The Return of Persian Science

Like many multiethnic multicultural people, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with my multifaceted yet fragmented identity. As a half-Iranian in the midst of Americans, I’ve lacked key cultural influences and a US-centric worldview, while in Iran I feel like an outsider at times.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit twice so far—once as a teenager and once more recently as a physicist. Each time, I’ve been very observant in the hopes of better understanding an important side of myself. I’ve explored its fascinatingly unique cities, including the massive capital, Tehran, and its huge bazaars; Esfahan, with its spectacular architecture and Jahan Square, a national landmark; and Shiraz, with its tombs of poet giants, Hafez and Saadi. I’ve also looked for signs of how the country appears to be changing as it becomes more open to the international community.

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

At the invitation of Sohrab Rahvar, physics professor at the University of Sharif, I gave two seminars, one there and another at the University of Tehran. I presented postdoctoral research I was doing at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, investigating connections between observations of galaxies and theories of dark matter.

I introduced myself in Farsi and gave the talks in English—the usual second language there. I had learned Farsi from my mother in the US, and I had a pretty good accent too, but I lacked the vocabulary to communicate astrophysics in the language. I found out though that, for example, like in English, Iranians use the same word for a “cluster of galaxies” and a “cluster of grapes”.

After my presentations, the students asked challenging questions about my work—both in English and Farsi. One student asked me for advice, as she was preparing a job application for the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, near Nuremberg.

For all their talent and promise, students and scientists like her face many difficulties under the tough nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Iran. Many have a hard time traveling to conferences, obtaining student visas, or meeting with international colleagues. Even the Iranian physicists who played an integral role in the CERN Large Hadron Collider collaboration ran into restrictions. Obtaining professional journals and lab equipment can be prohibitively expensive for Iranian scientists too. Perhaps for these reasons, many scientists shifted to theoretical rather than experimental work; for example, I met surprisingly many string theory researchers there.

Science, medicine and mathematics have a long and glorious history in Iran and Persia. Six centuries before Galileo, the physicist Biruni was the first scientist to propose that the speed of light is finite. Ibn al-Haytham developed the field of optics, Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) made important contributions to medicine and philosophy, and the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam—author of The Rubaiyat—also happened to figure out the principles of algebra and devised an accurate solar calendar. Observatories proliferated throughout Persia then, and precise planetary records collected at Maragheh observatory, in what is now northwestern Iran, likely influenced Copernicus’s hypothesis that the Earth revolves around the sun.

A thousand years later, Iran is a nation of 78 million people, almost as populous as Germany. More than half the population is under the age of 35—many of them politically active—and male and female young adults have a literacy rate of 97 percent. According to the Institute of International Education, 10,200 Iranian students and nearly 1,400 scholars studied at US colleges and universities, making it the 12th leading country to send students to the US. In 1979, however, more than 51,000 students enrolled in U.S. universities—the biggest source of overseas students. The large Iranian diaspora have been known for their accomplished work in science and other fields, but according to the International Monetary Fund, this has fueled the highest “brain drain” among developing and developed countries, with 150,000 to 180,000 educated people emigrating every year. But now that may change.

As the international sanctions will be gradually lifted, students and scientists in Iran and their colleagues abroad have much to look forward to. As part of the historic nuclear deal, the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo, between Tehran and Esfahan, will be converted into an international nuclear physics and technology center.

Iranians have other plans in the works too. Within the next 4 or 5 years, astronomers are working on building a new observatory, a 3.4-meter optical telescope, on a 12,000-foot peak in central Iran at a site comparable to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Once it’s completed, the international community will be invited to use up to 70 percent of the observing time to study planets outside the solar system, gamma-ray bursts, distant galaxies and elusive dark matter. I hope to see the telescope the next time I travel there.

In addition, Iranian physicists plan to construct an ambitious $300 million “synchrotron” particle accelerator. Like the telescope, it would be difficult to complete on schedule, if at all, were the sanctions not removed. Iranian scientists and their international partners excitedly anticipate new experiments on a wide range of subjects, from research on biological molecules to advanced materials. “Big Science” is not limited to the West.

