Trump Transition News in Nature: Budget Situation, Scientists Respond

Here’s a pair of stories I’ve worked on recently on the transition to the Trump era and what that means for science. The second one was written by Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon and me. Thanks as usual to Lauren Morello for help editing. Thanks also go to my very informative sources. At the end of this post, I’ve also included links to a couple related stories by my Nature colleagues, and I recommend checking them out, too.

 

Stopgap spending bill leaves US scientists in limbo

Proposal would keep funding flat for most research agencies, but cuts could come early next year.

In what has become a year-end tradition in Washington DC, the US Congress is getting ready to approve a stopgap spending measure before it adjourns for the holidays.

The legislation introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives would hold spending flat at most science agencies, with some limited increases. These include an extra US$872 million to implement provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would reform drug development and biomedical research. The money would be split between the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and state governments…

The stopgap funding bill, which would expire on 28 April, also allows for extra funding to keep a handful of major multiyear space programmes on track. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes designed to monitor Earth’s weather and climate, as well as NASA efforts to explore deep space and develop a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

But for most science programmes, funding would remain at roughly the same level as in the past fiscal year. And continuing to operate under a temporary funding measure means that agencies cannot start new programmes or end old ones without explicit permission from Congress.

“Every time you delay a [final] spending bill, it prevents the science agencies from doing the planning they need, and it keeps them in limbo,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC…

Many researchers are more worried about what might come after this temporary funding extension, if it is approved. When president-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January 2017, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress — and their science priorities are very different from those of outgoing President Barack Obama, a Democrat…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 7 December 2016.]

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Is Trump betraying his base?

Many Trump voters hope their man in the White House will be a brave outsider who will shake things up in Washington and improve their economic and job situations. But his platform, landing team and appointments so far indicate that they’ll be sorely disappointed.

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-Elect Trump won 62 million votes, and the way I see it, many of those came from people who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by a system in which the political establishment ignored their concerns and struggles. Many from Midwestern states also saw local industries erode and jobs remain hard to come by—the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is stuck at 10%, higher than when Obama took office in 2008—at odds with talk by commentators of an improving economy. (Racism, sexism, and xenophobia disturbingly factored into Trump’s campaign as well; these are very important issues, but I’ll write about them more later.)

However, it’s hard to see how Trump would change business-as-usual when lobbyists and Washington insiders make up so many of his appointees and transition team. These include Wilbur Ross, founder of a private equity firm, to lead the Commerce Department. He previously owned a coal company whose Sago mine in West Virginia had been cited for hundreds of safety and health violations and in which 12 miners lost their lives following an (avoidable) explosion. Betsy DeVos, a prominent donor to head Education, would likely push for more access to private schools which would lead to decreased funding to public ones, including those that many Trump voters’ families depend on. Trump also has numerous advisers and potential appointees from Washington think tanks and lobbying firms, including Myron Ebell, Michael McKenna and Michael Catanzaro.

None of these people have experience with or a record of supporting working-class people, whom Trump won more votes from than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, according to exit polls. He also won more men and more people with less than a university education, according to a Pew survey, and his supporters primarily came from rural areas and suburbs. (And yes, there was a big racial divide, but it looks similar to previous elections, in spite of the role racial issues and immigration played in Trump’s campaign.)

Furthermore, the tax code Trump has proposed would raise taxes on the poorest while cutting them for the richest people. Nearly 8 million families, most of them single-parent ones, would see higher taxes, too. The biggest tax changes would be to the richest 1 percent, who would benefit from windfalls of 13.5% on average, the Tax Policy Center finds. The richest of the top 1 percent (multi-millionaires) would also benefit from him repealing the estate tax (and possibly the gift and generation-skipping taxes). If all these tax cuts passed, the deficit would balloon over Trump’s term and it could be tough for his administration to continue the federal government’s support for the welfare system that some of his voters and many other people rely on, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump voters are concerned about what they perceive as inequality in job opportunities, according to a Pew survey conducted right before the election. (But they’re not worried about economic inequality, presumably hoping that the “American Dream” will one day come true for them.) It’s not clear where the needed jobs would come from during Trump’s term though. Infrastructure projects often create many jobs, but Trump’s proposal seems to depend on huge tax credits, which won’t necessarily have the intended results.

