How the Worsening Two-Tier Higher Education System Affects Students and Teachers

Two years ago, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who had worked for decades at Duquesne University, passed away at the age of 83. According to Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for her and the United Steelworkers, “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits, and with a salary of $3,000 to $3,500 [or less] per three-credit course.” But then in a matter of months, her cancer returned, she became nearly homeless as she could not afford the maintenance of her home or even the cost of heating it during the cold Pittsburgh winter, and Duquesne, which did not recognize the adjuncts’ union, let her go. She died as the result of cardiac arrest a couple weeks later.

Vojtko’s struggle and tragic story is a moving reminder about the plight of adjunct professors throughout the United States. Adjuncts strive to get by under immense stress on the lower rung of a widening two-tier academic system while educating the majority of students in colleges and universities. Over the past year, I have worked as a research scientist, a freelance science writer, and recently, a lecturer in physics at the University of California, San Diego. The latter position exposed me to only a fraction of the heavy workload of adjuncts, many of whom teach multiple courses simultaneously at different institutions and with little support, not knowing where or whether they might find work next.

According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts now constitute more than 76 percent of U.S. faculty. In a report titled “The Just-in-Time Professor,” the House Education and the Workforce Committee finds that the majority of adjuncts live below the poverty line. Many universities, especially public ones, experience perennial budget pressures over the years and have been reducing their numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty, resulting in a rapid shift of the teaching load to much lower paid “contingent faculty.” Incoming students expect to be taught by full professors and may be surprised to find adjuncts teaching their classes. In spite of their working conditions, the adjuncts are just as good, but “the problem is not the people who are in the part-time or nontenure positions, it’s the lack of support they get from their institutions,” said John Curtis, the director of research and policy at the AAUP.

Like freelance workers and those in the sharing economy, adjunct professors have become part of a growing “reserve army of labor.” After many years navigating academia, which can be viewed as “path dependence and sunk costs,” many people see teaching and educating the next generation of students as their calling. Adjunct jobs give them the opportunities they seek along with flexible careers that outsiders romanticize. But make no mistake: many adjuncts cannot make a living from their work and have become increasingly unhappy about their working conditions.

The craze about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, further increases pressure on adjunct professors. Many universities, including UC San Diego, have jumped on the bandwagon behind Coursera and other online-education companies. These companies’ MOOCs and technologies may have some utility, but they have not (yet?) delivered on their potential and they are not the wave of the future. MOOCs still have poor completion rates, and nothing beats interacting and engaging with a real teacher in real time.

Adjuncts have been exploited by the “Walmart-ization” of higher education, according to Keith Hoeller, author of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. This system neither benefits the universities nor the teachers, who have little job security and support, nor the students themselves, who need to develop relationships with teachers with sufficient resources, office space, and career-development tools. Many resist the adjunct crisis by joining unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (of which I have been a member), Service Employees International Union, and others, and by protesting, such as in the National Adjunct Walkout Day in February. Adjunct unions have advocated for more tenured positions and longer-term salaried contracts with benefits. Some also campaign for an aspirational $15K per course, connecting their struggle to that of workers calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.

Nevertheless, universities need more funding to significantly improve this situation. Increasing student tuition is not the solution, of course, as ballooning student debt levels are already far too high. Tuition costs have rapidly increased over the past few decades because of declining state and federal funding, growing administrations and bureaucracy, and the large costs of sports facilities and coach salaries. If efforts were made along each of these directions, student tuition could be reduced while improving teaching positions. In any case, universities and governments have an important opportunity and responsibility now to improve the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn. In the future, we can hope that other teachers will not have to experience what Margaret Mary Vojtko went through.

Rosetta and the Time-scale of Science

Over the past couple weeks, you have surely seen Rosetta and its dusty comet all over the internet, in the news, or on Twitter and other social media sites. It has definitely captured the public imagination. But where did Rosetta come from? How did scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) manage to accomplish the feat of putting a lander on the surface of a comet hurtling through space? The answer: through a lot of hard work by many people and investment of many resources for many years.

#CometLanding may have been the meme of the week, but it was decades in the making. After Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley) flew by the Earth and was studied by ESA’s Giotto probe, scientists there and at NASA realized that more ambitious missions would be necessary to obtain more detailed information about comets, which contain water and organic materials and could have influenced the origin of life on Earth. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the Rosetta mission in November 1993, about 21 years ago. Design and construction took teams of scientists a decade to complete, and then they launched the €1.3 billion flagship spacecraft in 2005 (which was a few months before NASA’s Deep Impact mission sent a probe to collide with a different comet). Following four gravity assists, slingshotting once by Mars and three times by Earth, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this year. After orbiting for two months, Rosetta was in a position and trajectory to eject Philae, which successfully landed on the comet and made history on 12th November. (See my recent post for more.)

