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.

How Does Pope Francis’s Encyclical Affect the Climate Change Debate?

In a bold and surprising move, Pope Francis waded into the global climate change debate last month. He did not mince words or make a few minor remarks about these contentious issues; he wrote a lengthy and widely circulated encyclical discussing the “gravity of the ecological crisis.” Even before the official document, Laudato Si, came out, the Italian magazine L’Espresso leaked a draft of it (and it’s been translated into English; Wired wrote a good summary), generating considerable media attention, applause from environmental organizations, and criticism from climate-denying religious conservatives. Throughout the document, the Pope unequivocally calls for major lifestyle, economic and societal changes while condemning the “exploitation of the planet” and “excessive consumption” of energy and water especially by “wealthier sectors of society.”

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 17 June 2015 (Reuters)

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 17 June 2015 (Reuters)

While this did not come completely out of the blue—Francis has spoken about environmental stewardship, sustainability, and solidarity in the past and he describes environmental degradation in theological language—the Pope’s strong words and detailed discussion of wide-ranging issues from agriculture to biodiversity to economic liberalism surprised some. The “gravity of the ecological crisis” has clearly concerned him for some time, and he felt it was important to take a stand as the leader of the world’s Catholics.

What implications can we draw from these developments? Firstly, it increases pressure on political officials preparing for the UN climate talks in Paris in December to develop ambitious binding commitments. China and India have yet to submit their proposed commitments, and the US’s (except for California’s) commitments remain weak. “I applaud the forthright climate statement of Pope Francis, currently our most visible champion for mitigating climate change, and lament the vacuum in political leadership in the United States,” says Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science journals. According to some climate scientists, current pledges by 36 countries insufficiently cut carbon emissions: they will only delay dangerous global warming (2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels) by two years. In addition, some governments of countries with large Catholic populations, such as Brazil, now have cover to take stronger action.

Secondly, the Pope has weighed in and entered the domain of science. He may not be a scientist but he has clearly done his homework. He recognizes that the problems of climate change involve scientific analysis and assessments, but science plays just one part in a global conversation involving social, economic, and political issues as well. This pressing problem is not only a scientific one, and its solutions will not be either.

US conservatives have adopted the refrain, “I am not a scientist,” as a cop-out to cast doubt on climate change and avoid taking action. But no more. The fact that the Pope—an important figure in an inherently conservative position—has now taken an unambiguous stance on human-caused climate change and the need for a global response, shows that conservative climate deniers are out of touch and should concede that it is time to work together to face this challenge. As much as 25% of US evangelicals approve of the pope but deny the science; I hope that they will listen to him and consider changing their minds.

Fourthly, Pope Francis remains very conservative on population issues such as contraception and birth control. In his encyclical, he avoided these issues as part of the solution, even though overpopulation will continue to strain the planet’s resources and will result in increased energy consumption. However, in my opinion, too many people focus too much on population, perhaps because it’s an explanation that makes sense: since the time of Thomas Malthus, many assumed that if N people consume x, then if the population grows to a larger N, more will be consumed. But the problem is more complex than this. Focusing on places with growing populations puts the burden on the world’s poor, while rich countries are primarily responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. Moreover, with a fairer distribution of wealth and increased access to education and employment, population growth will likely decrease, but if billions were to consume like Americans, the planet would not have long to survive. A focus on consumption and emissions per capita is warranted and puts the responsibility where it belongs.

Finally, as before, Pope Francis made strong statements about economic inequality, social justice, excessive consumerism among the rich, and solidarity with the poor. After all, he chose his name after Saint Francis of Assisi, “the man of the poor.” According to Bill McKibben, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org, environmental degradation is leading to climate change that is harming the poor. “The people who have done the least to cause this suffer the most.”

We may not agree with everything the pope says or writes, but he has begun a dialogue between religion and science. “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.” As Francis eloquently put it, humanity must maintain its moral compass, and we all—believers and nonbelievers alike—need to find a way to bridge our differences and take action now to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

COMPETES Act: The House Science Committee’s Controversial Bill

Two weeks ago, the United States House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) along party lines. Originally authored by Bart Gordon (D-TN) in 2007 to improve the US’s competitiveness and innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it contributed substantial funding to research and activities in federal agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (In a previous post, I was hopeful about the passage of an earlier version of the bill.) Its current version, however, includes contentious cuts to NSF and DOE research programs, and it now proceeds to the House floor.