Nevertheless, if Italy’s experience with Berlusconi is any guide, I suspect that most Trump voters won’t simply turn against him just because he broke some campaign promises or because his economic policies don’t benefit them. People want to feel like they have someone, anyone, who listens to them and represents their interests. If no one else provides a clear and credible alternative, I think many people will stick with Trump through his term.

Finally, how will journalists grapple with the Trump era? Many have different thoughts on this (see this, this, and this), and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself as well. I don’t really have an answer yet, but stay tuned.

My election polling coverage for Nature

Here’s a few stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature. If you’re interested in them, you can read the whole thing on Nature‘s website. (And if you quote or cite any of them, please give proper credit.) Special thanks go to my editors, Lauren Morello and Richard Monastersky. At the bottom of this, I’ve also posted a few other election-related articles from my colleagues.

 

Pollsters struggle to explain failures of US presidential forecasts

Most surveys did not predict Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

What went wrong? That’s the question that many political pollsters in the United States are asking themselves in the aftermath of the 8 November presidential election. Republican Donald Trump won in an electoral landslide, but for months most polls forecast a victory for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Many types of polls, including randomized telephone polls and online polls that people opt into, tightened in the weeks leading up to the election — but still pointed to a Clinton win.

“The industry is definitely going to be spending a lot of time doing some soul-searching about what happened and where do we go from here,” says Chris Jackson, head of US public polling at Ipsos, a global market-research and polling firm based in Paris.

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

The most recent national polls — including those conducted by ABC/Washington Post, Ipsos, YouGov, and Fox News — all estimated a Clinton lead of 3 to 4% over Trump. Minor-party candidates, such as Gary Johnson of the Liberal Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, were forecast to win single-digit support. Yet as this article went to press, as the last votes were being counted, Clinton leads the popular vote by a razor-thin margin: just 0.2%. The majority of states have tipped for Trump, awarding him their valuable electoral-college votes and ensuring his victory.

Poll aggregators such as FiveThirtyEight and New York Times nonetheless forecast Clinton’s chances of victory at 71% or higher, while the Huffington Post predicted a Clinton landslide. This dramatic polling failure could have been due to factors such as poorly assessed likely voters, people misreporting their voting intentions, or pollsters poorly surveying some segments of the population.

“It’s a big surprise that such a wide variety of polls using such a wide variety of methodologies have all the errors fall in the same direction,”says Claudia Deane, vice president of research at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 9 November 2016.]

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Counting the uncounted in the US election

Following disturbing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Donald Trump, and in spite of embarrassing leaked emails among Hillary Clinton’s staffers, Clinton seems to be on her way to victory with some 46% of the popular vote, according to recent national polls, such as Ipsos and Pew. But as I wrote in the current issue of Nature (my first feature story for the magazine!), pollsters disagree about how estimate “likely voters”—people who will actually turnout to vote on Election Day. What no one disputes, however, is that only half of voting-age Americans will vote that day.

Only half, maybe a bit more. That means that Clinton will have actually earned less than a quarter of everyone’s votes, and 76% of Americans will not have voted for the new president. That’s at least 180 million people. Since this typical of US elections, an important question we should ask is, what does it mean for democracy in this country?

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

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California’s poised to become the first state to ban plastic bags

On the 8th of November, if California voters pass a referendum on the ballot known as Proposition 67, the state will become the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at groceries, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Considering that Californians go through some 10 to 20 billion plastic bags per year, each one in use for an average of 15 minutes, this could make a big difference.

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

I get it. Plastic bags are useful and convenient. But so were polystyrene-foam products, and we managed to abandon them in the 1990s because they were damaging the ozone layer. It’s time for us to adapt to the 21st century and be less wasteful with plastic. You can still pay 10 cents for a paper bag if you really need it.

Plastic bags pollute our oceans, coastlines and streets. A recent study found that one-fourth of fish sampled in California markets had plastic debris in them, and shellfish had even more. If we were to continue with business as usual, we could have more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050, according to a study last year. Another study found that 90% of seabirds worldwide swallow plastic, and sea turtles get tangled in or eat the bags too, unfortunately mistaking them for jellyfish.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, using the fossil fuels natural gas and petroleum. Only a few kinds are recyclable, and the others don’t decay. Well they do break down very very slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, during which time they may kill or poison untold numbers of seabirds and turtles.