To give another example, for my astrophysics research, I have frequently used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an optical telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The SDSS was first planned in the 1980s, and data collection finally began in 2000. Some have
described the SDSS as one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy, as it has observed millions of galaxies and quasars, transforming many fields of research, including work on cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe. It also witnessed the rise of Galaxy Zoo, which with more than 250,000 active “citizen scientists,” has become perhaps the greatest mass participation project ever conceived. Now we prepare for the successors to the SDSS, including ESA’s Euclid mission and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which are expected to have “first light” in the 2020s.

Scientific research operates on a long time-scale, sometimes longer than the careers of scientists themselves. Scientists make mistakes sometimes, and some projects, large and small, may fail or produce inaccurate results. At times, it may take awhile for scientists to abandon a theory or interpretation insufficiently supported by evidence, and it can be difficult to determine which investigations to pursue that could yield new and fruitful research. Nevertheless, over many years the “self-correcting” nature of the scientific enterprise tends to prevail.

In addition, while the US Congress makes decisions about federal budgets every fiscal year, American scientists depend on predictable stable funding over longer periods in order to successfully complete their research programs. Moreover, school and university students depend on funding and resources for their education. Quality scientific education helps people to become scientifically literate and critical thinkers; as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “center line of science literacy…is how you think.” Plus, some students will be inspired by Rosetta and other achievements to pursue careers in science, and we should give them every opportunity to do so.

Events can change rapidly in the 24-hour news cycle, but science and scientists work over years to produce big results like the comet landing. Future missions and ambitious projects for the next few decades are being planned now and need continued support. And to ensure more scientific advancements after that, we need to keep investing in the education of our students—the next generation of scientists.

[Note that this op-ed-like piece is adapted from an assignment I wrote for a science writing class with Lynne Friedmann at UC San Diego.]

Three Astrophysicists (including me) Meet with Congresswoman Davis

Last Tuesday, three weeks before the midterm election, three astrophysicists—graduate students and Ph.D. candidates Darcy Barron and Evan Grohs and I (a research scientist)—met with Representative Susan Davis (CA-53) and her staffer, Gavin Deeb. We had a twenty-minute meeting to talk about science in her district office in North Park, San Diego, which is on Adams Avenue and biking distance from my home. Darcy and I are her constituents, while Evan is a constituent of Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52), who is also a science advocate but is in a tight election race.

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I enjoyed participating in the Congressional Visit Day in Washington, DC, earlier this year (and Darcy had previously participated in the program too). In March, Josh Shiode (AAS Public Policy Fellow) and I had a short meeting with Rep. Davis and one of her DC staffers. This time in her San Diego district though, we had more time to chat. As before, she was very receptive to our message for federal investment in basic research, education and public outreach in the astronomical sciences and in science in general.

The current science budget situation and constraints from the ongoing “sequestration” leaves Congress and the Executive branch with little wiggle room, but we need to make the best of a bad situation. Otherwise, the US risks dropping behind Europe, Japan, and China in astrophysics research and in educating the next generation of scientists. Most federal funding for astronomy and astrophysics comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Rather than improving and increasing these agencies’ constrained budgets, unfortunately Congress became mired in gridlock with little time before the election, and to avoid another government shutdown, Congress members had to vote on a “continuing resolution,” which basically keeps the budget on autopilot. Unless budget negotiations become an immediate priority after the election, it seems we’ll have to wait until FY 2016 to try to improve science budgets.

Rep. Davis stressed the importance of science communication, outreach, and improving diversity of the scientific workforce, and we were all in agreement about that. Communicating science to the public well helps to remind people how awesome science is and how important our investment in it is. And in our outreach efforts, the young and diverse students we reach and hope to inspire will be the people who advance science in the future. Rep. Davis was clearly interested in these issues and supportive of our and our colleagues’ work on them.

A couple months ago, Senator J. Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014. According to the Association of American Universities, the bill calls for “robust but sustainable funding increases for the [NSF] and National Institute of Standards and Technology” (NIST) and it “recognizes the past success and continuing importance of the NSF’s merit review process.” It also supports each agency’s efforts to improve education of future science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals. But as Jeffrey Mervis of Science points out, support for COMPETES wasn’t sufficiently bipartisan and hasn’t been reauthorized.

On the other hand, perhaps there’s a better chance of Congress reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The HEA is the major law that governs federal student aid, and it’s been reauthorized nine times since Pres. Johnson signed it into law in 1965. Considering that at least 70% of US university graduates are burdened with debt, this is clearly important. The HEA bill, introduced by Sen. Harkin (chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee), would provide some relief for students by increasing state contributions to public universities (and thereby reduce tuition fees), supporting community colleges, and expanding programs that allow high school students to earn college credits. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans remain on this bill, and we’ll have to wait and see in what form it will be passed.

We didn’t get into all these details, but I just wanted to give you some context. We also briefly discussed the need for graduate education reform and for preparing graduate students for the difficult job markets they face. These issues aren’t addressed in the HEA, though that bill would benefit some grad students who would have decreased loan burdens.

In any case, we’ve got to continue our work and our scientific advocacy, and after the November election, we hope that Rep. Davis, Rep. Peters (or DeMaio), and other Congressional lawmakers can get back together and negotiate a better budget for basic research, education, and public outreach in the physical and social sciences.