Although the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2016 includes small increases for the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST, the new COMPETES Act, if passed in its current version, would shift funding away from research in the social sciences, geosciences, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and biological and environmental research. In other words, federally funded research in some science fields would gain more support at the expense of these fields, whose funding would be cut by 10-50%. In particular, the bill would severely narrow the scope of NSF research and scientific facilities in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) and geoscience (GEO) directorates and would reduce the DOE’s basic and applied research programs in climate change and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

I suppose it could be worse. Lamar Smith’s earlier version included attacks and interference in the NSF’s scientific peer-review process (which I discussed in
this post in March), and he made a small concession by removing such language from the bill.

Clearly not happy with the COMPETES Act, scientists of all stripes continue to voice their opposition. While the House Science Committee’s Republican majority rejected one Democratic amendment after another, 32 scientific agencies submitted official letters for the record describing their concerns. (These agencies include the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics, of which I am a member.) Moreover, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—the US’s premier scientific society—submitted a letter as well, pointing out that H.R. 1806 violates its own Guiding Principles. The letter also states, “NSF is unique among federal agencies in that it supports a balanced portfolio of basic research in all disciplines, using the scientific peer review system as the foundation for awarding research grants based on merit.”

In my opinion, the COMPETES Reauthorization Act needs serious revision so that scientists in all fields, including the social sciences and geosciences, may continue their work at an internationally respected level. This would certainly make the US more competitive in science and would aid people seeking STEM careers. If the bill’s proponents will not allow these necessary improvements to be made, then the bill should be rejected.

For more information, check out this well-written article in Wired and detailed coverage in Science magazine and Inside Higher Ed.

Dispute Continues between Astronomers and Native Hawaiians about Thirty Meter Telescope

The conflict over Mauna Kea, where astronomers seek to build one of the world’s largest telescopes and where Native Hawaiians consider sacred ground, continues. The situation escalated in early April when protesters, defending their land and angry about their concerns being ignored, managed to stop construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which was planned to be built by 2024 and begin detailed observations of distant galaxies and other objects at optical-infrared wavelengths.

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

Native Hawaiians protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: AP Photo/Anne Keala Kelly)

After police arrested 31 peaceful protesters for blocking the road to the summit, the new Hawaii governor, David Ige, called for a temporary halt to construction of the telescope on 7 April. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward,” Ige said. The situation remains at an impasse, and he extended the construction moratorium multiple times since then.

Artist's rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

Artist’s rendition of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. (Credit: TMT/Associated Press)

This is only the latest battle in an ongoing dispute. (See my previous post on the TMT and protests last fall.) Astronomers have found that Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is an ideal place to build ground-based telescopes because of its “seeing” statistics. Optical and infrared images are less distorted by light traveling through the atmosphere here than in many other places. Although many indigenous Hawaiians have allowed smaller telescopes to be built on the mountain, it becomes more controversial as astronomers try to construct more and larger telescopes on these protected lands which hold a great cultural importance for them. The TMT also drew opposition from celebrities of Native Hawaiian descent, including Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones), who encouraged others to join the protests.

In addition, the protests drew more media attention than the last time, during the ground-breaking. For example, see these excellent articles by Azeen Ghorayshi on Buzzfeed and Alexandra Witze in Nature, as well as other articles in Science, New Scientist, and NPR. George Johnson also discussed the protests in the New York Times, though his column clearly sides with the TMT.

Supported by US and international universities as well as the National Science Foundation (in the form of “partnership-planning activities”), the TMT is the primary 30-meter-class telescope given priority by the US astronomical community in the 2010 Decadal Survey and highlighted in a recent National Research Council report. The other two planned telescopes in that class include the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) led by the European Southern Observatory and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) led by an international consortium of universities, both of which are under construction in northern Chile. All three telescopes are scheduled to have “first light” in the early 2020s. During the planning phase of the TMT, in addition to Mauna Kea, astronomers considered other possible locations as well, also including northern Chile and Baja California, Mexico.

