Some thoughts on “work-life balance”

Since my partner and I are about to go on vacation and I’m therefore about to go on a break from work, this will be my last blog until mid-January. I figured that this might be a good occasion to talk a bit about what some people call the “work-life balance.” I’ll try to make my comments general, but note that my perspective is that of a man, a scientist, and an academic in the US, which may be very different than others’ perspectives. One major difference of jobs in academia is that they tend have more flexible schedules but less security than other jobs. (For more discussion of these issues, I suggest looking at the Women in Astronomy blog and the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women.)

I think the main point I want to make here is that work-life balance issues and issues of equality and diversity are closely related, and issues of fair working conditions and job security are related as well but are discussed less often in this context.

One thing is clear: both women and men want to “have it all”, though what “all” refers to is different for different people. In addition, there has been much debate and discussion recently in news media, such as these articles in The Guardian and The Atlantic, of the fact that men also want a balance between work and life, which often refers to men taking a larger role than before at home with their families.  It’s interesting that this is considered noteworthy, but it’s good that changes toward equality are happening even if they’re a bit late.


When both men and women seek balances between work and life, this also should result in more equal career and employment opportunities for women and therefore more women in leadership positions than there have been in the past.  For example, when both men and women take parental leave, it is less likely to hurt them in terms of their long-term career advancement.  It is increasingly becoming understood and expected by co-workers and employers that both men and women take leave, though some employers (and universities) have better policies for this than others.  Many countries require paid paternity leave, but the US is not one of them.

I also want to point out that discussions of these issues often seem to occur about people with children, though of course people without kids want work-life balance too.  Work and careers are important for many people, but some people only notice a work-life tension when they have kids, partly because kids take a lot of time but also because some people’s lives are primarily focused on their work. This isn’t really a criticism (after all, many great scientists and artists have been passionately focused only on their work), but it’s worth noting that “workaholic” attitudes are common but are especially prevalent in the US, to some people’s detriment. In addition, when there is a lot of competition for jobs and job security is hard to find, there is more pressure to work harder and longer hours at the expense of other important things. In any case, every person has different goals and priorities, but jobs and employer policies should be flexible enough to accommodate that. A work-life balance is important for one’s mental and physical health and happiness and for the health of families and communities, though of course different people will have different ways for attempting to achieve such a balance.

Finally, to lighten things up, let’s end with an Onion article.

Climate change: part 2 (the reckoning)

Now that we’ve talked about how climate change is happening and carbon emissions are increasing rapidly (in the previous post), let’s discuss what’s being done and what can be done to address this global ecological crisis.  I hope this isn’t too heavy for pre-holiday fare.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, an international organization of climate scientists) released an important report. They argued that climate change is “unequivocal” and that the “dominant cause” has been human actions in pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2°C by the end of this century, which would have serious consequences including sea level rises, arctic ice melts, heatwaves, major changes to rainfall, and extreme weather events.  If crucial steps aren’t taken, “tipping points” and thresholds will soon be reached and climatic changes will be irreversible.

It is also important to note that the most vulnerable and poorest peoples–who are not responsible for the crisis–are the most likely to be affected by climate change.  Numerous islands and coastal regions are already being threatened.  Developing nations are unable to cope with extreme weather (such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines), droughts, and water and food shortages.  Climate change is an environmental justice issue, though ultimately it will affect us all and our future generations.


A month ago, an important climate summit, the 19th “Conference of the Parties” meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), occurred in Warsaw. International representatives from nearly 200 countries discussed these issues and attempted to continue to negotiate for a new global climate accord by 2015. In addition, developing nations were seeking compensation for the “loss and damage” that they will almost certainly face, while rich countries (which produce most of the carbon emissions) were avoiding taking blame, making commitments, or allowing any statements in UN climate documents that could be used against them in the future. It became so bad that over 800 members of environmental groups and NGOs (including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, the International Trade Union Confederation,, and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance) staged an unprecedented walkout of the talks. In the end, very little was achieved, though a deforestation agreement was made and plans were made for the following meeting next year in Peru.

How does the US fit in all this?  Unfortunately, the US is among the countries avoiding making serious commitments to address climate change and rising carbon missions.  President Obama finally laid out a climate action plan earlier this year, nearly 25 years after NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen testified before Congress about evidence for global warming. The plan includes a number of sound policy measures and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, especially with new EPA standards for power plants.  This is a good start, but even with this, we’ll still likely reach 3°C warming.  Far deeper reductions are needed (such as with a carbon “fee-and-dividend” system, which we can discuss later). Furthermore, environmental justice must be a part of the plan (see this Union of Concerned Scientists blog post), since the burden of the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color.

Climate change: part 1

I’d like to say a bit about climate change. It’s an issue that I’m passionate about, as it’s one of the most important global crises facing us today, and there will be plenty more to write about in later posts.