Exploring Physics with Intertribal Youth at UCSD

[This is about a physics outreach event at UC San Diego this summer, and it will be published in the UCSD Fall Newsletter. Many thanks to Susan Brown for editing assistance.]

How does a speaker system work? Why do figure skaters spin faster when they draw in their arms and legs? Where does static electricity come from? How much energy does a lightbulb use? Native American students asked these kinds of questions on Friday, July 25th, as they participated in a physics outreach event at UC San Diego.

As part of a two-week visit to UCSD, San Diego State, and Cal State San Marcos, twenty five middle and high school students traveled to campus on Friday morning to engage in hand-on activities and demonstrations with physics researchers, postdocs, and grad students. They’re part of Intertribal Youth, a fourteen year-old organization directed by Marc Chavez and based in California with the purpose of enriching the lives of young students.

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The event on Friday was primarily organized by Adam Burgasser, an associate professor of physics, and Dianna Cowern, an outreach coordinator, both at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences. Adam, who has worked extensively on outreach and diversity programs, contacted the ITY group through the UCSD Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which resulted in this event at Mayer Hall (Revelle College) and other planned outreach events.

We planned demonstrations in five physics areas, including electricity and magnetism, vibration and sound, optics and light, solar energy, and momentum. Unfortunately, we had to skip the solar energy one because it was surprisingly cloudy for San Diego—the marine layer persisted all morning. We divided the students into four groups, and they spent about twenty five minutes exploring and learning about each of the other topics.

Drew Nguyen and I facilitated demonstrations on Mayer Hall’s balcony on linear and angular momentum, including an air rocket, a rotating chair and hand-crank bicycle wheel, and a basketball and tennis ball. Students discovered that it’s easy to make a simple rocket: we held a 2-liter plastic Coke bottle on a wooden base, poured in a little water and pumped in air with a bike pump, and then let go and watched it take off and fly a couple stories into the air! (I got a bit wet as water spurted out the bottom.) Students experimented with it and some were surprised that without the water to keep the air pressure high, the bottle had no thrust and remained grounded.

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In another demo, students would spin each other on a rotating stool while keeping their arms extended. Then when the seated person brings in their arms, they rotate faster, just like a rapidly spinning figure skater, which demonstrated the conservation of angular momentum. In a related demo, we hung a bike wheel from a rope attached to its axis, and when it’s spinning rapidly, it could spin vertically or tilted, and the person holding the rope could feel the momentum of the wheel. This demo always impressed students, such as Marla and Dakota. Dakota thought it was “crazy and weird” that the wheel would rotate this way, until he and the other students figured it out. Marla realized that it’s the same principle that keeps a tilted bike from falling over when someone’s riding around a curve in the road.

The students enjoyed playing with these and other demos. For example, inside Mayer Hall, they explored a bunch of experiments related to electricity and magnetism. They particularly enjoyed the van de Graaff generator, which is a hollow metal globe on top of a stand and which uses a moving belt to generate static electricity. When you touch it with particular rods, which might be like lightning rods, it generates sparks—and the students sometimes shocked each other too. But touching the globe with your own hand makes your hair stand on end. It was hard to tear the students away from these exciting experiments and continue with them all over the course of the morning.

During those couple hours, they actively learned a couple things about physics and engaged with real-life scientists. These outreach events help to spark the students’ interest in science, and particularly in physics and astronomy, and we hope to inspire a few of them will be inspired to pursue science further as they continue their education and become the next generation of scientists.

After the demonstrations, everyone loved the liquid nitrogen ice cream, which Adam and the students made on the patio. It tastes a lot like regular ice cream, but it’s much more fun. Over the rest of their visit, the ITY students enjoyed other activities in the San Diego region including a “star party” at the La Jolla Indian Reservation on the following Tuesday night.

AAAS Symposium in Feb. 2015: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Citizen Scientists

[This is an expanded version of a post I wrote for the Galaxy Zoo blog.]

Some colleagues and I successfully proposed for a symposium on citizen science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Jose, CA in February 2015. (The AAAS is the world’s largest scientific society and is the publisher of the Science journal.) Our session will be titled “Citizen Science from the Zooniverse: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Scientists.” It refers to the more than one million volunteers participating in a variety of citizen science projects. This milestone was reached in February, and the Guardian and other news outlets reported on it.

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“Citizen science” (CS) involves public participation and engagement in scientific research in a way that educates the participants, makes the research more democratic, and makes it possible to perform tasks that a small number of researchers could not accomplish alone. (See my recent post on new developments in citizen science.)