Other sciences also look forward to a changing environment, as described in a Science special issue on science in Iran.

Rahvar seems optimistic about the post-sanctions situation. “We hope to reestablish our previous scientific relations and make new collaborations,” he says. It will take time, but the prospect of an improving research climate in Iran could herald a new era of scientific achievements in the country, especially in the physical sciences.

I think that a more open political environment in Iran won’t just invigorate science in the country and in the international community; with time, it will stimulate a more open exchange of ideas and cultural understanding. I’m proud of my Iranian blood, and I excitedly await Iran’s renewal and resurgence.

[I’m cross-posting this from the Last Word on Nothing blog, where this was originally published. Thanks to Jessa Gamble and other LWON members for their editing assistance and helpful advice.]

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.

Struggling Against Gender Bias in STEM Fields

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

[Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) Status newsletter (p. 15-17). If you quote this article in any way, please cite the version in Status. Many thanks to Nancy Morrison and Joannah Hinz for editing assistance.]

Suppose that two astrophysicists with similar education, experience, and accomplishments—let’s call them Dr. X and Dr. Y—apply for a tenure-track faculty position. If Dr. X is female and Dr. Y is male, and if the selection committee members have conscious or unconscious gender bias, then, unfortunately, one might expect it to be more likely that Dr. Y would be offered the position.

But a controversial and influential new paper argues the opposite. In the title of their April 2015 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, both psychologists and full professors at Cornell University, claim, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” [1]

The authors base their conclusions on five randomized, controlled experiments at 371 U.S. colleges and universities in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. In these experiments, tenure-track faculty members evaluated the biographical summaries or the curricula vitae of fictitious faculty candidates—including one “foil” candidate—mostly with impressive qualifications but with different genders and different life situations, such as being a single parent or having taken parental leave.

Their analysis reveals an unexpected result: faculty reviewers strongly preferred female candidates to male ones by a highly significant 2:1 advantage. Williams and Ceci conclude, “Efforts to combat formerly wide-spread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded. After decades of overt and covert discrimination against women in academic hiring, our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines, by faculty of both genders.”

The article received considerable media attention from a variety of outlets. In particular, Nature, The Washington Post, The Economist, and Inside Higher Ed reviewed the article without much skepticism. Presumably, the authors’ claim that sexism no longer exists and gender bias is a thing of the past is a message that many people want to hear. On 31 October 2014, Williams and Ceci published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” in which they presented a shorter version of the same argument. [2]

On the other hand, Lisa Grossman in New Scientist [3] and Matthew Francis in Slate [4] analyzed the study in more detail and expressed more criticism. Both authors outlined the flaws in the analysis by Williams and Ceci. The experimental evaluations in their study involved only reviews of candidates’ biographies, without all the other activities that normally enter into faculty hiring and that may be affected by gender bias: personal interviews, presentation of talks, social events with potential colleagues, and determination of a short list by a selection committee. These simplified experiments do not accurately represent a real hiring process.

Many other studies and and a wealth of anecdotal evidence contradict the conclusions of Williams and Ceci. For example, Viviane Callier, Ph. D., contractor at the National Cancer Institute, told us [5] that recent surveys [6,7] found evidence of pervasive sexism in letters of recommendation—a domain in which the assumption of a level playing field does not apply and which is out of the woman applicant’s control. Moreover, faculty hiring is dominated by graduates of a few prestigious institutions and labs that are disproportionately headed by men, who are more likely to hire other men. “To imply, like Williams and Ceci, that ‘we are done,’ or that ‘the problem is solved,’ does a great disservice to the scientific community,” Callier said.

In any case, analysts agree that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is an ongoing problem. According to a National Science Foundation study in 2008, 31% of full-time science and engineering faculty are women. This fraction varies among different fields, however. In an American Institute of Physics survey [8], the representation of women among physics faculty members reached 14% in 2010, and for astronomy-only departments, it was 19%. Similarly, a 2013 CSWA survey of gender demographics [10] found that 23% of faculty at universities and national research centers are women. These fractions demonstrate improvement in recent decades, but clearly much more work needs to be done.