San Diego, my home town, became the 150th municipality in the state with a ban. The majority of Californians have begun to adapt to the ban. But when the state legislature passed it in 2014 (Senate Bill 270), people opposed to it—including the plastic industry, libertarians, and a few others—collected petition signatures opposed to it. The governor, other leading policy-makers, Democrats and Greens, and numerous environmental groups support the bill.

Now the plastic bag ban is on the ballot, for everyone to decide. A “yes” vote on Prop 67 would make uphold the legislation, while a “no” would overturn it. Two years ago, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed broad support for a plastic ban, with nearly sixty percent of people supporting it and about a third opposed. A new poll may reveal a shift in public opinion, though I suspect that my fellow Californians will stick with the plastic bag ban.

And then we could see other states, like Massachusetts, follow suit. A few other state governments, in contrast, are trying to ban plastic bag bans, but if California is successful with their ban, maybe they’ll reconsider. Then a decade down the road…who knows, maybe the whole country will abandon plastic bags!

Campaign promises and proclamations I hope President Hillary Clinton will fulfill

I know, it’s probably premature to talk about what President (Hillary) Clinton could or should do. Poll aggregates currently estimate about an 88% chance of her winning the election, but you don’t need to be a political scientist to know that that’s far from guaranteed. A lot can happen in the next two and a half months, and we haven’t seen Clinton and Donald Trump debate yet. But barring a major shift, Clinton will likely prevail in November.

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

If she wins handily, by a margin of even 10%, and if there’s a big turnout of the electorate (60% turnout is actually considered high in this country), then Clinton can say that she’s earned a “mandate.” But as the New York Times asked on Monday, what exactly will that mandate be for? Thomas Frank argues in the Guardian that, as Trump’s campaign nosedives, Clinton need only campaign against him, rather than for a progressive agenda. What Clinton says in her speeches and whom she highlights as her top advisors and endorsers is at least as good a sign of what’s to come as her official platform.

In any case, many voters as well as observers abroad pay close attention to her policy positions and campaign promises, and they want action, not just rhetoric. As noted by the LA Times and the Atlantic, political-science research shows that promises made during this phase of the campaign often get followed up on later (with mixed results). Here are a few in particular I’m hoping she follows through on. Clinton will be able to make progress on many of these even if the Congress becomes gridlocked.

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Current Views of Climate Change: the general public versus top presidential candidates

I crossed the country last weekend to participate in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. It’s the biggest general science meeting of the year in the U.S., and I was excited to attend along with thousands of other scientists, science writers, science policy experts, and educators. I darted from session to session to see as many interesting sessions and talks that I could, including ones about gravitational waves (of course!), science in Iran, communicating science with humor, and grand visions of the future of science—presented by the heads of NASA and the National Science Foundation, among others.

But I’d like to share some other findings presented at the AAAS meeting, about public opinion on science and technology issues. Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center warned that journalists should not oversimplify the state of affairs. “There are a mix of factors underlying public attitudes toward science-related topics,” she said.

What do people think?

Based on Pew and Gallup surveys, it seems that people’s views on climate change vary with political ideology or party affiliation, with age, and to some extent with geographic location. Their views don’t seem to vary as much with gender, race, religion or education level.

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

It turns out that views of climate change are different around the world. In particular, Latin Americans and Africans, more than people elsewhere, think that climate change is a very serious problem and that it’s harming people now, and they’re more concerned that climate change will harm them personally. In contrast, people from the U.S. and China—the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters—expressed much less concern.

“Overall, people in countries with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions per capita tend to express less anxiety about climate change than those in nations with lower per-capita emissions,” the 2015 Pew report said.

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

This probably won’t surprise you, but Lydia Saad and her fellow researchers at Gallup see a huge political divide among those who identify as “Republican” and “Democrat” when it comes to: how much people worry about global warming; whether they consider global warming a serious threat; believe the effects of global warming are already occurring; believe that there is a scientific consensus; and believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

The chasm widened after 2008—when President Obama took office—in spite of the fact that the Obama administration did almost nothing to address climate change until two years ago. (Saad didn’t say that; that’s me editorializing.)

