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.

Reproducibility in Science: Study Finds Psychology Experiments Fail Replication Test

Scientists toiling away in their laboratories, observatories and offices don’t just fabricate data, plagiarize other research, or make up questionable conclusions when publishing their work. Participating in any of these dishonest activities would be like violating a scientific Hippocratic oath. So why do many scientific studies and papers turn out to be unreliable or flawed?

(Credit: Shutterstock/Lightspring)

(Credit: Shutterstock/Lightspring)

In a massive analysis of 100 recently published psychology papers with different research designs and authors, University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek and his colleagues find that more than half of them fail replication tests. Only 39% of the psychology experiments could be replicated unambiguously, while those claiming surprising effects or effects that were challenging to replicate were less reproducible. They published their results in the new issue of Science.

Nosek began crowdsourcing the Reproducibility Project in 2012, when he reached out to nearly 300 members of the psychology community. Scientists lead and work on many projects simultaneously for which they receive credit when publishing their own papers, so it takes some sacrifice to take part: the replication paper lists the authors of the Open Science Collaboration alphabetically, rather than in order of their contributions to it, and working with so many people presents logistical difficulties. Nevertheless, considering the importance of scientific integrity and investigations of the reliability of analyses and results, such an undertaking is worthwhile to the community. (In the past, I have participated in similarly large collaboration projects such as this, which I too believe have benefited the astrophysical community.)

The researchers evaluated five complementary indicators of reproducibility using significance and p-values, effect sizes, subjective assessments of replication teams and meta-analyses of effect sizes. Although a failure to reproduce does not necessarily mean that the original report was incorrect, they state that such “replications suggest that more investigation is needed to establish the validity of the original findings.” This is diplomatic scientist-speak for: “people have reason to doubt the results.” In the end, the scientists in this study find that in the majority of cases, the p-values are higher (making the results less significant or statistically insignificant) and the effect size is smaller or even goes in the opposite direction of the claimed trend!

Effects claimed in the majority of studies cannot be reproduced. Figure shows density plots of original and replication p-values and effect sizes (correlation coefficients).

Effects claimed in the majority of studies cannot be reproduced. Figure shows density plots of original and replication p-values and effect sizes (correlation coefficients).

Note that this meta-analysis has a few limitations and shortcomings. Some studies or analysis methods that are difficult to replicate involve research that may be pushing the limits or testing very new or little studied questions, and if scientists only asked easy questions or questions to which they already knew the answer, then the research would not be particularly useful to the advancement of science. In addition, I could find no comment in the paper about situations in which the scientists face the prospect of replicating their own or competitors’ previous papers; presumably they avoided potential conflicts of interest.

These contentious conclusions could shake up the social sciences and subject more papers and experiments to scrutiny. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; according to Oxford psychologist Dorothy Bishop in the Guardian, it could be “the starting point for the revitalization and improvement of science.”

In any case, scientists must acknowledge the publication of so many questionable results. Since scientists generally strive for honesty, integrity and transparency, and cases of outright fraud are extremely rare, we must investigate the causes of these problems. As pointed out by Ed Yong in the Atlantic, like many sciences, “psychology suffers from publication bias, where journals tend to only publish positive results (that is, those that confirm the researchers’ hypothesis), and negative results are left to linger in file drawers.” In addition, some social scientists have published what first appear to be startling discoveries but turn out to be cases of “p-hacking…attempts to torture positive results out of ambiguous data.”

Unfortunately, this could also provide more fuel for critics of science, who already seem to have enough ammunition judging by overblown headlines pointing to increasing numbers of scientists retracting papers, often due to misconduct, such as plagiarism and image manipulation. In spite of this trend, as Christie Aschwanden argues in a FiveThirtyEight piece, science isn’t broken! Scientists should be cautious about unreliable statistical tools though, and p-values fall into that category. The psychology paper meta-analysis shows that p<0.05 tests are too easy to pass, but scientists knew that already, as the Basic and Applied Social Psychology journal banned p-values earlier this year.

Furthermore, larger trends may be driving the publication of such problematic science papers. Increasing competition between scientists for high-status jobs, federal grants, and speaking opportunities at high-profile conferences pressure scientists to publish more and to publish provocative results in major journals. To quote the Open Science Collaboration’s paper, “the incentives for individual scientists prioritize novelty over replication.” Furthermore, overextended peer reviewers and editors often lack the time to properly vet and examine submitted manuscripts, making it more likely that problematic papers might slip through and carry much more weight upon publication. At that point, it can take a while to refute an influential published paper or reduce its impact on the field.

Source: American Society for Microbiology, Nature

Source: American Society for Microbiology, Nature

When I worked as an astrophysics researcher, I carefully reviewed numerous papers for many different journals and considered that work an important part of my job. Perhaps utilizing multiple reviewers per manuscript and paying reviewers for their time may improve that situation. In any case, most scientists recognize that though peer review plays an important role in the process, it is no panacea.