Furthermore, although women outnumber men among college and university graduates, men continue to dominate the physical sciences, math, and engineering. At higher levels of academic careers, the gender demographics worsen, in what is often described as a “leaky pipeline.” Women constitute only one third of astronomy graduate students and less than 30% of astronomy postdoctoral researchers. In addition to the underrepresentation of women, gender inequality persists in other areas as well: according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research [9], although women now pursue graduate degrees at the same levels as men, women with such degrees earn no more than 70% of their male colleagues, a larger divide than the overall pay gap.

“Unconscious bias” against women in science and math is not unique to men. In a 2012 PNAS study [11], Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and her Yale University colleagues found that female faculty are just as biased as men against female scientists. When people assess students, hire postdocs, award fellowships, and hire and promote faculty, biases propagate through the pipeline. Contrary to the conclusions of Williams and Ceci, the problem is on both the supply side and the demand side.

What can be done to address such biases? As difficult as it may be, if scientists simply acknowledge that we all carry some inner biases, those biases may be reduced. Meg Urry argued in the January 2014 issue of Status [12] that people who are aware of bias tend be more careful about how they make hiring decisions. In addition, increasing the fraction of women in hiring pools and in search committees helps to reduce unconscious bias as well.

Some institutions have National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE Programs to increase the representation and advancement of women in STEM careers. The University of Michigan’s program [13], for example, includes efforts to develop equitable faculty recruitment practices, increase the retention of valued faculty, improve the departmental climate and work environment, and develop encouraging leadership skills of faculty, staff and students. Their program could be emulated at other institutions.

Finally, other important issues relate to gender bias and underrepresentation of women, including improving maternal and paternal leave policies, increasing access to child care, developing dual-career policies, promoting work-life balance, and reducing gender inequality of housework. Furthermore, other forms of underrepresentation are also important, and workers in STEM fields continue to strive to improve diversity in race, class, and sexual orientation, as well as gender.

References Cited
[1] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2015, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track,” PNAS, 112, 5360n
[2] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2014 October 31, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” New York Times
[3] Grossman, L. 2015 April 17, “Claiming sexism in science is over is just wishful thinking,”
New Scientist
[4] Francis, M. R. 2015 April 20, “A Surprisingly Welcome Atmosphere,” Slate
[5] Callier, V. 2015, personal communication by email
[6] McNutt, M. 2015, “Give women an even chance,” Science, 348, 611
[7] Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R., and Martin, R. C. 2009, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1591
[8] Ivie, R., White, S., Garrett, A., & Anderson, G. 2013, “Women Among Physics & Astronomy Faculty: Results from the 2010 Survey of Physics Degree-Granting Departments,” American Institute of Physics
[9] Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2015, “The Status of Women in the States: 2015 Employment and Earnings”
[10] Hughes, A. M. 2014 January, “The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy,” Status, p. 1
[11] Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoli, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. 2012, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” PNAS, 109, 16474
[12] Urry, C. M. 2014 January, “Why We Resist Unconscious Bias,” Status, p. 10
[13] University of Michigan, ADVANCE Program

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.

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)


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)


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.


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.

Comparing Models of Dark Matter and Galaxy Formation

I just got back from the “nIFTy” Cosmology workshop, which took place at the IFT (Instituto de Física Teórica) of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid. It was organized primarily by Alexander Knebe, Frazer Pearce, Gustavo Yepes, and Francisco Prada. As usual, it was a very international workshop, which could’ve been interesting in the context of the World Cup, except that most of the participants’ teams had already been eliminated before the workshop began! In spite of Spain’s early exit, the stadium of Real Madrid (which I visited on a day of sightseeing) was nonetheless a popular tourist spot. I also visited the Prado museum, which had an interesting painting by Rubens involving the Milky Way.