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The Zooniverse began with Galaxy Zoo, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary, and which turned out to be incredibly popular. (I’ve been heavily involved in Galaxy Zoo since 2008.) Galaxy Zoo participants produced numerous visual classifications of hundreds of thousands of galaxies, yielding excellent datasets for statistical analyses and for identifying rare objects. Its success led to the development of a variety of CS projects coordinated by the Zooniverse in a diverse range of fields. For example, they include: Snapshot Serengeti, where people classify different animals caught in millions of camera trap images; Cell Slider, where they classify images of cancerous and ordinary cells and contribute to cancer research; Old Weather, where participants transcribe weather data from log books of Arctic exploration and research ships at sea between 1850 and 1950, thus contributing to climate model projections; and Whale FM, where they categorize the recorded sounds made by killer and pilot whales. And of course, in addition to Galaxy Zoo, there are numerous astronomy-related projects, such as Disk Detective, Planet Hunters, the Milky Way Project, and Space Warps.

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We haven’t confirmed the speakers for our AAAS session yet, but we plan to have six speakers from the US and UK who will introduce and present results from the Zooniverse, Galaxy Zoo, Snapshot Serengeti, Old Weather, Cell Slider, and Space Warps. I’m sure it will be exciting and we’re all looking forward to it! I’m also looking forward to the meeting of the Citizen Science Association, which will be a “pre-conference” preceding the AAAS meeting.

Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences

I decided to add “Thoughts on…” at the beginning of the title to emphasize that, although I’ll present some facts, I’ll be expressing my personal opinions on the academic job market. These are my “2 cents”, and some people may disagree with them. And though there are some similar issues and concerns in the social sciences and humanities, most of my experience comes from the physical sciences, especially physics and astronomy, and I’ll focus on that. If you don’t have the time to read the whole post, my main (and obvious) point is this: for a number of reasons, the job market has been getting worse over the past decade or more, with detrimental effects to scientific research and education (and to scientists, educators, and students). This is just a brief intro to the issues involved, and I’m not sure what the best solutions might look like, but I’ll try to write about that more in another post.

Soft Money

For people with Ph.D.’s, in the past, they’d decide upon earning their degree (or earlier) whether to proceed with the “traditional” academic career or shift to another kind of career. Those who continue would consider moving to a tenure-track faculty or other long-term position at a college, university, or other institution. With the growth of “soft money, a euphemism for uncertain funding from external federal (e.g., National Science Foundation) or occasionally private sources, short-term postdoctoral positions and fellowships have proliferated. For various reasons, soft money has become a very important part of the funding landscape (see this article in Science in 2000 and this more recent article).

One consequence of this is that most people in astrophysics now need to work at two or three or even more postdoc/fellowship positions before potentially having a shot at a long-term or more secure position. In my case, I’ve already done two postdocs myself, at the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg and at the University of Arizona, and now I’m a research scientist at UC San Diego and this and my previous position were funded by soft money. The job market for the tenure-track faculty positions has become increasingly worse, and it has worsened with the financial crisis. Note that there are other career options as well, such as those associated with particular projects or programs.

Another consequence is that every couple years people need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort applying for the next round of jobs. In addition, people spend a lot of time writing and submitting research grants—to try to obtain more soft money. As a result, grant acceptance rates are now very low (sometimes less than 10%) and senior positions are very competitive. All of these applications also take time away from research, outreach, and other activities, so one could argue that a lot of scientists’ time is thereby wasted in the current system.

Moreover, this system perpetuates inequalities in science, which I’ll describe more below. It also reinforces a workforce imbalance (as pointed out in this article by Casadevall & Fang) where the senior people are mostly well-known males and the larger number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy are more diverse. In addition, although it can be fun to travel and live in different places, for people in couples or with families, it becomes difficult to sustain an academic career. (See these posts for more on diversity and work-life balance issues.)

The Adjunct Crisis

The job market and economic situation at US colleges and universities has spawned the “adjunct crisis” in teaching and education. Much has been written about this subject—though maybe not enough, as it’s still a major problem. (There’s even a blog called “The Adjunct Crisis.”) The number and fraction of adjunctions continues to grow: the NY Times reported last year that 76% (and rising) of US university faculty are adjunct professors.

The problem is that adjuncts are like second-class faculty. Employers are able to exploit the “reserve army of labor” and create potentially temporary positions, but now adjuncts are relied upon much more heavily than before to serve as the majority of college instructors. According to this opinion piece on Al-Jazeera, most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some adjuncts even depend on food stamps to get by. The plight of adjuncts received more media attention when Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct who taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, died broke and nearly homeless. Adjuncts clearly need better working conditions, rights, and a living wage.

Inequalities in Science

As I mentioned above, the current job market situation reinforces and exacerbates inequalities in science. The current issue of Science magazine has a special section on the “science of inequality,” which includes this very relevant article. The author writes that one source of inequality is what Robert Merton called the “Matthew effect,” such that the rich get richer: well-known scientists receive disproportionately greater recognition and rewards than lesser-known scientists for comparable contributions. As a result, a talented few can parlay early successes into resources for future successes, accumulating advantages over time. (If you’re interested, Robert Merton was a sociologist of science whose work is relevant to this post.) From the other side of things, we’re all busy, and it’s easy to hire, cite the work of, award funding to, etc. people who know are successful scientists, even though many lesser known scientists may be able to accomplish the same thing with that grant or position or may have published equally important work; but then more time needs to be spent to research all of the lesser known people, who can publish and still perish.

