The Profession and Its Societal Impacts: Gateways to Science, Pathways to Diversity, Equity, and Sustainability
“The pursuit of science, and scientific excellence, is inseparable from the humans who animate it.”
—Panel on State of the Profession and Societal Impacts
Every previous decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics has stressed the importance of investing in people and has highlighted the value that astronomy and astrophysics brings to society, the nation, and the world. These investments and impacts have never been more important than today. The recent report The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science and Engineering (2020) from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences urges dramatically increased investments in the preparation and diversity of future science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals to sustain U.S. scientific and technological leadership. This may be particularly important for the increasingly cyber future owing to the need to understand and develop technology. These and other influential reports, such as the landmark National Academies reports Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007) and Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads (2011), argue that increasing investment and diversity are needed more than ever to capitalize on multiple trends, including the increasingly ambitious scope and scale of scientific research projects that rely on the creativity and capacity of the researchers and students who carry out the work; the increasingly global nature of scientific research, which increases competition for talent and innovation that require more attention to diversity and more expansive opportunity for participation; and the demands of policymakers and the public, whose investments are the primary funding sources for astronomy and astrophysics.
The Astro2020 decadal survey reflects the increased importance and attention on human investments and public impacts in multiple ways. First, the funding agency sponsors are increasingly visible and vocal on the urgent need to develop the nation’s human capital, with a specific focus on what the National Science Board (NSB) has termed “the missing millions” of individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups whose talent is needed for the success of the U.S. science and technology enterprise.1 Second, the
1 National Science Board, 2020, Vision 2030, NSB-2020-15, https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2020/nsb202015.pdf.
Astro2020 statement of task explicitly requires—as one of only five such explicit mandates—an assessment of, and recommendations pertaining to, the astronomy and astrophysics workforce and demographics. Last, for the first time, the Astro2020 decadal process included a formal Panel on State of the Profession and Societal Impacts (SoPSI; see Appendix N for the panel’s full report).
This chapter necessarily distills the extensive documentation of the SoPSI report, and also considers some adjacent topics that were beyond the scope of the SoPSI statement of task; those additional topics, which are mainly discussed in Section 3.4, were taken up by working groups within the steering committee. Nonetheless, more than from any other single source, the contents of this chapter are informed and inspired by the SoPSI report and by the diversity of voices and perspectives that it represents.
This chapter begins with a brief introduction of the key themes, including the precepts and principles that guide the ensuing findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Section 3.2 reviews the role that astronomy and astrophysics continue to play in creating novel technologies and providing crucial educational gateways to science and discusses opportunities for increasing astronomy’s impact on nurturing vital talent for the nation’s global leadership in science and technology. Section 3.3 examines the factors that shape the current and future landscape of the astronomy and astrophysics profession, including the nature of the academic pipeline and the demographic makeup of the profession. Critical attention is paid to the ongoing need for efforts to make the profession more welcoming and inclusive and more representative of the society to whom it is accountable. Then, Section 3.4 spotlights ways in which the future of astronomy and astrophysics necessarily depends on more sustainable practices in the utilization of and interactions with the world’s natural resources, its cultures, and its human communities, including a major recommendation for the development of a new model for respectful, collaborative decision making in partnership with Indigenous and other local communities. Section 3.5 summarizes the budgetary implications of the committee’s recommendations, and Section 3.6 provides closing thoughts. The central theme of people as a vital foundation will continue in the remaining chapters as well.
3.1 PRECEPTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR THE PROFESSION AND ITS SOCIETAL IMPACTS
The successful execution of the vision in this report will depend on the skill, creativity, and dedication of the community of scientists, engineers, educators, and aspirants who make up the astronomy and astrophysics profession. The ambitious facilities, instruments, and experiments envisaged by the survey, and the transformative discoveries that they promise, will not make themselves; the people who comprise the astronomy and astrophysics profession do these things. Because diversity of thought and perspectives fuels innovation, the astronomy and astrophysics enterprise can be at its most innovative only when it includes and embraces the diversity of its human talent by ensuring equitable access to opportunities, eliminating barriers to participation, and valuing diverse forms of expertise in its leadership.
The societal benefits of investment in astronomy extend far beyond astronomy itself. As physical sciences, astronomy and astrophysics contribute to developing the nation’s technically trained STEM workforce. Students with college-level training in astronomy and physics can access an extraordinarily broad range of technical careers—from education to national security to commercial research and development (R&D) and beyond—that help fuel and sustain the nation’s global leadership and well-being. Astronomical discoveries inspire people to pursue STEM careers generally, not only in astronomy. Impacting society even more broadly still, schoolchildren, teachers, parents, and the growing ranks of citizen scientists benefit from opportunities for lifelong learning, analytical reasoning, and scientific literacy. Education has long been one of the great engines of social mobility. It is also a driver that transcends barriers, demolishes stereotypes, and unites those who offer or partake of it in a common purpose. In short, the astronomy and astrophysics enterprise adds substantial, real, and lasting value to the human knowledge infrastructure for the nation and the world.