This was one of a series of workshops and comparison projects, and I was involved in some of the previous ones as well. For example, following a conference in 2009, some colleagues and I compared measures of galaxy environment—which are supposed to quantify to what extent galaxy properties are affected by whether they’re in clustered or less dense regions—using a galaxy catalog produced by my model. (The overview paper is here.) I also participated in a project comparing the clustering properties of dark matter substructures identified with different methods (here is the paper). Then last year, colleagues and I participated in a workshop in Nottingham, in which we modeled galaxy cluster catalogs that were then analyzed by different methods for estimating masses, richnesses and membership in these clusters. (See this paper for details.)

This time, we had an ambitious three week workshop in which each week’s program is sort of related to the other weeks. During the first week, we compared codes of different hydrodynamical simulations, including the code used by the popular Illustris simulation, while focusing on simulated galaxy clusters. In week #2, we compared a variety of models of galaxy formation as well as models of the spatial distributions and dynamics of dark matter haloes. Then in week #3, we’re continuing the work from that Nottingham workshop I mentioned above. (All of these topics are also related to those of the conference in Xi’an that I attended a couple months ago, and a couple other attendees were here as well.)

The motivation of these workshops and comparison workshops is to compare popular models, simulations, and observational methods in order to better understand our points of agreement and disagreement and to investigate our systematic uncertainties and assumptions that are often ignored or not taken sufficiently seriously. (This is also relevant to my posts on scientific consensus and so-called paradigm shifts.)

Last week, I would say that we had surprisingly strong disagreement and interesting debates about dark matter halo masses, which are the primary drivers of environmental effects on galaxies; about the treatment of tidally stripped substructures and ‘orphan’ satellite galaxies in models; and various assumptions about ‘merger trees’ (see also this previous workshop.) These debates highlight the importance of such comparisons: they’re very useful for the scientific community and for science in general. I’ve found that the scatter among different models and methods often turns out to be far larger than assumed, with important implications. For example, before we can learn about how a galaxy’s environment affects its evolution, we need to figure out how to properly characterize its environment, but it turns out that this is difficult to do precisely. Before we can learn about the physical mechanisms involved in galaxy formation, we need to better understand how accurate our models’ assumptions might be, especially assumptions about how galaxy formation processes are associated with evolving dark matter haloes. Considering the many systematic uncertainties involved, it seems that these models can’t be used reliably for “precision cosmology” either.

From Dark Matter to Galaxies

Since I just got back from the From Dark Matter to Galaxies conference in Xi’an, China, I figured I’d tell you about it. I took this photo in front of our conference venue:
photo 2

Xi’an is an important historical place, since it was one of the ancient capitals of the country (not just the Shaanxi province) and dates back to the 11th century BCE, during the Zhou dynasty. Xi’an is also the home of the terra cotta warriors, horses, and chariots, which (along with a mausoleum) were constructed during the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The terra cotta warriers were first discovered in 1974 by local farmers when they were digging a well, and they are still being painstakingly excavated today.


Back to the conference. This was the 10th Sino-German Workshop in Galaxy Formation and Cosmology, organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Gesellschaft and especially by my friends and colleagues Kang Xi and Andrea Macciò. This one was a very international conference, with people coming from Japan, Korea, Iran, Mexico, US, UK, Italy, Austria, Australia, and other places.

Now scientific conferences aren’t really political exactly, unlike other things I’ve written about on this blog, though this conference did include debates about the nature of dark matter particles and perspectives on dark energy (which is relevant to this post). I should be clear that dark matter is much better understood and determined by observations though, such as by measurements of galaxy rotation curves, masses of galaxy clusters, gravitational lensing, anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background radiation, etc. (On a historical note, one conference speaker mentioned that the CMB was first discovered fifty years ago, on 20 May 1964, by Penzias and Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize.) In contrast, the constraints on dark energy (and therefore our understanding of it) are currently rather limited.

the main points

I’ll start with the main points and results people presented at the conference. First, I thought there were some interesting and controversial talks about proposed dark matter (DM) particles and alternate dark energy cosmologies. (The currently favored view or standard “paradigm” is ΛCDM, or cold dark matter with a cosmological constant.) People are considering various cold dark matter particles (WIMPS, axions), warm dark matter (sterile neutrino), and self-interacting dark matter. (Warm dark matter refers to particles with a longer free-streaming length than CDM, which results in the same large-scale structure but in different small-scale behavior such as cored density profiles of dark matter haloes.) The jury is still out, as they say, about which kind of particle makes up the bulk of the dark matter in the universe. There were interesting talks on these subjects by Fabio Fontanot, Veronica Lora, Liang Gao, and others.