I know that I am proud of all of my research papers, but at times I wished to have more time for additional or more comprehensive analysis in order to be more thorough and certain about some results. This can be prohibitively time-consuming for any scientist—theorists, observers and experimentalists alike—but scientists draw a line at different places when deciding whether or when to publish research. I also feel that sometimes I have been too conservative in the presentation of my conclusions, while some scientists make claims that go far beyond the limited implications of uncertain results.

Some scientists jump on opportunities to publish the most provocative results they can find, and science journalists and editors love a great headline, but we should express skepticism when people announce unconvincing or improbable findings, as many of them turn out to be wrong. (Remember when Opera physicists thought that neutrinos could travel faster than light?)

When conducting research and writing and reviewing papers, scientists should aim for as much transparency and openness as possible. The Open Science Framework demonstrates how such research could be done, where the data are accessible to everyone and individual scientist’s contributions can be tracked. With such a “GitHub-like version control system, it’s clear exactly who takes responsibility for what part of a research project, and when—helping resolve problems of ownership and first publication,” writes Katie Palmer in Wired. As Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of Science, says, “authors and journal editors should be wary of publishing marginally significant results, as those are the ones that are less likely to reproduce.”

If some newly published paper is going to attract the attention of the scientific community and news media, then it must be sufficiently interesting, novel or even contentious, so scientists and journalists must work harder to strike that balance. We should also remember that, for better or worse, science rarely yields clear answers; it usually leads to more questions.

Happy Birthday to Vera Rubin, Discoverer of Dark Matter

Peering through their powerful telescopes, scientists observe a stunningly diverse array of phenomena, including comets, planets, stars, gaseous nebulae, novae, quasars, galaxies, and numerous other exciting things. But astrophysicists argue that these light-emitting objects only amount to a tiny fraction of the universe. According to the latest measurements from the European Space Agency’s Planck telescope earlier this year, they account for less than 5% of the universe’s matter and energy, while mysterious-sounding “dark matter” accounts for nearly six times as much. Nevertheless, dark matter cannot be seen and does not interact with normal matter, so how did astronomers figure out that so much invisible, intangible stuff exists out there?

Vera Rubin measuring spectra, circa 1970. (Credit: American Institute of Physics)

Vera Rubin measuring spectra, circa 1970. (Credit: American Institute of Physics)

As I recently wrote in a post for the International Year of Light, the story of scientists’ discovery and exploration of dark matter began many decades ago. Physicists had long utilized Newton’s and Einstein’s gravitational laws to estimate our sun’s mass by measuring planets’ distances from it and examining how fast they travel around it. For example, Mercury is very close to the sun and orbits it much faster than Pluto, which takes 248 Earth-years to complete an orbit. (If you’re wondering, the sun has a mass larger than a trillion billion billion kilograms. That’s a lot!) Similarly, it turns out that one can make such calculations for stars within galaxies and infer the enclosed mass, but the results of the analysis are not so simple to understand.

Detailed image of the Andromeda Galaxy, recently surveyed by the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury
. (Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton et al.)

Detailed image of the Andromeda Galaxy, recently surveyed by the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury
. (Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton et al.)

In the 1960s and 1970s, American astronomer Vera Rubin measured and analyzed the precise velocities of stars in spiral galaxies and came to a startling conclusion. Most stars at outer radii orbit the center at surprisingly large speeds, much faster than they should be based on the mass of the stars themselves, but the galaxies do not tear themselves apart or fling their stars hurtling away. Studying galaxies, such as Andromeda, as a whole, she found that they rotate too quickly for their stars’ gravity to keep them intact. It was as if the galaxies contain and are surrounded by much more unseen dark matter, which gravitationally binds the galaxies together. Rubin’s crucial discovery has not yet received the recognition it deserves.

This critically important area of research came to be known as galaxy “rotation curves,” in which Rubin became an influential figure. Rotation curve measurements of spiral galaxies from two of her many highly-cited publications appear in the reference, Galactic Astronomy, which every respectable astrophysicist has on their bookshelf. Her measurements from hundreds of galaxies constitute strong evidence for the existence of massive clumps of dark matter extending to many thousands of light-years beyond the edge of the galaxies themselves. Astrophysicists also considered the alternative hypothesis that Newton’s gravitational laws need to be modified for objects separated by large distances, but that approach has been less successful and lacks support among the community.

Rotation curves of three spiral galaxies of varying brightness, adapted from an influential 1985 paper by Rubin. (Credit: Binney & Merrifield, "Galactic Astronomy," Princeton, 1998.)

Rotation curves of three spiral galaxies of varying brightness, adapted from an influential 1985 paper by Rubin. (Credit: Binney & Merrifield, “Galactic Astronomy,” Princeton, 1998.)