The author, Yu Xie, also points out that the inequality in academics’ salaries has intensified, some academic labor is being outsourced, and one can be effected down the road by one’s location in global collaborative networks. If one does not obtain a degree at a top-tier university, then this can be detrimental in the future regardless of how impressive one’s work and accomplishments are. We can attempt to get around this last point by spending the time to recognize those who aren’t the most well-known in a field or at the most well-known institutions but who have considerable achievements and produced important work.

“Love What You Do”

Finally, I’ll end by talking about the “Do what you love. Love what you do” (DWYL) nonsense. While this seems like good advice, since it’s great to try to follow your passions if you can, nonetheless it’s both elitist and denigrates work. (I recommend checking out this recent article in Jacobin magazine.) People are encouraged to identify with the work that they love, even if the working conditions and job insecurity shouldn’t be tolerated. The author argues that there are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. The DWYL ideology hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. These are things that every worker, including workers in academia, deserve.

Frontiers of Citizen Science

Since some colleagues and I recently submitted a proposal for a symposium on citizen science at a conference next year, I thought this would be a good time to write some more about citizen science and what people are doing with it. I previously gave a brief introduction to the “citizen science” phenomenon (also called “crowd science”, “crowd-sourced science”, “networked science”, “civic science”, “massively-collaborative science”, etc.) in an earlier post. The presence of massive online datasets and the availability of high-speed internet access and social media provide many opportunities for citizen scientists to work on projects analyzing and interpreting data for research.

Citizen science (CS) is an increasingly popular activity, it’s produced impressive achievements already, and it clearly has potential for more. (It also even has a meme!) You don’t have to look hard to see accomplishments of CS projects in the news. A quick online search brought up citizen scientists studying bumblebees, bird nests, weather events, plankton, and other projects. The growing phenomenon of CS has drawn the interest of social scientists as well, and I’ll say more about their research later in this post.

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I’m particularly familiar with the Zooniverse, a platform that hosts projects in a variety of fields. It began in 2007 with the Galaxy Zoo project, which I’ll say more about below, and its other astronomy/astrophysics projects include Disk Detective, Planet Hunters, Moon Zoo, and Space Warps. To give other examples, outside of astronomy, there are projects in zoology, such as Snapshot Serengeti to study animals and their behavior with “camera trap” photos (the graph above describes herbivores they’ve cataloged, from a recent blog post); in biology/medicine, such as Cell Slider to identify cancer cells and aid research; and in climate science, there is Old Weather, which examines ship’s logs to study historical weather patterns. In addition, people at Adler Planetarium and elsewhere are working on producing educational resources and public outreach programs.

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Galaxy Zoo (GZ) invites volunteers to visually classify the shapes and structures of galaxies seen in images from optical surveys. The project resulted in catalogs of hundreds of thousands of visually classified galaxies—much much better than anything achieved before—allowing for novel statistical analyses and the identification of rare objects and subtle trends. If you’re interested in my own research, I’m leading clustering and astrostatistical analyses of GZ catalogs to study the spatial distribution of galaxies and determine how their morphologies are related to the dark matter distribution and large-scale structure of the universe. For example, with more and better data than pre-GZ studies, my colleagues and I obtained statistically significant evidence that galaxies with stellar bars tend to reside in denser environments (see this paper). In the figure above, you can see examples of barred galaxies (lower panels) and unbarred ones (upper panels). In 2009, we used the impressive GZ datasets to disentangle the environmental dependence of galaxy color and morphology, since we tend to see redder and elliptical galaxies in denser regions (see this paper). Time permitting, I’d like to extend this work by using those results with detailed dark matter halo models, and we could potentially compare our results to galaxies in the Illustris simulation (which has been getting a lot of media attention and was misleadingly described as “the first realistic model of the universe“).

Galaxy Zoo scientists have many other achievements and interesting research. For example, a Dutch schoolteacher, Hanny van Arkel, discovered a unique image of a quasar light echo, which was dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (Lintott et al. 2009). GZ volunteers also identified galaxies that appeared to look like “green peas”, and most of them turned out to be small, compact, star-bursting galaxies (Cardamone et al. 2009). In addition, Laura Trouille is leading the Galaxy Zoo Quench project, in which participants contribute to the whole research process by classifying images, analyzing data, discussing results, and writing a paper about them.

Citizen science is related to “big data” and data-driven science (see also this article), and in particular to data mining and machine learning. According to a new astrostatistics book by Ivezic, Connolly, VanderPlas, & Gray, data mining is “a set of techniques for analyzing and describing structured data, for example, finding patterns in large data sets. Common methods include density estimation, unsupervised classification, clustering, principal component analysis, locally linear embedding, and projection pursuit.” Machine learning is a “term for a set of techniques for interpreting data by comparing them to models for data behavior (including the so-called nonparametric models), such as various regression methods, supervised classification methods, maximum likelihood estimators, and the Bayesian method.” Kaggle has data prediction competitions for machine learning, and their most recent one involved challenging people to develop automated algorithms to classify GZ galaxy morphologies like as well as the “crowd-sourced” classifications, and the winning codes performed rather well. Nothing beats numerous visual classifications, but there is clearly much to be learned along these lines.