Second, people showed impressive results on simulations and observations of our Milky Way (MW) galaxy the “Local Group”, which includes the dwarf galaxy satellites of the MW and the Andromeda (M31) galaxy’s system. Astrophysicists are studying the abundance, mass, alignment of satellite galaxies as well as the structure and stellar populations of the MW. Some of these analyses can even be used to tell us something about dark matter and cosmology, because once we know the MW dark matter halo’s mass, we can predict the number and masses of the satellites based on a CDM or WDM. (Current constraints put the MW halo’s mass at about one to two trillion solar masses.) There were some interesting debates between Carlos Frenk, Aldo Rodriguez-Puebla, and others about this.

The third subject many people discussed involves models, and observations of the large-scale structure of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies. There are many statistical methods to probe large-scale structure (LSS), but there is still a relatively wide range of model predictions and observational measurements at high redshift, allowing for different interpretations of galaxy evolution. In addition, simulations are making progress in producing realistic disk and elliptical galaxies, though different types of simulations disagree about the detailed physical processes (such as the treatment of star formation and stellar winds) that are implemented in them.

There were many interesting talks, including reviews by Rashid Sunyaev (famous for the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect), Houjun Mo, Joachim Wambsganss, Eva Grebel, Volker Springel, Darren Croton, and others. Mo spoke about impressive work on reconstructing the density field of the local universe, Springel spoke about the Illustris simulation, and Wambsganss gave a nice historical review of studies of gravitational lensing. I won’t give more details about the talks here unless people express interest in learning more about them.

my own work

In my unbiased opinion, one of the best talks was my own, which was titled “Testing Galaxy Formation with Clustering Statistics and ΛCDM Halo Models at 0<z<1.” (My slides are available here, if you’re interested.) I spoke about work-in-progress as well as results in this paper and this one. The former included a model of the observed LSS of galaxies, and you can see a slice from the modeled catalog in this figure:

I also talked about galaxy clustering statistics, which are among the best methods for analyzing LSS and for bridging between the observational surveys of galaxies and numerical simulations of dark matter particles, whose behavior can be predicted based on knowledge of cosmology and gravity. I’m currently applying a particular set of models to measurements of galaxy clustering out to redshift z=1 and beyond, which includes about the last eight billion years of cosmic time. I hope that these new results (which aren’t published yet) will tell us more about how galaxies evolve within the “cosmic web” and about how galaxy growth is related to the assembly of dark matter haloes.

International Collaborations

(I actually wrote this post a week ago while I was in China, but many social media sites are blocked in China. Sites for books, beer, and boardgames weren’t blocked though—so they must be less subversive?)

Since I’m having fun on a trip to Nanjing and Xi’an now, seeing old friends and colleagues and attending a conference (From Dark Matter to Galaxies), I figured I’d write a lighter post about international collaborations. By the way, for you Star Trek fans, this month it’s been twenty years since the end of The Next Generation, which had the ultimate interplanetary collaboration. (And this image is from the “The Chase” episode.)


In physics and astrophysics, and maybe in other fields as well, scientific collaborations are becoming increasingly larger and international. (The international aspect sometimes poses difficulties for conference calls over many timezones.) These trends are partly due to e-mail, wiki pages, Dropbox, SVN repositories, Github, remote observing, and online data sets (simulations and observations). Also, due to the increasing number of scientists, especially graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many groups of people work on related subjects and can mutually benefit from collaborating.