The Native Hawaiian position is not monolithic, but some groups oppose the construction of the TMT and others would support it if negotiations took place in good faith and with respect and not only in Western spaces. The protesters are not a small minority, and they don’t believe that their voices have been heard. Many Hawaiians make it clear that they are not against science or astronomy; for example, the Mauna Kea Protectors “[take] a stand specifically against scientific practices that do a lot of damage—to our planet, to traditional native cultures, and to public health and safety.”

They and others make arguments on cultural, environmental, and legal grounds. If built, the TMT would dominate the landscape as it would rise 18 stories above the mountain, at an elevation of 4200m, and would disturb a large area of its slope. Moreover, the Mauna Kea summit lies within a conservation district, and therefore according to Hawaiian law certain (arguably unsatisfied) criteria must be met before construction there. Finally and most importantly, many believe that Mauna Kea is a sacred and special place that must be protected, and those beliefs have not been sufficiently respected by the authorities. (For more information, see here and here.)

The official position can be found on the TMT website and at Mauna Kea and TMT. Furthermore, Claire Max, Interim Director of UC Observatories, recently made an official statement promoting the latter as a source for information “with links to balanced news stories about the project and the protests” and that “TMT…[has] profound regard for Hawaii’s culture, environment and people.”

The TMT does have support among some native Hawaiians, and TMT authorities have set up a $1 million annual scholarship fund, named The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which will be administered by the Hawaii Community Foundation. They have initiated a Workforce Pipeline Program in Hawaii as well. Like the Hawaiian organizations, they insist that they have the law on their side, but unlike them, they refer to the TMT as a done deal and fait accompli rather than as the subject of an ongoing dispute. According to the University of Hawaii position, “more than 20 public hearings have been held during the process and the project has been approved by then Governor Neil Abercrombie, the UH Board of Regents and the Board of Land and Natural Resources…The project has also cleared legal challenges and was upheld in the Third Circuit Court.”

From what I have seen, this dispute has generated heated debates in the astronomical community in various social media. For example, in the “Diversity in Physics and Astronomy” Facebook group (with 1700 members), astronomers made more posts and comments about the TMT and protests than about any other issue over the past few months. Astronomers expressed a wide range of views on Twitter as well, some of which were highlighted recently by Emily Lakdawalla’s Storify timeline, “Astronomy Progress is Not Universal.”

Like many astronomers and astrophysicists, I’m torn. While the TMT would be a boon for science and scientists, especially those who study galaxies, supernovae, stars, and planets, that is not the only criterion by which such a project should be evaluated. The state of Hawaii and the United States in general have a long history of colonialism and disrespect for indigenous peoples and cultures, and unfortunately the TMT risks falling onto the wrong side of that history. For now, I think that the moratorium on construction should continue and substantial negotiations should take place, and if that delays the schedule, so be it. If more native Hawaiians and organizations do not decide to support the TMT, the astronomical community should consider a different site or even terminate the telescope altogether. I realize that the cost of either action would be great, considering the huge international investment that has already taken place, but the price of desecrating native Hawaiians’ sacred and protected land is much higher.

I see strong opinions on each side, and many have distributed petitions and sought to gain more public and media support. How will astronomers and Hawaiians proceed? I hope that they will use this time to discuss the situation with respect and as equals, and they may determine whether a resolution that satisfies many eventually can be achieved.

Physics Diplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Deal

After much anticipation and cautious optimism, US, European, and Iranian negotiators managed to put together a nuclear framework in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this month. It sets the stage for a final detailed agreement to be developed in June, which will transform Iran’s nuclear program and reduce sanctions against Iran that have weakened its economy. It appears that diplomats have nearly bridged a formidable foreign policy impasse that plagued their respective governments for over a decade.

