Interview with Prof. Len Fisk


Prof. Lennard A. Fisk is the President of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) . A solar physicist by training, Fisk is currently the Thomas M. Donohue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan.  He joined the university faculty in 1993 after 6 years serving as NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications.   A member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), he served as chairman of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board (SSB) from 2003-2008.  (The National Research Council is the operating arm of the NAS, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine — collectively called The National Academies.)


1. When did you first learn of COSPAR? Had you ever thought that you would one day become its President? It must be a very exciting and challenging job.

Answer: I went to my first COSPAR Assembly in 1970 in Leningrad. It was only my second international trip; the first one was as a student. My wife was with me, and we have many stories to tell about traveling to the Soviet Union at that time. In the ensuing years, I attended many Assemblies, but was not in any way engaged in COSPAR until about 2006, when my longstanding friend and colleague Roger Bonnet, who was President of COSPAR at the time, asked me to chair his newly formed COSPAR Scientific Advisory Committee, and from that point on I have been involved and committed to COSPAR. At no point did I aspire to be President of COSPAR; in fact, up until my election as President in 2014 there had never been an American President. The original construct was an American Vice President, a Soviet Vice President, and a European President. After the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, it was possible for an American to be President, but the tradition was maintained for many years thereafter. Ed Stone ran for President in 2010 but was defeated by Giovanni Bignami. I was asked to run for President, and was elected at the Moscow Assembly in 2014.

As for the Presidency being an exciting and challenging job, there have been opportunities to increase COSPAR’s impact, and to ensure its financial sustainability. This is the normal leadership expected of the Pres-ident. However, there have also been unusual challenges. The Assembly in Istanbul scheduled for 2016 was ruined by terrorism in Europe and was cancelled due to a military coup in Turkey. There was an ongoing challenge to COSPAR’s important role in setting the international standards for planetary protection. And then there is the pandemic, which forced the COSPAR Assembly in Sydney that had been scheduled for August of 2020 to be entirely virtual in January 2021.

2. COSPAR was first established in 1958 soon after Sputnik. After so many years it is still going strong. Do you think its role in promoting peaceful international cooperation in space science will become even more important in the coming years, once the pandemic is over? 

Answer: I think COSPAR’s role in encouraging and facilitating the peaceful use of outer space through international cooperation is more important than ever. We are seeing the increased militarization of space. It is the natural consequence of satellites in space becoming an essential component of our civilization, whether it is to support the global economy or a requirement of any modern military. As a result, nations feel obligated to protect and defend their assets, or may choose to use their capabilities in space to inflict harm on their enemies. Unfortunately, space is a lawless place regulated only by peer pressure and self-interest. One action we can take, and COSPAR can very much encourage, is to assist all nations, large and small, who seek to use space for peaceful purposes, to be able to do so. And by doing so, make space a global commons in which all nations have a vested interest, and no nation would risk its standing in the world by damaging the interest of all other nations. 

3. The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc on all walks of life including scientific research and international meetings that are crucial to information exchange and mutual understanding. How can we repair the damages or exercise damage control from your point of view?

Answer: What the pandemic has taken from us has been the opportunities for inperson interactions, especially when such interactions require international travel. We have still interacted through electronic means, e.g., zoom, and thus coordination of research and sharing of results has been possible. However, what has been missing are the informal, un- structured interactions that are essential to real understanding and the building of bonds and trust that lead to international cooperation. These in-person interactions determine the pace of progress. Their absence does not set us back, it only retards progress. And so, if the absence of in-person interactions is temporary, the impact will be minor. If in-per- son interactions do not return in the next few years, we will have to find some creative way to overcome this loss.

I should point out that the upcoming COSPAR Assembly in Athens is intended to be an in-person Assembly. We are committed to restoring in-person interactions. 

4. You must know ISSI in Bern very well. It has been an influential player in promoting international cooperation based on scientific excellence and neutrality. ISSI-Beijing should be the same in principle though with its structure and operation are somewhat different. How can we work better?

Answer: ISSI-Bern is funded primarily by ESA to, as you note, coordinate space research in Europe and to tie it closely with research from other nations. The United States has an important role in ISSI-Bern, providing the largest number of international visitors, and many of the workshops and team meetings rely upon data from NASA missions. I assume that ISSI-BJ is funded primarily and probably entirely by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who I would imagine expect you to help co-ordinate space research in China with Asian and western nations. Cooperation between the United States and China is very difficult these days, but it may be that ISSI-BJ can be seen as sufficiently neutral that work-shops and team meetings that involve the researchers from the United States will be possible. Should that be the case, ISSI-BJ will serve a unique and important role in promoting comprehensive international co-operation. 