On a related note, the number of authors on published papers is increasing (see this paper, for example). Single-author papers are less common than they used to be, and long author lists for large collaborations, such as Planck and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, are increasingly common. Theory papers still have fewer authors than observational ones, but they too have longer author lists than before. (I’ll probably write more about scientific publishing in more detail in another post.)

Of course, conferences, workshops, collaboration meetings and the like are important for discussing and debating scientific results. They’re also great for learning about and exposing people to new developments, ideas, methods, and perspectives. Sometimes, someone may present a critical result or make a provocative argument that happens to catch on. Furthermore, conferences are helpful for advancing the career of graduate students and young scientists, since they can advertise their own work and meet experts in their field. When looking for their next academic position (such as a postdoctoral one or fellowship), it helps to have personally met potential employers. Working hard and producing research is not enough; everyone needs to do some networking.

Also, note that for international conferences and meetings, English has become the lingua franca, and this language barrier likely puts some non-native English speakers at a disadvantage, unfortunately. I’m not sure how this problem could be solved. I’m multilingual but I only know how to talk about science in English, and I’d have no confidence trying to talk about my research in Farsi or German. We’ve talked about privilege before, and certainly we should consider this a form of privilege as well.

Finally, I’ll make a brief point about the carbon footprint of scientists and the impact of (especially overseas) travel. For astrophysicists, the environmental impact of large telescopes and observatories in Hawaii and Chile, for example, is relatively small; it’s the frequent travel that takes a toll. I enjoy traveling, but we should work more on “sustainability” and reducing our carbon footprint. There are doubts about the effectiveness of carbon-offset programs (see the book Green Gone Wrong), so what needs to be done is to reduce travel. Since conferences and workshops are very important, we should attempt to organize video conferences more often. In order for video conferences and other such organized events to be useful though, I think more technological advances need to be made, and people need to be willing to adapt to them. Another advantage to these is that they’re beneficial for people who have family, children, or other concerns and for people from outside the top-tier institutions who have smaller budgets. In other words, video conferences could potentially help to “level the playing field,” as they say.

Diversity in Science

Diversity in science and diversity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in general are important issues, and I’d like to write more about them. This post is related to my previous post, in which I discussed work-life balance issues. I’ll only review some of the relevant issues here, and I plan to follow up and write more about them in later posts. On diversity in astronomy and astrophysics, I recommend checking out the Women in Astronomy blog, the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the STEM Women blog. I focus on the situation in the United States here, but these are issues that people are seeking to address internationally, though the specific situation and possible solutions vary among different countries. (For statistics on members of the International Astronomical Union, see this paper.)

By diversity, I mean the distributions of people in the scientific workforce, including graduate students, postdocs, and tenure-track and tenured faculty as a function of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. In other words, the disproportionate majority of the scientific workforce is composed of white men. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to STEM fields; we also see a lack of diversity in the media, law, among policy-makers, the tech industry, corporate boardrooms, etc. I will take it as given that diversity is an important goal: it’s important for equality, and everyone benefits when work environments are more diverse.


To give some specific numbers, according to the CSWA nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and ~30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose ~25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to ~15%) of tenured faculty. The female participation rate drops as you look up the “ladder”. Unfortunately, the situation is worse in non-astronomy physics, engineering, and math. For example, only 18% of physics Ph.D.s are women. Among the physical sciences, biology is doing the best on gender diversity. The following figure (taken from this Scientific American article) shows the breakdown among these sciences.


While I’m focusing on gender in this post, the lack of diversity by race and ethnicity is also a major problem. Fewer than 3% of US citizens receiving Ph.D’s are African-American and Hispanic, though together they represent more than a quarter of the US population. Clearly much more work needs to be done to rectify this situation and improve racial diversity. People are working on the whole “pipeline”, from elementary school students to people holding faculty and other senior positions. I should also make the obvious point that there generally appears to be a lack of class diversity as well within higher education and graduate programs. In addition, according to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with the higher academic degrees is growing.