As a possible future for our own planet, it’s useful to think of Venus.  Although there are no Venusians to ask about it, we can infer what happened to Venus based on observations of its surface and atmosphere.  Venus and Earth likely had similar early atmospheric compositions, but on Earth the carbon is mostly in the crust.  In Venus’s case, its atmosphere is mostly CO2, and it appears to have suffered a “runaway” greenhouse gas effect.  Venus’s surface temperature of nearly 500° C is due to its atmosphere’s depth and CO2 content.  In order to reach Venus-like conditions on Earth, massive amounts of CO2 would need to accumulate and would need to get rid of its oceans via escape of hydrogen to space, which would take at least hundreds of millions of years.


Nonetheless, it only takes much smaller amounts of CO2 emissions and much less time to change the biosphere and harm human and other life on earth.  It is already happening.  And because the climate responds slowly, so far we’ve only felt about half of the effect of the greenhouse gases that are already in the air.

According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (which is a few blocks from here at UCSD), the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) in May this year.  The Keeling curve below documents the dramatic rise of this potent greenhouse gas over the last half century.


More CO2 in the atmosphere means that more of it is absorbing and trapping the infrared radiation of sunlight near the Earth’s surface, gradually raising the temperature.  There are many effects and evidence of climate change, but one key one is that surface temperatures on Earth are increasing.  Last year was the hottest year on record and this year is the seventh hottest. According to climate scientists, 350 ppm should be our goal in order to prevent runaway climate change, but it will require concerted international efforts to substantially reduce carbon emissions to safe levels.

A global problem requires global solutions.  But what can be done and is being done about climate change (including at the UN and by US policies) will be the subject of “part 2”.

Finally, for those of you who’d like more eloquent writing about these issues, check out this essay from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

On the US federal budget

I’d like to briefly comment on the budget(s) being negotiated in Congress.  In particular, I’ll try to focus on the impact on investment in science, though there are other important issues as well, such as the unemployment benefits that apparently won’t be extended and the cuts on military retirees’ benefits.  The budget plan led by Rep. Paul Ryan (who is a questionable choice for the job) and Sen. Patty Murray has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate later today.

Budget negotiations are often boring but are nonetheless important.  The current two-year budget plan has advantages and disadvantages.  The first and most ridiculous “advantage” is that a budget deal would avoid a government shutdown.  Such is the state of affairs in US politics.  The shutdown harmed many sectors of the government: clinical trials at the NIH were suspended; inspections and other work was suspended at the FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission; staff at the CDC and EPA were put on furlough; key tests for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble) were suspended; the National Science Foundation canceled its Antarctic research program; and three of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s telescopes were shut down, resulting in a substantial loss of data.  Ultimately, this considerably hurts US competitiveness in science: according to the OECD, the US is ranked 21st and 26th in science and math, below a few developing countries such as Vietnam.

An important advantage of the current budget bill is that it eases some of the across-the-board spending cuts due to the “sequestration”.  These cuts were extremely harmful on basic scientific research, which already receives less than 1% of the federal budget, as opposed to at least 20% to the military.  Earlier this year, more than fifty Nobel laureates wrote to Congress, urging them to remove these cuts to science investment.  Scientific research will be affected for years to come, and research funded by the NIH, NSF, NASA, and the DOE’s Office of Science are particularly affected.  Federally funded agencies and universities have attempted to sustain their research programs and avoid laying off scientists, but some may no longer be able to continue doing so.  Science and engineering education at colleges and universities have been affected as well.

Under the Ryan/Murray deal, approximately 75% of the spending reduction under sequestration will remain in place.  According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the deal may result in a restoration of roughly $8 billion in R&D funding above sequester levels over the next two years, though the final allocations for FY 2014 are now up to appropriators.

Though the budget deal may be better than no deal at all, it seems possible that congressional lawmakers could come up with and pass a better budget.  Science research and education should be spared the sequestration’s cuts.

The basic idea for this blog…

Hello, internet.  I’m Ramin Skibba, an astronomer and astrophysicist (with interests in sociology and political science) at UC San Diego.  The basic idea for this blog is to comment on and discuss political issues within science as well as science in politics and policy.  In my opinion, the connections between science and politics are too often ignored.  Scientists, teachers, and science journalists should learn more about relevant political issues, while politicians and pundits should learn more about the relevant science before advocating for particular policies.

In particular, issues I’m interested in writing about include, but are not limited to: climate change, energy policy, scientific integrity in policy-making, science in the media and education, diversity in science, and investment in science.  One of my first blogs will probably be about the current budget proposals and the effect of the sequester on the funding of scientific research.  I’m also interested in writing about the recent UN climate change conference in Warsaw.

I hope that these blog posts start conversations.  You’re welcome to reply, write comments or questions, and link to articles elsewhere.  I encourage plenty of skepticism and criticism, as long as it’s constructive.  I’ll also occasionally have guest bloggers here to write about these or related issues.  (If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, please contact me.)

Finally, “pale blue dot” refers to a photograph of Earth taken by Voyager in 1990.  The phrase also refers to these inspiring words by Carl Sagan: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena….Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”