Vera Rubin turns 87 years old today. She continues her work at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and she still publishes research in galactic astronomy. In addition, she writes popularly such as in Scientific American and Physics Today. Moreover, she inspires, supports, and encourages young people, especially women, in science. This includes her four children, all of whom have earned Ph.D. degrees in the natural sciences or mathematics.

In 1965, Vera Rubin was the first woman permitted to observe at Palomar Observatory. When she applied to graduate schools, she was told that “Princeton does not accept women” in the astronomy program; she went to Cornell instead. As she put it in a recent astronomical memoir, “Women generally required more luck and perseverance than men did.” In her 1996 book, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, she wrote

Since the 1950s, opportunities for women in astronomy have increased, but serious problems have not disappeared…The saddest part, of course, is that only about one-fifth of the women who enter college intend to study science. Lack of support and encouragement at an early age has by then taken its toll. A young woman who enters graduate school to study science is a rare creature indeed…but the colleges are often a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Now with many years of hard work and persistence, people are making gradual progress. For example, Meg Urry leads the American Astronomical Society, France Córdova is the director of the National Science Foundation, and Marcia McNutt now heads the National Academy of sciences. But much more work needs to be done to reduce gender inequality and underrepresentation throughout science research and education.

Many people argue that Vera Rubin would be a strong contender for a Nobel Prize in Physics, and I join that call. She has already won many other awards, including the National Medal of Science, but the Nobel would officially recognize her enormous contributions to astrophysics and her critical role in illuminating the way to dark matter. Considering that the 2011 Nobel Prize went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for discovering dark energy, it’s time for dark matter to have its day.

Tussles in Brussels: How Einstein vs Bohr Shaped Modern Science Debates

In one corner, we have a German-born theoretical physicist famous for his discovery of the photoelectric effect and his groundbreaking research on relativity theory. In the opposite corner, hailing from Denmark, we have a theoretical physicist famous for his transformational work on quantum theory and atomic structure. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr frequently butted heads over the interpretation of quantum mechanics and even over the scope and purpose of physics, and their debates still resonate today.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein (photo by Paul Ehrenfest, 1925).

In a class on “Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics,” I am teaching my students fundamentals about quantum physics, and I try to incorporate some of this important history too. In the early 20th century, physicists gradually adopted new concepts such as discrete quantum energy states and wave-particle duality, in which under certain conditions light and matter exhibit both wave and particle behavior. Nevertheless, other quantum concepts proposed by Bohr and his colleagues, such as non-locality and a probabilistic view of the wave function, proved more controversial. These are not mere details, as more was at stake—whether one can retain scientific realism and determinism, as was the case with classical physics, if Bohr’s interpretation turns out to be correct.

Bohr had many younger followers trying to make names for themselves, including Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and others. As experimental physicists explored small-scale physics, new phenomena required explanations. One could argue that some of Bohr and his followers’ discoveries and controversial hypotheses were to some extent just developments of models that managed to fit the data, and the models needed a coherent theoretical framework to base them on. On the other hand, Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Louis de Broglie were skeptical or critical about some of these proposals.

The debates between Einstein and Bohr came to a head as they clashed in Brussels in 1927 at the Fifth Solvay Conference and at the next conference three years later. It seems like all of the major physics figures of the day were present, including Einstein, Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, de Broglie, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Paul Dirac, and others. (Curie was the only woman there, as physics had an even bigger diversity problem back then. The nuclear physicist Lise Meitner came on the scene a couple years later.)

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Conference participants, October 1927. Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels.

Einstein tried to argue, with limited success, that quantum mechanics is inconsistent. He also argued, with much more success in my opinion, that (Bohr’s interpretation of) quantum mechanics is incomplete. Ultimately, however, Bohr’s interpretation carried the day and became physicists’ “standard” view of quantum mechanics, in spite of later developments by David Bohm supporting Einstein’s realist interpretation.

Although the scientific process leads us in fruitful directions and encourages us to explore important questions, it does not take us directly and inevitably toward a unique “truth.” It’s a messy nonlinear process, and since scientists are humans too, the resolution of scientific debates can depend on historically contingent social and cultural factors. James T. Cushing (my favorite professor when I was an undergraduate) argued as much in his book, Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony.

Why do the Einstein vs Bohr debates still fascinate us—as well as historians, philosophers, and sociologists—today? People keep discussing and writing about them because these two brilliant and compelling characters confronted each other about issues with implications about the scope and purpose of physics and how we view the physical world. Furthermore, considering the historically contingent aspects of these developments, we should look at current scientific debates with a bit more skepticism or caution.