The political gap has also widened for people who "think scientists believe global warming is occurring." (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political gap has also widened for people who “think scientists believe global warming is occurring.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The 2015 Pew survey finds the people have similar political differences on: fracking, prioritizing wind and solar energy over fossil fuels, offshore drilling, and regulating power plant emissions.

And here’s the kicker: during an election year and following the warmest January on record, climate change currently ranks only #14 on the list of voters’ priorities, according to a Gallup poll this month. (The economy, jobs, and national security topped the list.) Nearly half of people surveyed considered climate change extremely or very important in their vote for president though, so we should still ask what the top presidential candidates have to say about these issues.

What do the presidential candidates think?

Now that the relentless, ceaseless, interminable, monotonous and tedious political campaign nears its end—with nine months to go before it gives birth to a fledgling president—it seems to be a good time to review the candidates’ positions on important issues relevant to science, especially climate change and energy policy. This takes on extra importance now, as the Supreme Court has complicated or delayed efforts to implement the Clean Power Plan. Depending on who replaces Scalia, completing this plan and building on it may be the charge of Obama’s successor.

I’ve ordered these candidates alphabetically by party and then by last name.

Hillary Clinton (Democrat, former Senator and Secretary of State)

Clinton says that she will expand clean energy, especially solar; create clean energy jobs; improve energy efficiency in homes and other buildings; increase fuel efficiency of cars and trucks; and since last fall she has expressed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (She had not taken a position one way or the other before that.) Clinton also has a $30 billion plan to “revitalize coal communities” and help them transition toward an economy based on cleaner energy sources.

She has a modest goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Note that, like Obama, Clinton has changed the goalposts, as they say, from the standard baseline: relative to 1990 emissions, this would amount to a reduction of less than 4%, which is tiny compared to plans proposed by European countries and Russia.

Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Senator)

Like Clinton, Sanders supports improving energy efficiency in buildings, electricity grids and cars; investing in renewable energies—especially solar and wind; and aims to create many green jobs. In contrast with Clinton, he opposes fracking and offshore drilling. He recently (in December) released a climate action plan, in which he advocates for a carbon tax and for steeper carbon emission cuts by 2030.

Dr. Jill Stein (Green, Physician)

Stein also has an ambitious climate action plan, and her stance on many energy and climate issues is similar to Sanders’s. Her plan includes a “Green New Deal” to promote the creation millions of green living-wage jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure, public transit, and more sustainable agriculture. But unique among all the candidates, she aims to achieve 100% clean energy for the U.S. by 2030.

Gary Johnson (Libertarian, former Governor of New Mexico)

Johnson, a leading Libertarian candidate, does not appear to have a climate plan or a detailed energy policy. He accepts that climate change is human-caused. He favors natural gas and to some extent coal power plants, and he emphasizes a free-market approach and opposes cap-and-trade systems.

Ted Cruz (Republican, Senator)

Cruz, like all of the leading Republican candidates but unlike candidates from any other party, does not believe that climate change is happening. He opposes “climate change alarmism.” He is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, and he believes that there is no consensus among scientists about climate change. Cruz supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling.

Marco Rubio (Republican, Senator)

Rubio’s positions appear to be similar to Cruz’s. It’s not clear to me whether he believes climate change is occurring, but he has clearly stated that it is not human-caused. Like Cruz, he supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling, and he opposes cap-and-trade programs.

Donald Trump (Republican, Businessman)

Trump does not have a climate or energy policy. He believes that climate change is not happening; it’s just the weather.

Philanthropists are Enabling and Influencing the Future of Astronomy

[This is a longer version of an op-ed I published in the San Jose Mercury News with the title “Tech moguls increasingly deciding what scientific research will be funded.” Thanks to Ed Clendaniel for help editing it.]

Billionaires and their foundations are both enabling and shaping scientific endeavors in the 21st century, raising questions that we as a society need to consider more seriously.

I have spoken to many astronomers, who consistently clamor for more reliable funding for scientific research and education. With broad public support, these scientists passionately explore the origins of life, the Milky Way, and the universe, and they naturally want to continue their research.