Perhaps more importantly, a rapprochement with Iran could gradually end the country’s international isolation since 1979 following the revolution. In addition, from the perspective of Iran and some other Middle East countries, Iran’s improved relations with the US and its fair treatment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would make the US appear less hypocritical and less a source of instability. As an historical aside, it’s also worth noting that Iran started its nuclear program in 1967 with US help as part of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and unlike Iran, three countries in the region with nuclear programs (Israel, Pakistan, and India) have not signed and ratified the NPT.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Important Characters

Many interesting aspects of this agreement and situation are worth discussing. First, much credit for this historic achievement goes to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, US Secretary of State Kerry, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, though of course all of the negotiating teams put in a lot of hard and stressful work to make it happen. Both Kerry and Zarif now face a difficult balancing act: staying true to the framework and focusing on delivering a final agreement while navigating domestic political concerns.

The latter may reflect the different messages and emphases in the statements made by Kerry and Zarif as they returned to their home countries. For example, Zarif and President Rouhani spoke more about relief from sanctions and freedom to enrich uranium while Kerry and President Obama spoke about the limits and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, while some influential Iranian “hard-liners” like Hossein Shariatmadari criticized the deal, US senators in the Foreign Relations Committee led by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) sought to pass a bill that would incorporate Congressional oversight but also had the potential to jeopardize diplomatic efforts.

US Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also are important characters in this story. As pointed out in the New York Times and the Guardian, both had studied nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s, and they became No. 2 negotiators and “atomic diplomats” during the nuclear talks. Perhaps having experienced physicists involved helped cooler heads to prevail? (I’m half-joking; remember the Manhattan Project?)

Technical Details

Let’s explore some of the technical elements of the nuclear framework. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and US intelligence, Iran ended any weapons research it may have had in 2003. However, because of its power plant in Bushehr, its enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordo, and its heave water reactor under construction near Arak, Iran has the capability to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Only 0.3% of natural uranium is in the form of the 235U isotope. For power reactors, 3.5% enrichment is needed, while 20% is considered a threshold for “weapons-usable” uranium, and 90% enrichment is weapons-grade. Moreover, when uranium is burned, the spent fuel can be processed to extract plutonium. (And as we know from Fukushima, those spent fuel pools can be dangerous.)

Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, and they are operating only 9,000 of them. If Iran wanted to, analysts predict that they are 2-3 months away from acquiring enough fissile material for one weapon; the US and Europe seek to prevent a nuclear “breakout” by extending this to at least one year, for a duration of at least 10 years. In addition, the international community will set up strict inspection and transparency measures that would allow it to detect any Iranian efforts to violate the accord.

For more information, see the US State Department’s detailed fact sheet and these Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Science Insider articles. The UCS also recently held a webinar with directors and members of its Global Security Program: Drs. Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, and Edwin Lyman.

The agreement’s key provisions may be summarized as follows. The first one involves inspections and transparency: the IAEA will have access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, supply chain, uranium mines, centrifuge production, storage facilities, as well as any suspicious sites. Second, US and EU nuclear sanctions will be lifted after the IAEA verifies key steps, and they will “snap back” if necessary. Also, the UN Security Council will pass a new resolution and will set up a dispute resolution program. Third, for the enrichment, the number of centrifuges will be reduced to 6,104 IR-1s (1st-generation centrifuges), and Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% for at least 15 years or build new enrichment facilities during that time. Enrichment R&D will be limited as well, and there are plans to convert Fordo facility to an international research center. Fourth, Iran will modify the Arak research reactor to reduce plutonium production, ship spent fuel out of the country, and they are not allowed to engage in reprocessing or reprocessing R&D indefinitely.

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

According an interview with Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former ambassador and nuclear negotiator for Iran, the US and world powers got what they wanted: Iran has accepted the maximum level of transparency and verification, including confidence-building measures that would ensure there would be no breakout or diversion toward weaponization. For Iran, negotiators can say that their rights for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT was accepted, and all unilateral and multi-lateral nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted.

Implications

This historic diplomatic achievement, assuming that it comes to fruition with a final detailed agreement in June, will satisfy many concerns on both sides. It likely will result in improved relations and more respect for Iran. Importantly, it will also aid scientists and scientific research in Iran. Over a history of thousands of years, Persians have contributed fundamental scientific discoveries, including for example, by 10th century luminaries, the physicist Alhazen and astronomer Biruni. Now Persian scientists can engage in more international collaboration, and the new physics laboratory in Fordo will be an excellent start. (For more, see these articles in Science, Nature, and NY Review of Books.)