Implications for Today’s Scientific Debates

In recent years, we have witnessed many intriguing disagreements about important issues in physics and astrophysics and in many other fields of science. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, scientists debated whether the motions, masses, and distributions of galaxies were consistent with the existence of dark matter particles or whether gravitational laws must be modified. Now cosmologists disagree about the likely nature of dark energy and about the implications of inflation for the multiverse and parallel universes. And string theory is a separate yet tenuously connected debate. On smaller scales, we have seen debates between astrobiologists about the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, about whether to send missions to other planets, and even disagreements about the nature of planets, which came to the fore with Pluto‘s diminished status.

Scientists play major roles in each case and sometimes become public figures, including Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Max Tegmark, Mike Brown, Carolyn Porco, and others. Moreover, many scientists are also science communicators and actively participate in social media, as conferences aren’t the only venues for debates anymore. For example, 14 of the top 50 science stars on Twitter are physicists or astronomers. Many scientists communicate their views to the public, and people want to hear them weigh in on important issues and on “what it all means.” (Contrary to an opinion expressed by deGrasse Tyson, physicists are philosophers too.)

In any case, as scientific debates unfold, we should keep in mind that sometimes we cannot find a unique elegant explanation to a phenomenon, or if such an explanation exists, it may remain beyond our grasp for a long time. Furthermore, we should keep our minds open to the possibility that our own interpretation of a scientific phenomenon could be incomplete, incoherent, or even incorrect.

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.

New Science at the American Astronomical Society Meeting

I’d just like to summarize some of the exciting new scientific results presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle last month. I think it will be interesting to those of you science lovers who’re wondering what all the hubbub was about and for you astronomers who weren’t able to make it.

This is my third and final post in a series about the AAS meeting. The first two dealt with science policy, and diversity and sustainability. As I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoyed attending as both a scientist and science writer, and I was happy to personally meet the journalists writing excellent stories about the meeting (some of which I’ve linked to below).

I’ll start with some special sessions and other sessions focused on interesting science that included results I hadn’t seen before, and then I’ll end with some interesting plenary talks given by great speakers. It was a busy meeting and many of the sessions ran in parallel, so it’s inevitable that I missed some things and that this summary is incomplete. (Plus, I’m usually drawn to the sessions about galaxies, dark matter, and cosmology, and I often miss the other ones.) If you know of interesting announcements or talks that I missed here, you’re welcome to comment on them below.

Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS)

After 15 years of great science, it was exciting to see the SDSS have its final public data release—until SDSS-IV data eventually come out, that is. At the press conference, Michael Wood-Vasey gave an overview, Constance Rockosi spoke about the data release, Daniel Eisenstein spoke about the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), Jian Ge spoke about the Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey (MARVELS), and Steven Majewski spoke about the APO Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE). According to Rockosi, more than 6,000 papers have been published using publicly released SDSS data. The SDSS has observed tens of thousands of stars, hundreds of thousands of quasars, and millions of galaxies.

In addition, members of the BOSS collaboration presented (nearly) final results at a session dedicated to the survey. If you’re interested, check out this article I wrote about it for Universe Today. (Thanks to Nancy Atkinson for editing assistance.)

Distribution of galaxies in a slice of the BOSS survey. (Courtesy: SDSS-III)

Distribution of galaxies in a slice of the BOSS survey. (Courtesy: SDSS-III)

3D-HST

Researchers presented newly published results and interesting work-in-progress about the evolution of distant galaxies using spectroscopic data from the 3D-HST survey, which is led by Pieter van Dokkum (Yale Univ.) and Ivelina Momcheva (Carnegie Observatories), combined with imaging data from the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), taking advantage of instruments aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The figure below shows the spectral features of tens of thousands of galaxies, which indicate star formation activity, active galactic nuclei activity, and stellar age. If you’re interested, I wrote an article about some of these results for Sky & Telescope. (Thanks to Monica Young for editing assistance.)

Spectral features of high-redshift galaxies. (Courtesy: Gabriel Brammer, 3D-HST)

Spectral features of high-redshift galaxies. (Courtesy: Gabriel Brammer, 3D-HST)

Andromeda Galaxy

In a session dedicated to Andromeda—known as M31 by astronomers—as well as in other related sessions, research scientists and Ph.D. students presented studies about the stars, globular clusters, molecular clouds, dust, structure, dynamics, surface brightness profile, and stellar halo of the galaxy. The continued interest in our fascinating neighbor is understandable; Andromeda’s only 2.5 million light-years away from our galaxy! Like our Milky Way, Andromeda is a spiral galaxy, and it’s the most massive galaxy in the Local Group.

Many of these AAS results came from the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) Survey, which is led by Julianne Dalcanton (Univ. of Washington), who presented highlights in a press conference as well. Dalcanton and her colleagues released this PHAT panoramic image of the galaxy below, and it received well-deserved press attention, including in NBC and Sky & Telescope.