But what does it mean when private interests fund a growing fraction of scientific work? Can we be sure that limited resources are being directed toward the most important science?

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

After the Apollo program, federal funding for science and for astronomy in particular has never been a top priority, declining as a fraction of GDP. Since the Great Recession, science has received an increasingly narrow piece of the pie. Acrimonious budget debates perennially worry scientists that the mission or research program they’ve devoted their careers to might be cut.

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Perhaps as a result, philanthropic funding for scientific research has bloomed, increasing sharply relative to the federal government, according to the National Science Foundation. For example, the Palo Alto-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, built on the success of Intel, agreed to provide $200 million for the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, intended to study distant stars and galaxies. This summer, Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation dedicated $100 million to research at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere to expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Because the federal role is more and more constrained, there is a real opportunity for private philanthropy to have a lot of influence on the way in which scientific research goes forward,” Robert Kirshner, head of the Moore Foundation’s science program, told me.

These laudable initiatives put personal wealth to good use. They enable important scientific research and technology development, and some scientists benefit from the philanthropists’ largesse. But they also transfer leadership from the scientific community and public interest to the hands of a few wealthy businesspeople and Silicon Valley tech moguls.

While philanthropists support leading scientists and valuable scientific research, they and their advisors decide what is “valuable.” If they desire, they could fund their favorite scientists or the elite university they attended. They have no obligation to appeal to the scientific community or to public interests.

Philanthropists sometimes go for attention-getting projects that gets their name or logo on a major telescope (like Keck or Sloan) or a research institute (like Kavli), which also happen to enable important science for many years.

For better and perhaps also for worse, private funding of science is here to stay. Although fears of billionaires controlling science might be overblown, we should ensure that we support a democratic and transparent national system, with scientists’ and the public’s priorities guiding decisions about which projects to pursue.

Public funding involves thorough review systems involving the community, and projects develop upon a strong base with considerable oversight and transparency. This takes time, but it’s worthwhile.

Government agencies and universities support “basic” science research, allowing scientists to focus on science for its own sake and to explore long-term projects. Private interests often ignore basic research, typically spending 80 cents of every research and development dollar on the latter. In response to this shortcoming, the Science Philanthropy Alliance formed recently near Stanford University to advise foundations about how to invest directly in fundamental scientific research.

“If you’re going to have an impact in the long run, then you should be supporting basic research, which is often where some of the biggest breakthroughs come from,” said Marc Kastner, its president, referring to the Internet and the human genome.

These well-intentioned efforts offer no guarantee, however. We should urge policy-makers to reliably fund science and consider it as sacrosanct as healthcare and social security, regardless of budget limits. At the same time, we should clearly delineate the role philanthropy and private industry will play.

Nuclear Risk Reduction After the Iran Deal: Take Nukes Off Hair-Trigger Alert

By Ramin Skibba and Stephen Young

Following weeks of intense debate in the United States, the international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supported by all California Senators and Bay Area Representatives, will go forward. It is an historic arrangement that demonstrates the world’s resolve to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, it will not solve all the nuclear threats that face the world.

With the Iran agreement now entering its implementation phase, it’s important to ask what other steps can be made to reduce the still considerable risks posed by nuclear weapons. The place to start is with countries already possessing nuclear weapons, pressing them to reduce the threat that their massive stockpiles still represent. Removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert” would be an important first step.

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

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8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists

I’ve enjoyed most of my time working in academic science in the U.S. and Germany as a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher, a research scientist and a lecturer. I’ve benefited from supportive mentors, talented colleagues and wonderful friends. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of research, teaching, political advocacy and public outreach. Based on my experience and on anecdotal evidence, the system works well in some ways but is flawed in many others, especially involve the job market and career advancement.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, here are my current thoughts on problems with the system and ways it could be improved, with a focus on the U.S. and on the physical sciences, though the social sciences and life sciences face similar problems.