These are not encouraging numbers, but at least they are an improvement over the situation a decade ago and much better than two decades ago. Nonetheless, the rate of improvement is very slow, and the problem will be not be solved simply by waiting for the pipeline to flow (i.e., the senior people retire and the more diverse lower ranks are gradually promoted). Even if overt sexism and racism did not exist at all in departments and hiring decisions, some inequality would persist in STEM fields. Many people are asking what is causing this and what can be done about it.

These are issues with which physical scientists could benefit from the research and input of social scientists. For example, consider these articles by Aanerud et al. (2007) and Timmers et al. (2010), which I found from a quick search of the literature. Aanerud et al. argue that in order to understand women’s tenure status, we should widen our lens and consider the role of labor market alternatives to academic careers; consequently, “we must be cautious about women’s favorable tenure ratio in fields with interpreting gender strong alternatives to academic tenure as indicating academic gender equity.” (In other words, in physics and astronomy we may not necessarily want to emulate the policies used in more diverse fields.) Timmers et al. argue that “Three sets of factors explain women’s low shares at higher job levels, notably individual, cultural, and structural or institutional perspectives, and policies to increase the proportion of women therefore should address these factors.” Policy measures that address the cultural perspective (such as expressing responsibility for applying a gender equality policy at department levels and women in selection committees) and structural perspective (such as accounting for the recruitment of women, adapting job advertisements, and bonuses for hiring women) appear to work effectively in combination.

Also, sociology professor Crystal Fleming has a well-written blog post on privilege and the importance of resilience in the face of rejection and failure while working in academia. This is important because scientists and academics, but more female than male ones, are affected by “imposter syndrome.” (Personally, I can tell you that I’ve had to work hard applying for numerous positions, fellowships, research grants, etc., and it’s difficult to be rejected by the vast majority of them.) As one more example, Adam Burgasser, a faculty in my department at UCSD, has worked with social scientists recently to better recruit and retain diverse graduate students. They’ve found that it’s important to follow-through and continue mentoring students through their graduate career.

What other kinds of things are being done or can be done to improve the situation? It’s important to encourage and mentor undergrads, grad students, and postdocs, and also to talk to them about alternative career paths outside academia, as there are many possible careers for scientists. As important, it’s good to reach girls and boys in primary and secondary school about science, and it’s important to try to reduce currently prevalent cultural stereotypes. For example, when many people think of typical scientists, they imagine a nerdy white man (such as in the TV show “Big Bang Theory”) in a lab coat. There are many ways to encourage girls’ interest in science, though some ways may be more effective than others (see this Slate article, for example). Members of university departments and other organizations have developed a wide range of outreach programs targeting girls and children of color, including numerous programs at UC San Diego that bring secondary school students and underprivileged youth to UCSD for interactive demonstrations, labs, lectures, and other activities aimed at enhancing their interest in science.

There are other cultural issues to deal with as well. For example, some people have stereotypes about their own bosses, but women are great leaders (maybe better than men) and people’s views about female bosses vis-à-vis male bosses are improving in some ways. It’s also difficult for people of color; an African American leader who appear authoritative or offers criticism of particular policies, for example, can be stereotyped as an “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” Whites and males should be more aware of gender and race privilege, and this is something that should be more frequently and openly discussed. (See this excellent blog post by Caitlin Casey.) In addition, some people, inadvertently or not, might act in a sexist or racist manner at work, and this should be challenged and called out. And we have to be very careful about “unconscious bias”: for example, both men and women surprisingly have the same biases against women in male-dominated fields, though the biases are reduced when people are aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions (see this article by Meg Urry).

It seems like the literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. All of this is great and important. In my opinion, however, it’s also potentially misleading. We can’t neglect persistent structural problems, power relations, pernicious cultural frames, and we can’t forget gender and race inequality.

Increasing diversity is an important goal, but it’s also a means to an end. In my opinion, we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternal leave should be expected. There should be no benefit for men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. This is related to work-life balance issues, which are definitely not a “women’s problem”. (See also these NY Times articles continuing the struggle for gender equality.) We’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

How scientists reach a consensus

Following my previous post on paradigm shifts and on how “normal science” occurs, I’d like to continue that with a discussion of scientific consensus. To put this in context, I’m partly motivated by the recent controversy about
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is also currently a science writer for Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website. (The controversy has been covered on Slate, Salon, and Huffington Post.) Silver’s work has been lauded for its data-driven analysis, but Pielke has been accused of misrepresenting data, selectively choosing data, and presenting misleading conclusions about climate change, for example about its effect on disaster occurrences and on the western drought.