Map of Andromeda galaxy. (Courtesy: HST, PHAT)

Map of Andromeda galaxy. (Courtesy: HST, PHAT)

Exoplanets

Many people were understandably excited about extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, detected by scientists with NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Every day of the meeting included talks and posters about the masses, abundances, dynamics, compositions and other properties of exoplanets as well as those of stars and supernova remnants examined with Kepler. In addition, astronomers’ announcement that they now have more than 1,000 confirmed exoplanets with Kepler and follow-up observations garnered considerable media attention (including these articles in Nature, BBC, and New York Times). They have at least 3,000 more planet candidates, and they will surely identify many more as Kepler continues its mission through 2016.

Of course, astronomers seek to find as many as possible Earth-like planets in or near the habitable regions orbiting Sun-like stars (often referred to as the “Goldilocks” zone). When these are successfully identified, the next step is to characterize their properties and try to assess the likelihood of life forming on them. Astronomers have found at least eight Earth-size planets in the habitable zone, including two of the newly announced ones, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b. They also released these cool old-school travel posters. If you have a space ship that can travel 500 light-years a reasonable time, you should check out 186f on your next vacation!

Kepler's alien planet travel posters. (Courtesy: NASA)

Kepler’s alien planet travel posters. (Courtesy: NASA)

“Pillars of Creation”

On the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers released new images of the iconic star-forming region in the Eagle Nebula in the Serpens Cauda constellation, known as the “pillars of creation.” Journalists at Slate, CBS, and elsewhere shared these amazing images. At first I thought not much science was done with them, but by combining observations at visible and infrared wavelengths, astronomers can investigate what’s happening with the cold gas clouds and dust grains and assess how rapidly new stars are forming and where. For more, you can also see Hubble’s press release, which coincided with the press conference on the first day of the meeting.

Image of "pillars of creation." (Courtesy: NASA and ESA)

Image of “pillars of creation.” (Courtesy: NASA and ESA)

Other Results

I saw many other interesting talks and posters at the meeting, but I don’t have the time/space to get into them here. On galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe (which I’m interested in), I saw talks involving modeling and measurements with the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey, the Six-degree Field Galaxy Survey (6dF), and I presented research using the PRIsm MUlti-object Survey (PRIMUS). But the SDSS dominated the field.

In addition, Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Sarah Martell, and Dan Zucker presented some impressive early science results from the GALactic Archaeology with HERMES (GALAH) survey of the Milky Way, which uses an instrument with the Anglo-Australian Telescope. (GALAH is named after an Australian bird.) Astronomers combine GALAH observations with astrometry from Gaia and over the survey’s duration will produce detailed data for 1 million stars in our galaxy! In particular, they utilize a technique called “chemical tagging” to study the abundances of at least 15 chemical elements for each star, allowing for studies of stellar dynamics and merger events from infalling “satellite” galaxies. I look forward to seeing more results as they continue to take data and analyze them; their first public data release is planned for 2016.

PLENARY SESSIONS

I’ll briefly describe a couple of the plenary talks below, but I missed a few others that sounded like they could be interesting, including “The Discovery of High Energy Astrophysical Neutrinos” (Kara Hoffman); “Gaia – ESA’s Galactic Census Mission” (Gerry Gilmore); and “The Interactions of Exoplanets with their Parent Stars” (Katja Poppenhaeger).

Also, Paul Weissman (JPL/Caltech) gave an overview of the Rosetta mission and the comet C-G/67P, and Al Wootten (NRAO) gave an overview of many recent science papers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). Rosetta and its lander Philae has run a few experiments already, and scientists with the mission have found that the bulk density of the nucleus is less than half the density of water ice and that its D/H ratio is different than the abundance ratio of the Earth’s oceans. More recently, Rosetta detected a crack in the “neck” of the comet, and they’ve abandoned an idea for a close flyby search for the lost lander, which might wake up in a few months when it receives more solar power. And if you’re interested in ALMA science, such as involving the gas kinematics of protostars and protoplanetary disks and the gas and dust clouds of distant galaxies, watch for proceedings from their recent Tokyo meeting, which are due to be published next month.

Cosmology Results from Planck

Martin White (UC Berkeley) gave an excellent talk about cosmological results from the Planck telescope, which he described as having the “weight of a heavy hippo and the height of a small giraffe.” Based on analyses of the power spectrum of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, so far it seems that the standard model of cold dark matter plus a cosmological constant (ΛCDM) is still a very good fit. Scientists in the collaboration are obtaining tighter constraints than before, and the universe still appears very flat (no curvature). They are planning a second data release this year, including more simulations to assess systematic uncertainties and more precise gravitational lensing measurements. White ended by saying, “I can explain to you what really well, but I can’t tell you why at all.”

White also hinted at, but didn’t reveal anything about, the joint analysis by Planck and BICEP2 astrophysicists. That analysis was completed recently, and now it seems that the detected polarization signal might be at best a mixture of primordial gravitational waves produced by inflation and of Milky Way dust, and they’ve obtained only an upper limit on the tensor-to-scalar ratio. Check out my recent article in Universe Today about this controversy.