Finally, sociologists, political scientists, economists and other social scientists have been studying CS, such as the organization and efficacy of CS projects, motivations of participants, and applications to industry and policy making. For example, Amy Freitag has written about how citizen science programs define “success” and their rigorous data collection. The sociologist Anne Holohan has written a book Community, Competition and Citizen Science on collaborative computing projects around the world. Eugenia Rodrigues is studying the views and experiences of participants in CS initiatives, and Hauke Riesch has written on this subject as well. (This is also related to the work by Galaxy Zoo scientists in Raddick et al. on participants’ motivations.)

In a recent interesting article, Chiara Franzoni & Henry Sauermann analyze the organizational features, dimensions of openness, and benefits of CS research. As case studies, they examine GZ, Foldit (an online computer game about protein folding), and Polymath (involving many mathematicians collectively solving problems). They argue that the open participation and open disclosure of inputs, which they mention is also characteristic of open source software, distinguish CS from traditional “Mertonian” science. (Robert Merton was a sociologist who emphasized—perhaps too much—social and cultural factors in science, such as scientists’ desire for peer recognition and career benefits, disputes between scientists, etc. I ended up not discussing him in my post on “paradigm shifts“.) They also discuss knowledge-related and motivational benefits, and they point out that CS projects that involve subjects less popular than astronomy or ornithology, for example, or that address very narrow and specific questions may face challenges in recruiting volunteers. Finally, they discuss organizational challenges, such as division of labor and the need for project leadership and infrastructure. If you’re interested, Bonney et al. in Science magazine is another shorter article about organizational challenges and developments in citizen science.

My Experience with the Congressional Visit Day

[A previous version of this first appeared as a Guest Post on the AAS Policy Blog.]

Last week, I participated in the Congressional Visit Day (CVD) with the American Astronomical Society (AAS). I was just one member in a group of eighteen AAS members—a diverse group from around the country involved in many different subspecialties of astronomical research, as well as various teaching and outreach programs. Below, is a nice photo of us is (and I’m the guy wearing a hat). Our AAS delegation was part of a larger group of scientists, engineers, and business leaders involved in a few dozen organizations participating in the CVD, which was sponsored by the Science-Engineering-Technology Work Group. Go here for a further description of our program.

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As scientists and members of the AAS, we had a few primary goals. We argued first and foremost for the importance of investing in scientific research (as well as education and outreach) through funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and science in particular departments (especially the Depts. of Energy and Defense). If you’re interested, you can see our handout here. We also encouraged our Representatives to sign two “Dear Colleague” letters that are currently passing through the House: the first letter is by Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) and is asking for a 3% increase to NSF’s FY 2015 budget to $7.5 billion, and the second letter is by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) and is asking the appropriators to “make strong and sustained funding for the DOE Office of Science one of your highest priorities in fiscal year 2015.”

We also told our Congress members about our personal experiences. In my case, I have been funded by NASA grants in the past and am currently funded by a NSF grant. I am applying for additional research grants, but it’s not easy when there is enough funding available only for a small fraction of submitted grant proposals. In the past, I have also benefited from projects and telescopes that were made possible by NASA and the NSF, and I plan to become involved in new telescopes and missions such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and possibly the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope). Also, if a NSF grant I’ve submitted is successful (fingers crossed!), I will be able to participate more actively in public outreach programs especially in the San Diego area in addition to continuing my research.

Not only did we explain the importance of stable funding for basic research, we also talked with our legislators about how astronomy is a “gateway science” that draws people in and inspires them to learn more, become more involved, and even potentially become scientists themselves.

We talked about the importance of improving science and math literacy, which also improves US competitiveness with respect to other countries, and about how investment in science spurs innovation in industry and leads to new and sometimes unexpected developments in computing, robotics, optics, imaging, radar, you name it. Since “all politics is local,” as they say, we also emphasized that these investments in scientific research are important for strong local, as well as national, economies. As we were visiting shortly after the introduction for the President’s Budget Request (PBR) for FY 2015, we also expressed our concern that the proposed budget reduces funding for NASA’s education and outreach activities within the Science Mission Directorate by two-thirds, and would require mothballing the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) outside of the well-established senior review process.

My Congress members are Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, whose staff we met, and Representative Susan Davis (CA-53), with whom we met personally (along with a member of her staff). We had a quick photo-op too, right before she had to get back to the House chamber for a vote. I was in a group with two other astronomers who were from Oklahoma and Illinois, and we met with their respective Congress members as well. Our larger group was split into teams of three to four for the days visits, and each met with the representatives and senators of all team members.