This is also troubling in light of a recent article I read by Aklin & Urpelainen (2014), titled “Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy.” Based on an analysis of a survey of 1000 broadly selected Americans of age 18-65, they argue that “even small skeptical minorities can have large effects on the American public’s beliefs and preferences regarding environmental regulation.” (Incidentally, a book by Pielke is among their references.) If this is right, then we are left with the question about how to achieve consensus and inform public policy related to important environmental problems. As the authors note, it is not difficult for groups opposed to environmental regulation to confuse the public about the state of the scientific debate. Since it is difficult to win the debate in the media, a more promising strategy would be to increase awareness about the inherent uncertainties in scientific research so that the public does not expect unrealistically high degrees of consensus. (And that’s obviously what I’m trying to do here.)

Already a decade ago, the historian of science Naomi Oreskes (formerly a professor at UC San Diego) in a Science article analyzed nearly 1000 article abstracts about climate change over the previous decade and found that none disagreed explicitly with the notion of anthropogenic global warming–in other words, a consensus appears to have been reached. Not surprisingly, Pielke criticized this article a few months later. In her rebuttal, Oreskes made the point that, “Proxy debates about scientific uncertainty are a distraction from the real issue, which is how best to respond to the range of likely outcomes of global warming and how to maximize our ability to learn about the world we live in so as to be able to respond efficaciously. Denying science advances neither of those goals.”

The short answer to the question, “How do scientists reach a consensus?” is “They don’t.” Once a scientific field has moved beyond a period of transition, the overwhelming majority of scientists adopt at least the central tenets of a paradigm. But even then, there likely will be a few holdouts. The holdouts rarely turn out to be right, but their presence is useful because a healthy and democratic debate about the facts and their interpretation clarifies which aspects of the dominant paradigm are in need of further investigation. The stakes are higher, however, when scientific debate involves contentious issues related to public policy. In those situations, once a scientific consensus appears to be reached and once scientists are sufficiently certain about a particular issue, we want to be able to respond effectively in the short or long term with local, national, or international policies or regulations or moratoria, depending on what is called for. In the meantime, the debates can continue and the policies can be updated and improved.

Of course, it is not always straightforward to determine when a scientific consensus has been reached or when the scientific community is sufficiently certain about an issue. A relevant article here is that of Shwed & Bearman (2010), which was titled “The Temporal Structure of Scientific Consensus Formation.” They refer to “black boxing,” in which scientific consensus allows scientists to state something like “smoking causes cancer” without having to defend it, because it has become accepted by the consensus based on a body of research. Based on an analysis of citation networks, they show that areas considered by expert studies to have little rivalry have “flat” levels of modularity, while more controversial ones show much more modularity. “If consensus was obtained with fragile evidence, it will likely dissolve with growing interest, which is what happened at the onset of gravitational waves research.” But consensus about climate change was reached in the 1990s. Climate change skeptics (a label which may or may not apply to Pielke) and deniers can cultivate doubt in the short run, but they’ll likely find themselves ignored in the long run.

Finally, I want to make a more general point. I often talk about how science is messy and nonlinear, and that scientists are human beings with their own interests and who sometimes make mistakes. As stated by Steven Shapin (also formerly a professor at UC San Diego) in The Scientific Revolution, any account “that seeks to portray science as the contingent, diverse, and at times deeply problematic product of interested, morally concerned, historically situated people is likely to be read as criticism of science…Something is being criticized here: it is not science but some pervasive stories we tend to be told about science” (italics in original). Sometimes scientific debates aren’t 100% about logic and data and it’s never really possible to be 0% biased. But the scientific method is the most reliable and respected system we’ve got. (A few random people might disagree with that, but I think they’re wrong.)