Courtesy: ESA

Courtesy: ESA

Inflation and Parallel Universes

Max Tegmark (MIT) has talked and written about both inflation and the multiverse for many years, such as in a 2003 cover article and a recent blog post for Scientific American and in his book, “Our Mathematical Universe.” From the way he presented the talk, it was clear that he has discussed and debated these issues many times before.

Tegmark began by explaining models of inflation. According to inflation, the universe expanded for a brief period at an exponential rate 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, and the theory could explain why the universe appears to have no overall curvature, why it approximately appears the same in all directions, and why it has structures of galaxies in it. In one entertaining slide, he even compared the expansion rate of a universe to that of a fetus and baby, but then he said, “if the baby kept expanding at that rate, you’d have a very unhappy mommy.”

Expansion rates of a baby (human) and a baby universe

Expansion rates of a baby (human) and a baby universe

He subtitled his talk, “Science or Science Fiction?”, and that question certainly came up. Tegmark argued that inflation seems to imply at least some levels of a multiverse (see his slide below), which makes many astrophysicists (including me) nervous and skeptical, partly because parallel universes aren’t exactly testable predictions. But he made the point that some general relativity predictions, such as about what happens in the center of a black hole, aren’t testable yet we accept that theory today. He discussed “modus ponens” arguments: once we accept “if p then q,” then if p is asserted, we must accept q, whether we like it or not. In other words, if inflation generally predicts parallel universes and if we accept inflationary theory, then we must accept its implications about parallel universes. This is an important issue, and it’s another reason why BICEP2 and Planck scientists are trying to resolve the controversy about polarization in the CMB.

Predictions of different levels of the multiverse.

Predictions of different levels of the multiverse.

The Dark and Light Side of Galaxy Formation

Finally, in another interesting talk, Piero Madau (UC Santa Cruz), who was recently awarded the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, spoke about galaxy formation and dark matter. In particular, he spoke about difficulties and problems astrophysicists have encountered while attempting to model and simulate galaxies forming while assuming a cold dark matter (CDM) universe. For example, he described: the cusp-core controversy about the inner profiles of dark matter clumps and galaxy groups; the problem of angular momentum, which is conserved by dark matter but not gas and stars; the missing satellites problem, in which more simulated dark matter subclumps (“subhaloes”) than observed satellite galaxies are found; and the “too-big-to-fail” problem, such that simulated subhaloes are much more dense than the galaxies we see around the Milky Way. These problems motivated astrophysicists to rethink assumptions about how galaxies form and to consider warm or self-interacting dark matter.

Madau ended by saying that evidence that the universe conforms to expectations of the CDM model is “compelling but not definitive,” and warm dark matter remains a possibility. Considering all of the exciting work being done in this field, this could be “the DM decade”…but then he said people have been talking of a DM decade for the past thirty years.

Science Policy at the American Astronomical Society: NASA, National Science Foundation, New Telescopes

Following my previous post, here I’ll write about some science policy-related talks, events, and news at the American Astronomical Society meeting two weeks ago.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As we saw in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, NASA’s sending Scott Kelly to join Mikhail Kornienko for a 1-year mission at the International Space Station, where they and their crewmates will carry out numerous research experiments and work on technology development. This could help toward sending manned missions to Mars in the future, which would involve much longer periods in space. Of course, actually getting to Mars involves many other challenges too; and let’s remember that the ISS has an orbit height of about 431 km while the closest distance between Earth and Mars is 54.6 million km–about 100,000 times further away. Reaching Mars is clearly an ambitious goal, but it’s achievable in the long term. (For SOTU coverage, check out these articles in Science and Universe Today.) The new budget extends the life of the ISS until at least 2024, “which is essential to achieving the goals of sending humans to deep space destinations and returning benefits to humanity through research and technology development.” The ISS accounts for most of NASA’s space operations budget, but that only accounts for a few percent of NASA’s total budget, which includes many other activities and missions.

The NASA Town Hall began with with an update on its budget for 2015, and if you’re interested in the details, take a look at my previous post. One important change is that education will not take up 1% of every project as before; instead, the new budget requires that educational activities be centralized in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).

photo

The National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, organize a massive effort every decade for leaders in the astronomy and astrophysics community to prioritize their goals and challenges and to make recommendations about what kinds of large-, medium-, and small-scale projects should have funding and resources invested in them. The Decadal Survey for 2010-2020, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics”, is detailed and well-organized, and you can view it online. It’s complementary to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Cosmic Visions” programme for 2015-2025. Astronomers have produced these surveys since the 1970s, and other fields are catching on too; for example, the 2015-2025 decadal survey of ocean sciences just came out today.