1. Let’s be honest: the academic job market is horrible. It was already pretty bad before the recession, and it is worse now. Many scientists move from institution to institution, working on many postdocs, fellowships, and other short-term jobs while seeking permanent positions or more secure funding, but these turn out to be increasingly elusive and competitive. (I worked at three positions over nine years since earning my Ph.D.) I’ve seen some tenure-track faculty positions receive well over 400 applications—I don’t envy the hiring committees there—and I’ve seen some grant proposal success rates drop well below 10%.

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D's are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D’s are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

This system causes people a lot of stress; from a societal perspective, in this situation, how well can people work under such pressure and job insecurity, and how much can they accomplish when they must perennially focus on job applications and grant proposals rather than on the things that drew them to their profession? If the scientific community wants to attract the best scientists, then shouldn’t we strive to make their jobs more desirable than they are now, with better pay and security? As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in the Pacific Standard, “unless the nation stops…’burning its intellectual capital’ by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote.” In much the same way, the inadequate job prospects of adjunct faculty renders the possibility of drawing the best teachers and retaining them similarly small.

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

People have been diagnosing these problems for years, but no clear solutions have emerged. In my opinion, the job market situation could be gradually ameliorated if many institutions simultaneously sought to improve it. In particular, I think scientists should have longer-term postdoctoral positions, such as five years rather than one, two or three. I also think faculty should hire fewer graduate students, such as one or two at a time rather than, say, five of them, regardless of how much funding they happen to have at the time.

I also think that colleges, universities, and national labs should allocate funding for more staff positions, though of course that funding has to come from somewhere, and tuition and student debt are already too high. On the other hand, some people argue that university administrations have ballooned too much over the past few decades; others argue that some universities spend too much money on their sports programs. In addition, federal funding for “basic research” (as opposed to applied research) in science should be increased, as such grants often supplement university funding.

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for "sequestration." (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for “sequestration.” (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

2. We can considerably improve the graduate student experience as well. Many university departments and professional societies now give more information about academic career prospects to students than before, and it should be their official policy to do so. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to explore as many of their interests as possible, not just those focused on their narrow field of research. If they want to learn to teach well, or learn about computer programming, software, statistics, policy-making, or the history or philosophy or sociology of their science, or if they want to investigate interdisciplinary connections, or if they want to develop other skills, they should have the time and space to do that. Universities have many excellent resources, and students should have the opportunity to utilize them.

We know that only a fraction of graduate students will continue in academia, and the best scientists will be well-rounded and have a wide range of experience; if they move on to something else, they should be prepared and have the tools and expertise they need.

3. The scientific community can take this an important step further by acknowledging the many roles and variety of activities scientists engage in in addition to research: teaching courses, participating in outreach programs, advancing efforts to improve diversity, becoming involved in political advocacy, developing software and instrumentation that don’t necessarily result in publications, etc. Many scientists agree that we do not sufficiently value these kinds of activities even though they are necessary for the vitality and sustainability of the scientific enterprise itself. For example, in a new paper submitted to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, the authors find that many astronomers think a larger fraction of their grant-funded work (up to 10%) should be allocated to education and public outreach (EPO). EPO are included among the “broader impacts” of National Science Foundation grants, but much more can be done in this regard. All of these activities should be explicitly recognized by the relevant federal agencies during the evaluation of grant proposals and by departmental hiring committees when assessing candidates for jobs and promotions.

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Therefore, a corollary follows: if the community appreciates a wider scope of activities as important components of a scientist’s job, then it is not necessary to relentlessly pursue published research papers all of the time. Perhaps this could alleviate the “publish or perish” problem, in which some scientists rush the publication of insufficiently vetted results or make provocative claims that go far beyond what their analysis actually shows. That is, endeavoring for a more open-minded view of scientists’ work could improve the quality and reliability of scientific research.

In practice, how would this be done? Scientists could organize more conferences and meetings specifically devoted to education research, outreach programs, policy developments, etc., and the proceedings should be published online. Another way a scientist’s peers could be aware of the wider scope of her non-research work would be to have different levels of publication involving them, from informal social media and blog posts to possibly peer-reviewed statements and articles that could be posted on online archives or wiki pages. For example, if she participated in an outreach project with local high school students or in Congressional visit days, she could speak or write about the experience and about what worked well with the program and then publish that presentation or statement.