5. Do you see anything obviously missing in ISSI-BJ (apart from in-per- son meetings) that should be implemented from a strategic point of view?

Answer: No additional thoughts beyond answer to question No. 4. 

6. To tell the truth, we are always awed by your achievements in scientific leadership - as Associate Administration of NASA, COSPAR President and all that - in addition to your pioneering work in cosmic ray physics and heliospheric physics. How can you mix administration and research so well? From where have you learned the trick, if not from childhood?

Answer: Like many in our field, I set out only to be a scientist. There was nothing in my initial career plans that included serious administration. However, in the early 1980s, when I was on the faculty of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and had built a nice little research group, I was offered and decided to try a relatively minor administrative position, the Director of Research. At that time there was limited re- search at UNH outside of its space activities, and it was not a demanding job. Shortly thereafter, the President of UNH quit and her Vice Pres- ident for Finance and Administration, who apparently was not well liked, also quit. The Vice President for Academic Affairs became acting President and asked me to be acting Vice President for Finance and Administration. I remember saying at the time, there was only two things wrong with this: “I am not competent, and I don’t want to do it”. But I was prevailed upon to take the position, and to my absolute surprise I was good at it and ran the university so well that the acting President became President, and then prevailed upon me to stay. I said I was getting too far from my research, and so I was made the Vice President for Finance and Research. And then when the Challenger accident happen in January 1986, all the top management of NASA were removed, including the Associate Administrator (AA) for what was then the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA). I was somewhat unique, an established and recognized scientist with extensive administrative experience, and in 1987 I became the OS-SA AA, and moved my family to Washington. Positions in the political environment of Washington do not last, and in 1993 I had enough of administration, and came to the University of Michigan to restart my research career. The first two years at Michigan were difficult. The thought processes for senior administration and competitive research are very different; I wasn’t sure I hadn’t made a serious mistake. But then in 1995, I had an inspiration that was the beginning of a great deal of theoretical work on the solar magnetic field and the acceleration of the solar wind. And the juices have been following ever since. I have had administrative positions at the University of Michigan and of course now COSPAR, but when you have had administrative responsibilities at the level of an Associate Administrator, it is not difficult to balance these part-time positions with an active research career. 

7. The Nobel Prize in physics has recently been awarded to the major discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics multiple times and last year to climate change study. Do you expect space physics to get one soon? Won't that be a great boost to the space science community?

Answer: I would be astounded if there was ever a Nobel Prize in space physics. I always thought that Gene Parker should have received the No-bel Prize, more deserving than Hannes Alfven, but that was a long time ago. We no longer have paradigm-shifting discoveries in space physics, and frankly even when we do, much of the community does not recognize them. The heavy reliance on numerical models, which assume that only known physical processes are important and which are rarely tested against observations, precludes paradigm-shifting discoveries. 

8. ISSI-BJ has started two online seminar series; one is called "1001 Space Nights" which is composed of talks by women space scientists reaching out to the young students and the general public, and the other one is called "Space Science Bazaar” with talks to be given by early career researchers from our International Teams. We hope that they will be the role models of the future generation. Do you have any advice to them to strengthen their motivations in scientific research and international co-operation?

Answer: You can motivate the next generation to pursue scientific re- search by pointing out that there are interesting and rewarding careers available. You can motivate the very best, the ones you most want, by arousing their curiosity, pointing out that there are interesting unsolved problems, the solutions to which will have impact, and that they can con-tribute to the solutions, and if they do so through international cooperation, they will be recognized worldwide for their success. 

9. We have had difficulties in the last two years and there may be some more (hopefully not) in the near future. But crises also create opportunities. Therefore, ISSI-BJ very much looks forward to the opportunity to work with COSPAR in the post-pandemic era of peaceful space exploration. Last but not least, any suggestions for possible collaboration be-tween COSPAR and ISSI-BJ? 

Answer: There is now a new collaborative effort led by Wu Ji between ISSI-BJ and COSPAR’s Task Group on Constellations of Small Satellites. I consider this is an excellent example of how we can collaborate. The Task Group concept is now an important tool for performing CO-SPAR’s mission of the promoting international cooperation. There will be additional Task Groups and we should consider using them as a means to collaborate. COSPAR obviously has excellent relationships with China and with the United States, but these nations do not have even good relationships with each other. As in the answer to question No. 4, ISSI-BJ could serve a unique role in helping to bridge this gap.

Contact Us