The NASA spokesperson pointed out that previous Decadal Survey missions—Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer—have now become household names, and the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will too. JWST will be great for astronomy and for outreach, but it is nonetheless extremely expensive and over budget, which implies that some smaller projects won’t be funded. According to this detailed article by Lee Billings, JWST is taking an ever-increasing fraction of NASA’s astrophysics budget, and based on the presentation at the town hall, it looks like that will continue for the next few years. In the meantime, WFIRST’s budget will start ramping up soon too.

In other news, at the AAS meeting we also heard updates about research grants in 2014 through NASA’s funding of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) funding. The Astrophysics Data Analysis Program (ADAP) was funded at $7.5M last year with a 21% proposal success rate, and the Astrophysics Theory Program (ATP) was funded at $3.5M with a 11% success rate. I didn’t catch the stats for the other programs, such as those involving exoplanet research and instrumentation. Grant funding levels have been pretty flat for the past four fiscal years, but because of the increasing number proposals, the selection rate keeps decreasing. Theoretical astrophysicists will be dismayed that no ATP proposals will be solicited in 2015, but they say that there has been no reduction in funding, just a delay.

cost-big

There were also interesting sessions about education and public outreach (E/PO) and Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) too, and I suggest checking out those links if you want more information and resources.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

I also attended the NSF town hall, and similar to the NASA one, was primarily about budget issues. The NSF budget fared alright for fiscal year 2015 and appears to be between the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios they envisioned. NSF is pursuing partnerships with universities, other institutions, and federal agencies on some projects, such as a NASA-NSF partnership on exoplanet research. NSF analysts expect an approximately flat budget out to 2019, but that could change. They’re already preparing for FY 2016, and the President’s Budget Request will come out in the near future.

For the division of astronomical sciences (AST), NSF research grant proposals had a success rate of 15-16% for both 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, as with NASA, there appears to be a long-term decreasing trend; in 2002, the success rate was 38%. And as with NASA, this is mostly due to increasing numbers of proposals, and they’re starting to restrict the number of proposals submitted per investigator and per institution. They’re also developing strategies in case success rates drop below 10%, which would be a dire situation. I’ve been funded by NSF grants myself, and it’s stressful for faculty, research scientists, and grad students when proposals are rejected so often.

The NSF spokesperson briefly mentioned NSF “rotator” positions, which are temporary program directors who work at the NSF and collaborate with many people on a variety of policy and budget issues. The astronomical sciences has such a program, and if you want more information about it, look here.

The NSF also funds major telescopes, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also in Chile. As you may know, scientists are making progress with ALMA and have obtained interesting results already (see below). DKIST is under construction, and construction will begin on LSST later this year. In NSF’s budget, existing facilities account for about 1/3 of it, individual and mid-scale programs are another third, and the rest of the budget goes to ALMA, DKIST, and LSST.

AAS Science Policy & Advocacy

Joel Parriott, the AAS’s director of public policy, and Josh Shiode, the public policy fellow, organized a great session on science policy and the AAS’s advocacy efforts. They gave an informative presentation about how budgets are determined and about the current budget situation for basic and applied research in the astronomical sciences. I didn’t know that the US currently funds 37% of the world’s R&D, but China is expected to overtake the US in the early 2020s.

Shiode also spoke about the importance of cross-cultural communication between scientists and policy-makers. As a scientist and as a constituent, there are many ways that you can influence your Congress members, and nothing beats interacting with them in person. If you’re an astronomer, I strongly encourage you to participate in the Congressional Visits Day. I participated in it last year (see my blog post about it), and I really enjoyed it. You can find more information here, and note the deadline on 3 February.

photo(1)

There are other ways to get involves as well. You can also call or write to your Representative or Senators as well as write letters to the editor or op-eds for your local newspaper. Note that some Congress members will be receptive to different messages or to different ways of framing scientists’ and educators’ concerns. One concern scientists have these days is that some members of Congress are interfering with the peer-review process in the NSF and NIH.

Telescopes

The AAS meeting also included a session on ALMA, a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) open house, and a JWST town hall, as well as one for Hubble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this spring. (I wasn’t able to attend all of these sessions, unfortunately.)

Al Wootten (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) gave a nice talk about science that is being done with ALMA so far. It’s an array of 66 12-meter and 7-meter radio telescopes, and after three decades of planning/construction, ALMA is now approaching full science operations. The US is part of a large international collaboration consisting of a partnership between North America, Europe, and East Asia. Wootten presented interesting results about observations of gas in Milky Way-like galaxies in the distant universe and of gas kinematics in protostars and protoplanetary disks. ALMA had a conference in Tokyo in December, and the proceedings will be published in a few months.

The TMT and JWST are upcoming telescopes that much of the astronomical community and the science-loving public are looking forward to. The TMT is one of the giant telescopes I’ve written about before, and it will have “first light” in 2022. JWST is scheduled to launch in 2018.

[This is my second post in a series about the American Astronomical Society meeting.]