Furthermore, since research projects can take years and many grueling steps to complete, often by graduate students toiling away in their offices and labs, why not reduce the pressure and recognize the interim work at intermediate stages? Some people are considering publishing a wider scope of research-related work, even including the initial idea phase. A new open-access journal, Research Ideas and Outcomes, aims to do just that. I’m not sure whether it will work, but it’s worth trying, and I hope that scientists will be honorable and cooperative and avoid scooping each other’s ideas.

On that note, as some of you know, I will make it official that I am leaving academic science. (In my next post, I will write about what I am shifting my career toward.) As a result, I will be unable to complete many of my scientific project ideas and papers, and for the few astrophysicist readers of this blog, I will not be annoyed if you run with them (but please give me proper credit). My next four projects probably would have been the following: modeling galaxy catalogs including realistic dynamics within galaxy groups and clusters within dark matter clumps of the “cosmic web”; assessing observational and theoretical problems in the relation between galaxy stellar mass and dark matter halo mass; modeling the mass-morphology relation of galaxies using constraints I previously obtained with the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project; and modeling and analyzing the star formation rate dependence of the spatial distribution of galaxies in the distant cosmic past. I am happy to give more details about any of these ideas.

4. We should also address the problem of academic status inequality. If a person makes it to an elite university or has the opportunity to work with a big-name faculty member or manages to win a prestigious award, grant or fellowship, that is an excellent achievement of which they should be proud. Nevertheless, such a person is essentially endorsed by the establishment and is much more likely to be considered part of an in-crowd, with everyone else struggling in the periphery. In-crowd scientists then often have an easier time obtaining future opportunities, and like an academic capitalism, wealth and capital flow toward this in-crowd at the expense of the periphery scientists. On the one hand, the in-crowd scientists have accomplished something and the community should encourage them to continue their work. On the other hand, scientists are busy people, but they can also be lazy; it’s too easy to give an award to someone who as already received one or to hire someone from another elite institution rather than to assess the merits of the many people with whom they may be less familiar.

According to a recent study in Science Advances, the top ten elite universities produce three times as many future professors as the next ten in the rankings. However, the authors find plenty of evidence that this system does not resemble a meritocracy; in addition, female graduates slip 15% further down the academic hierarchy than men from the same institutions. According to a Slate piece by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the paper, the findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Many scientists coming from academic outsiders—not from the elite universities—have made important discoveries in the past, but their peers only slowly noticed them. “Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.”

5. As I’ve written before, much more work can be done to improve gender, race, class and other forms of diversity when hiring students, postdocs and faculty and promoting them at universities. Furthermore, when organizing conferences, workshops, meetings and speaker series, diverse committees should explicitly take these principles into consideration. Even the most thorough and attentive committees must also beware of “unconscious bias,” which affects everyone but can be reduced.

6. In a related point, colleges and universities can implement many family-friendly (or more generally, life-friendly) policies to improve and promote work-life balance of academic workers. These include flexible schedules, parental leave, tenure-clock extensions and many others. However, this is not sufficient: scientists who happen to lack the benefits and privileges of white, male, straight people from elite universities seem to have to work that much harder to have a chance of drawing the attention of hiring committees. One should not need to work 100 hours a week to be a successful scientist. Shouldn’t we want more balanced scientists with lives and interests beyond their narrow research field? This means that committees should recognize that sometimes excellent scientists may have fewer yet very high-quality accomplishments and may be under the radar waiting to be “discovered.”

7. The scientific community would also benefit from more opportunities for videoconferencing, in which people remotely present talks and field questions about them. As I’ve written for the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee, our biggest source of carbon emissions comes from frequent travel, and we should try to reduce our carbon “footprint.” Moreover, people at small colleges with small travel budgets and people with families who have a harder time traveling would appreciate this, as it would level the playing field a bit. Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but people continue to improve video tools with Skype, Google and many others, which could be utilized much more extensively.

8. Finally, I argue that everyone would benefit from more and better interactions between scientists, public affairs representatives and government affairs officials at universities. Such interactions would help scientists to present their accomplishments to a wider community, help universities to publicize their scientists’ work, and help political officials to understand the important science being done in their districts, often benefiting from federal and state investment.

These are my current thoughts, and I hope they spark discussions and debates.