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Senators and Representatives serve on different committees and subcommittees, each with a specific jurisdiction over parts of the federal government. For example, Sen. Boxer is on the Science & Space Subcommittee of Senate’s Commerce Committee and is the chair of the Committee on Environment & Public Works. Sen. Feinstein is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy & Water, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Energy (among many other things). The appropriations committee is responsible for writing legislation that grants federal agencies the ability to spend money, that is, they appropriate the budgets for the agencies under their jurisdiction. Rep. Davis is a member of the House Education & Workforce Committee and has done a lot of work on educational reform, promoting youth mentoring, and civic education.

I think that we received a largely positive responsive from our congressional representatives. My three Congress members were very supportive and in agreement with our message. Some of the other members we met with, while generally positive about our message, left me with the impression that they approved of our “hard sciences” but didn’t want as much funding going to social sciences, climate science, and other particular fields. It seems to me that we must get ourselves out of this highly constrained budget environment, in which discretionary programs like those funding the sciences are capped each year; we need to either find additional sources of revenue (e.g., reducing tax breaks) or make other changes to current law.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the proposed budget and the negotiations taking place in Congressional committees. We also need to consider the current political situation with the upcoming mid-term elections. Once a budget (which may be significantly different than the PBR) is passed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, it will be considered by the House and Senate, which are currently controlled by Republicans and Democrats (who have 53 seats plus 2 independents who caucus with them). However, it appears possible that Republicans may retake the Senate in the 114th Congress, and in that case their leadership may resist even small additions to the current budget request and may attempt to simply pass a “continuing resolution” instead.

On the same day as our CVD (26th March), Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where there were considerable disagreements among the committee members about STEM education, SOFIA, and other issues. (Note that the committee is particularly polarized and has been criticized for its excessive partisanship and industry influence.) Fortunately, on the following day, a hearing before House appropriators on the NSF budget request fared better. This is encouraging, but in any case it will be a difficult struggle to produce a good budget (that is, good for science) within a short time-scale.

More from the AAAS meeting

The second half of the AAAS meeting in Chicago was interesting too. (I wrote about the first half in my previous post.)

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Probably the best and most popular event at the meeting was Alan Alda’s presentation. You’ll know Alan Alda as the actor from M*A*S*H (and recently, 30 Rock), but he’s also a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He gave an inspiring talk to a few thousand people about how to communicate science clearly and effectively in a way that people can understand. He talked about how one should avoid or be careful about using jargon. Interaction with the audience is important, and one can do that by telling a personalized story (with a hero, goal, and an obstacle, which develops an emotional connection), or by engaging with the audience so that they become participants. It’s also important to communicate what is most interesting or exciting or curiosity-piquing about the science, but in the end, the words you use don’t matter as much as your body language and tone of voice. It’s also good to develop improvisation skills, so when a particular explanation or analogy doesn’t appear to work well with the audience, you can adapt to the situation. He referred to the “curse of knowledge”, such that as scientists we forget what it’s like not to be experts in our particular field of research. That can be an obstacle when interacting with most segments of the public, Congress members and other politicians (most of whom aren’t scientists or haven’t the time to become familiar with the science), and even with scientists in other fields. Most of all, one needs to be clear, engaged, and connected with one’s audience. Finally, Alda told us about the “flame challenge
–challenging scientists to explain flames and other concepts for 11-year olds to understand. (The kids are also the judges of the competition.) If the video of Alda’s talk becomes available online, I’ll link to it here for you.

I attended an interesting session on climate change and whether/how it’s possible to reduce 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from energy by 2050. As pointed out by the chair, Jane Long (who is one of the authors of this report), our energy needs will likely double or even triple by then, while we must be simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. Peter Loftus discussed this issue as well, and showed the primary energy demand as well as energy intensity (energy used per unit GDP) have been rapidly increasing over the past twenty years, partly due to China. But to obtain substantial carbon reductions, the intensity needs to drop below what we’ve had for the past 40 years! We need to massively add to power generation capacity (10 times more rapidly than our previous rates), and it might not be feasible to exclude both nuclear and “carbon capture” in the process. Karen Palmer gave an interesting talk about the importance of energy efficiency as part of the solution, but she says that one problem is that it’s still hard to evaluate which policies best promote energy efficiency as well as ultimately energy savings and carbon emission reductions. Richard Lester made strong arguments about the need for nuclear power, since renewables might not be up for the task of meeting rising energy demands in the near future. This was disputed by Mark Jacobson, who pointed out that nuclear power has 9-25 times more pollution per kW-hour than wind (due to mining and refining) and it takes longer to construct a plant than the 2-5 years it takes to build wind or solar farms. Jacobson also discussed state-by-state plans: California benefits from many solar devices, for example, while some places in the northeast could use offshore wind farms. In addition, such offshore arrays could withstand and dissipate hurricanes (depending on their strength), and WWS (wind, water, solar) could generate about 1.5 million new jobs in the U.S. in construction alone. Different countries have very different economic situations and carbon footprints, so different solutions may be needed.
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I caught part of a session on “citizen science” (see my previous post). Chris Lintott spoke about the history of citizen science and about how the internet has allowed for unprecedented growth and breadth of projects, including the numerous Zooniverse projects. Caren Cooper discussed social benefits of citizen science, and Carsten Østerlund discussed what motivates the citizen scientists themselves and how they learn as they participate. Lastly, Stuart Lynn spoke about how the next generation of citizen science systems can be developed, so that they can accommodate larger communities and larger amounts of data and so that people can classify billions of galaxies with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for example.

