objective. I guess the thing that really helped me become more attuned to the project scientist’s roles and responsibilities was when I joined the EROS Product Control Board, which is a board internal here at EROS that includes all the different components of the Landsat Project. Everything product-wise that goes out on the website gets ran through the Product Control Board. So, that kind of helps me learn the data products side of things. And then ultimately, my job is basically just to listen and to contribute to sound decision-making.”

How have your past jobs and work prepared you to be the Landsat Project Scientist?

“This question is a little easier. Since starting my professional career in 2004 after finishing college, I’ve worked in 10 different organizations in a variety of capacities, the USGS being the most recent. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to have extraordinary mentors along the way who have prepared me for my current role. Learning, listening, and observing have been key components to my organizational success. And, I’ve been willing to fail along the way, identify resistance in front of me, and trailblaze alternative trajectories. I think that’s kind of key.”

Do you have an extensive research background?

“I got my start in forest resources, so I can still go out and measure a forest stand and tell you how much biomass is there. I have wildland firefighting experience, so I understand fire from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. I have highly technical lab skills, and there for a while I was studying the ... discipline of dendrochronology, which studies time based on tree rings. That science taught me how to think along the lines of time, and how changes in the environment are registered by natural archives. I transitioned that over to satellites ... you know, satellites measuring environmental change is how I got interested in Landsat. When I went to NASA, I spent some time early on doing a lot science programming. And then I ended up in the optics lab learning instrumentation and calibration. Then I ended up helping to organize a big NASA airborne field campaign in Colorado. I went on an airborne mission to Greenland. When I came here, then I stepped into the Landsat mission full-time.”


Color photo of scientist Chris Crawford in the field
USGS Landsat Project Scientist and Landsat Science Team Co-Chair Chris Crawford uses optical ground-based remote sensing to measure incident solar irradiance, snow reflectivity, and snow physical properties during Landsat's mid-morning overpass time at Sturgeon Lakes, MN. (Credit: Leif Olmanson, University of Minnesota. Public domain.)

Let’s talk about your role as the USGS Landsat Science Team co-chair? Who do you speak for in that role?

“As the agency co-chair, I represent the Landsat Science Team and the user community. This is something I was conditioned to think about and consider as the Landsat Science Team representative both internally and externally. While the Landsat Science Team is a competitively selected team of top-level Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), the user community is much broader. By and large, the Landsat Science Team represents the broad range of Landsat science and large applications areas. You also need to think about those we are not capturing who are not on the Landsat Science Team, and what might their input or viewpoint be?”

How do you solicit that input?

“By listening. My job is to incorporate feedback and build consensus and make good decisions that benefits the program at-large. When I need to weigh in from my personal experience, I do that because I have a pretty good sense for the mission end-to-end ... something that is aided by my diverse remote sensing background. But if I don’t know, I don’t pretend I know. I just go ask somebody who does know. That’s the key.”


How do you balance your personal research interests with what you do with the Landsat Science Team and as Landsat Project Scientist?

“First and foremost, I’m a research physical scientist with the USGS. Ideally, my time is split between 33 percent research, 33 percent project science, and 33 percent Science Team, with 1 percent uncertainty.”

Is that the way it’s been working?

“What’s interesting is, the project scientist role takes up the most amount of time. The roles of the USGS Landsat Science Team co-chair and USGS Landsat Project Scientist were more or less collapsed into one position. The project scientist was always described to me as the down and in, and my Science Team role was the up and out. For the most part, I’m responsible for both, with very good support. I don’t do it alone. But the project scientist role is basically dominating my time now, I think, because we have Landsat 9 development proceeding toward launch, we’re in the final stages of a Collection reprocessing campaign, and we are ramping up our USGS Landsat science products portfolio.”

How do you balance it all?

“On Mondays and Fridays is when I can actually do research or get a lot of my own work done. It’s beginning to look like Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are basically time allocated to the (Landsat) Project.”

Have you had much input on Landsat 9?

“For Landsat 9, my job has been to communicate the USGS Landsat 9 science strategy. I wasn’t involved in the development of science or mission requirements. That was completed before I got on board. My Landsat 9 role is to continue to circle back around with the Science Team, circle back around with the user community, just to confirm and reconfirm that we’re getting it right from a data products standpoint.”

What excites you the most about being the Landsat Project Scientist?

“I think two things excite me the most. One is basically now being the project scientist for the archive, and understanding the power and value, and being able to sit on top of that here at EROS. And being able to eventually link that up with some of the science questions that I’m interested in and linking those science questions with the compute and with the archive sitting right here. The second thing is being able to influence new measurement capabilities on future Landsat missions while at the same time enabling continuity.”

What’s your vision for the Landsat Science Team with regard to advancing the Landsat missions?

“The Landsat Science Team has proven over and over its value and its success. I think there needs to be a strong commitment to continuing to fund an external Landsat Science Team because we’re going to need to continue to receive external guidance and a view on things. It improves the impact of the program outside these walls. (Science Team members are) basically torch bearers for the Landsat program in their own communities. Without that representation, the Landsat program is not nearly as successful. So, my vision is just to continue with the way we’ve done things, to be honest with you.”

Do you see any ways that the Landsat Science Team could better advance the overall mission?

“My longer-term goal for the Landsat Science Team is to be inclusive and maintain science and application diversity amongst the team members.  And, I’d also like to continue the commitment to fostering generational change on the Landsat Science Team ... incrementally, of course. We still need generational continuity at multiple levels. We definitely need to maintain senior level science leadership; that will ensure Science Team success. But we do need the mid-career, and we need the early career scientist for balance, right? We probably have a pretty good mix of that right now on the Science Team, but ultimately, this will be one of the things I am focused on as I look ahead.”

What kind of impact do you see the Landsat Science Team having on our mission here at EROS?

“I think the Landsat Science Team ... its primary role should be external representation. And then scientific and technical evaluations that help our mission, our space mission Landsat, move forward.”