Conference on Nearby Galaxies in Memory of Charles Engelbracht

I just returned from a small conference on “Observations of Dust in Nearby Galaxies” at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It honored Chad Engelbracht, an influential astronomer in the field who rather suddenly passed away in January, before his 44th birthday.

chad.fb

It was great to be back in Tucson! This was my first visit since I moved away in 2012. I worked as a postdoc at the University of Arizona—an internationally renowned center of theoretical, observational, and instrumental astronomy—for three years, and I spent much of that time working with Chad on research projects with the Key Insights on Nearby Galaxies: a Far-Infrared Survey with Herschel (KINGFISH) and Herschel Inventory of The Agents of Galaxy Evolution (HERITAGE) surveys. Chad has written numerous publications on extragalactic infrared astronomy, especially on the distributions of dust, stars, and gas within galaxies in the “local universe.” He was also the MIPS Instrument Scientist for the Spitzer telescope, which enabled a lot of excellent research by others.

As you may know, I’m trained in theoretical astrophysics, and my expertise is in the large-scale structure of the universe, dark matter, galaxy formation, and cosmology, and when I’ve used data, they’ve usually been in optical wavelengths. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to navigate in order to work on my infrared research, and Chad helped me up it. Chad was my friend and colleague, and I really enjoyed working with him. He was patient with me, had a great sense of humor, gave me insightful suggestions and feedback, and helped me produce interesting results. (The two main papers we wrote together are here and here.) If I continue with my academic career, he would be one of my role models.

Chad also liked beer, so we definitely got along well. While I worked at Steward Observatory, he and I and others in the “infrared wing” frequently went to 1702 for pizza and beer for lunch. The night before the conference, many of his old friends and I went back to 1702 for a few pints. Chad also liked to play the computer game Quake, where he was known as “Chuckles the clown.” During her opening remarks at the conference, Joannah Hinz said, “Since no one is admitting to have played Quake, it seems that Chad must have been playing it by himself!” Well, I’ll admit that Chad didn’t have to twist my arm much to convince me to play it when I was at Arizona, and when I’d gotten a new computer, his first task was to make sure that Quake ran on it well. The game made for a good afternoon break and a funny way to interact with people. (If you’re wondering, I played as The Tick.)

Many of Chad’s colleagues and collaborators attended and spoke at the conference, including Rob Kennicutt, Margaret Meixner, Bruce Draine, Maud Galametz, and Dennis Zaritsky. I was moved by all of the personal and astronomical tributes to Chad throughout the conference. It’s clear that he influenced, inspired, and was respected by many people. His legacy lives on.

Chad is survived by his parents and siblings, his wife Sue Dubuque, their three children (Max, Sydney, and Henry), and his numerous friends. He is missed.

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.]

Rep. Rush Holt, Physicist, to Lead American Association for the Advancement of Science

Can you imagine what would happen if we had a PhD physicist in the US Congress? We actually already have one there, Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), who has done a lot of excellent work in that role over the past sixteen years. Bumper stickers saying “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist” are popular in his central New Jersey district. In Congress since 1999, Holt has been a consistently strong advocate for science and science communication and for increasing funding for scientific research and education in federal budgets. Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency that provided Congress with comprehensive and authoritative analysis of scientific and technical issues, and was terminated in 1995. He’s also an inspiring speaker; I saw him give a great speech when I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the American Astronomical Society.

Rep_Holt_Official_Headshot

Now Rep. Holt is retiring from the House of Representatives. Considering the frequent attacks on science, such as on National Science Foundation research grants, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and on the EPA’s scientific advisers—to give just a few examples—we’ll need more people like him. In an interview with Scientific American, he said that if there is one issue that nags from his terms in Congress, it’s

…science and international affairs. That means bringing good scientific thinking to matters of arms control and intelligence and war and peace. I think we would all benefit from thinking like scientists, and those are important areas. Also, in areas of environmental protection and public health we need more scientific thinking. Most recently, I think we would benefit if more people thought like scientists in confronting Ebola. We would benefit if more people thought like scientists in facing climate change.

Fortunately, I have good news! Holt will continue his service by succeeding Alan Leshner as the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, of which I’m a member). According to the AAAS, “Efforts to advance science, promote public engagement with science and technology, and ensure that accurate scientific information informs policy decisions—core AAAS activities—have also been central to Holt’s long record of public service.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Holt said that he didn’t have an agenda, but he offered a general thought about the AAAS’s mission, saying that it needs to “look after the health of science in America—the entire science enterprise.”

Holt’s first responsibilities as the new CEO of AAAS will include oversight of a transformation initiative to enhance AAAS’s engagement with its members and to better utilize the Science journals for science communication, which also involves transitioning from a print-centric to a digital-first publishing environment. He will also oversee next year’s launch of a new open-access journal, Science Advances. I’m sure there will be more plans for the future at the AAAS’s annual meeting in February, and I’ll be there and will report on any new developments.