Finally, there was another interesting session on how scientists can work with Congress and on the challenges they face, but more on that later…

Reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting

I’d like to tell you about the AAAS meeting I’m attending. (Look here for the program.) It’s in Chicago, which is definitely much colder than southern California! I know it might sounds strange, but it’s nice to experience a real winter again.

There were some astrophysics sessions (such as on galaxy evolution in the early universe and dark matter particles) but that wasn’t my focus here. I took some brief notes, and this is based on them…

There were a few sessions about science communication, outreach, and media. These are very important things: for example, according to Rabiah Mayas, the best indicator of whether people participate in science or become scientists as adults is the extent to which they engaged in science-related activities outside of school as kids. One person discussed the importance of fact-checking for producing high-quality and robust science writing, but it takes time; one should note that peer-review in scientific research is supposed to perform a similar purpose, though it can be time-consuming as well. In any case, many people agreed that scientists and journalists need to interact better and more frequently. (As a side note, I heard two high-profile science journalists mispronounce “arXiv”, which is pronounced exactly like “archive”.) In addition, it’s worth noting that smaller regional newspapers often don’t have dedicated science desks, though this could provide opportunities for young writers to contribute. There was also an excellent talk by Danielle Lee about “Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences,” who talked about ways to take advantage of social media.

There were interesting presentations about scientists’ role in policy-making, but I’ll get back to that later. Someone made an important point that scientists should be extremely clear about when they are just trying to provide information versus when they are presenting (or advocating) policy options. I should be clearer about that myself.

I also saw interesting talks by people about public opinion surveys in the U.S. and internationally of knowledge and opinions of science and technology. According to these polls, although some Americans are worried about global warming/climate change, people are more worried about toxic waste, water and air pollution. According to Lydia Saad (of Gallup), 58% of Americans worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, 57% think human activities are the main cause, 56% think it’s possible to take action to slow its effects, while only 34% think it will affect them or their way of life. In addition, she and Cary Funk (of Pew) found huge partisan gaps between self-identified Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. As one person pointed out, climate change is not just a science issue but has become a political one. Americans in polls had pretty high opinions of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, but people had the best views of those in the military. There is a wide range of knowledge of science, especially when it comes to issues such as evolution. (Note that fewer Republicans believe in evolution by natural processes, due to a drop in those who are not evangelicals, who already had a low fraction.) Also note that the numbers depend on how poll questions are asked: for example, ~40% agree to, “The universe began with a huge explosion”, and when you add “according to astronomers”, then the proportion jumps up to 60%. (If you’re curious, this image basically describes astronomers’ current view of the Big Bang.)

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There was an interesting session dedicated to climate change science, which included scientists that contributed to the IPCC’s recent 5th Assessment Report (which we talked about in an earlier blog). Note the language they’re required to use to quantify their un/certainty: “virtually certain” means 99% certain, and then there’s “very likely” (90%), “likely” (67%), and “more likely than not” (>50%). Michael Wehner discussed applications of “extreme value statistics” (which are sometimes used analyze extremely luminous galaxies or large structures in astronomy: see this and this) on extreme temperatures. Extremely cold days will be less cold, while extremely hot days will be more common and hotter. For particular extreme weather events, one can’t say whether they’re due to climate change, but one can ask “How has the risk of this event changed because of climate change?” or “How did climate change affect the magnitude of this event?” It seems very likely that the there will be heavier heavy rainy days, longer dry seasons, and more consecutive dry days between precipitation events. There will be more droughts in the west (west of the Rockies) and southeast, and more floods in the midwest and northeast.

The plenary speaker today was Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy until last year, who gave an excellent talk. He compared convincing people about climate change to earlier campaigns to convince people about the dangers of tobacco use and its connection to lung cancer; both issues have had industry-promoted disinformation as well. On rising temperatures with climate change, he channeled Yogi Berra when he said, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re heading.” He talked a little about the role of natural gas (see also these NYT and Science blogs), and he discussed carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS). Finally, he talked about how one might determine an appropriate price of carbon. He advocated a revenue-neutral tax, starting at $10/ton and over ~12 years raising it to $50/ton, and then giving the money raised from this directly back to the public. He also talked about wind turbines, which are now more reliable, efficient, and bigger, and he predicted a 20-30% decline in price in the next 10-15 years. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules is also dropping, but installation costs and licensing fees (“soft costs”) should be reduced. I definitely had the impression that, now that Chu is no longer Energy Secretary, he could be more frank than before about his views on contentious issues.