Finally, this has implications for the region. If relations between Iran and world powers improve, Iran could play a much more important role in Middle Eastern affairs. I think this is as it should be, but those who see these relations as a zero-sum game, including some in Saudi Arabia and Israel, oppose the deal for that reason. Leaders of another regional power, Turkey, have not opposed it, however. Furthermore, the success of diplomacy helps to continue nonproliferation efforts under the NPT around the world. We should also acknowledge though, as long as people view nuclear power as the primary alternative to fossil fuels, many countries will invest in it, and the risk of nuclear breakout and proliferation will remain, in spite of IAEA efforts and the NPT.

Challenges of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Successor to Hubble

Everyone grows up eventually. It’s hard to believe, but the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which many astronomers and astronomy fans consider to be one of the most important telescopes of our generation, turns 25 this month. Hubble, built and funded by NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched on 24th April 1990, only a half year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its instruments produced numerous iconic images, including the spectacular ones below.

Everyone is celebrating this anniversary! Check out hubble25th.org for more images, news, and information. The 2010 documentary, “Saving Hubble,” is now viewable for free. Plus, in a public lecture on 1st April as part of National Academies’ Space Science Week, Jason Kalirai (Space Telescope Science Institute) highlighted Hubble’s many scientific contributions.

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Now astronomers and the astronomy-loving public are anticipating and preparing for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, named after a former NASA administrator). Over its ambitious 5 to 10-year mission (a Star Trek-style time-scale!), its powerful cameras and spectrometers will focus on near- to mid-infrared wavelengths and will examine planetary systems in our galaxy as well as distant galaxies forming in the early universe, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. As you can see, it’s built with a folding segmented mirror and a deployable sunshield. It’s not servicable like Hubble was, as JWST will orbit one million miles from Earth.

Artist's impression of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

Artist’s impression of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

As I’ve written in previous posts, JWST’s gigantic budget has been contentious in the astronomical community. While astronomers believe that JWST will likely have a big scientific impact, especially on the fields of planetary physics and galaxy formation, others are unhappy that its cost inevitably results in smaller programs being cut. NASA officials prioritize the missions and programs the agency invests in, and it is simply not feasible to fund every exciting project astronomers propose. (JWST’s budget constituted nearly half of NASA’s astrophysics budget for FY 2015.) Based on my conversations with astronomers, the community remains divided about JWST, though many astronomers are excited about the telescope and note its importance for public outreach.

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Large projects rarely stay on schedule and on budget in astrophysics, but JWST was perhaps an extreme case. A decade ago, JWST faced considerable criticism, such as in this Nature article by Lee Billings, because of its many delays and cost overruns. But after much pressure and threats from Congress to cancel the program, NASA officials rebaselined JWST’s budget and conducted a management overhaul in 2011. Since then, scientists have kept JWST within its new $8.8-billion budget and the telescope is on schedule for launch in 2018.

Last Tuesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing reviewing JWST’s progress, called “Searching for the Origins of the Universe: An Update on the Progress of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).” According to the American Institute of Physics, the committee’s Chair and Ranking Member, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), “expressed, as did other subcommittee members, great interest in and support for the telescope.” According to Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office, JWST has ten months of unused budget reserves, which will be more than enough as it moves into the integration and testing phase.

A few challenges remain. For example, technicians have had difficulty with a “cryocooler” component, which needs to operate at much colder temperatures than other such units in order to keep the Mid-Infrared Instrument sufficiently cool, but it is still scheduled to be delivered this summer. In any case, both John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and John Mather, JWST’s Senior Project Scientist, expressed confidence to the Committee that this observatory will launch in 2018. “Expect amazing discoveries,” Mather said.

For more coverage, take a look at these articles in Scientific American, Space News, and Space.com. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the American Institute of Physics, and former colleagues at the University of Arizona helped design JWST’s NIRCam instrument.]