Beyond these important tangible benefits, astronomy’s quest to understand the universe and humanity’s place within it resonates deeply with the public. Indeed, astronomy as a field is made possible because of taxpayers’ and philanthropists’ enthusiasm for the wonder and awe that astronomical discovery and achievement routinely deliver. The returns on national investment transcend the practical gains of STEM technology and workforce development by offering everyone the opportunity to experience the cosmos and to bear witness as astronomers unlock the answers to cosmic mysteries.
For these reasons, the nation’s investment in astronomy and astrophysics as a science necessarily involves a substantial investment in people, both for the functioning of the field itself and for the many societal benefits that it produces. As with any investment, these investments in people require responsible stewardship, and they demand transparency and accountability for outcomes, importantly through collecting, evaluating, and acting upon reliable demographic and organizational data.
There is also the public’s expectation that what is pursued with the nation’s resources should be for the common good, which includes the principles of fairness and equal opportunity that are core to society’s ideals. Not everyone can become a professional astronomer, but anyone with the ability and the drive to contribute to the nation through astronomical discovery should have a fair chance to do so. Astronomical activities also involve interactions among many peoples and countries of the world, and with a climate and sky that all on Earth share, all would more greatly benefit from an engagement with astronomy that has sustainability as a core ideal. And everyone—regardless of identity or background—deserves the opportunity to bring their full true self to this enterprise free of fear, harassment, or discrimination.
The need to invest in people, and the potential outcomes for science and for the nation, have been called out by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as well. For example, the NSB’s Vision 2030 states that “the U.S. must offer individuals, from skilled technical workers to Ph.D.’s, on-ramps into STEM-capable jobs.… In order to lead in 2030, the U.S. also must be aggressive about cultivating the fullness of the nation’s domestic talent.”2 Similarly, NASA’s Science Plan 2020 states, “As research has shown, diversity is a key driver of innovation and more diverse organizations are more innovative.… We will increase support by actively encouraging students and early career researchers.… We will also increase partnerships across institutions to provide additional opportunities for engagement and increasing diversity of thought. NASA believes in the importance of diverse and inclusive teams to tackle strategic problems and maximize scientific return.”3
The precepts and principles articulated above—diversity, equity, benefit to the nation and the world, and sustainability and accountability—guide the recommendations that follow throughout this chapter.
3.2 ASTRONOMY’S ROLE IN SOCIETY: A GATEWAY TO STEM CAREERS, A BRIDGE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC
Astronomy, perhaps more than any science, has the power not only to educate but also to awe and inspire. Near-daily coverage of space science discoveries—images of the event horizon of a black hole, descriptions of exotic exoplanets—reveals the public’s engagement with the field. For example, the August 21, 2017, solar eclipse was watched by an estimated 215 million Americans (two of every three people) either live or via videostream.4 The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) image of the ring of light from plasma near the horizon of the black hole in the galaxy M87 posted on the NSF public website in 2019 was down-
2 National Science Board, 2020, Vision 2030, NSB-2020-15, https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2020/nsb202015.pdf.
3 NASA, 2020, Science 2020–2024: A Vision for Scientific Excellence, https://science.nasa.gov/science-red/s3fs-public/atoms/files/2020-2024_Science.pdf.
4 J.D. Miller, 2018, Americans and the 2017 Eclipse: A Final Report on Public Viewing of the August Total Solar Eclipse, June 12, https://isr.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Final-Eclipse-Viewing-Report.pdf.
loaded more times than any other image on a federal government server. The announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from a massive black hole binary by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)–Virgo team in 2016 was the third highest-impact research story that year, appearing in more than 900 news media outlets worldwide within one day of the announcement (Figure 3.1).5,6
Astronomical discoveries reach vast national and international audiences, and are often the first exposure that young people have to science and the scientific process. A small fraction of this audience will someday be inspired to take up a career in astronomy or space science, but for every one of those there are hundreds for whom the spark of an astronomical event or discovery will lead to a career in other areas of science, engineering, medicine, mathematics, computing, or technology. The term “gateway” is often used to describe this subject’s ability to draw curious students to STEM. As counterpoint to a period when some have challenged the legitimacy of science and the integrity of scientists, the broad public appeal of astronomy can serve as a force for good far beyond the boundaries of its own discipline.
Conclusion: Astronomy research continues to offer significant benefits to the nation beyond astronomical discoveries. These discoveries capture the public’s attention, foster general science literacy and proficiency, promote public perception of the value, legitimacy, and integrity of science, and serve as an inspirational gateway to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.
NASA, NSF, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific have developed abundant K–12 and introductory college-level materials that are ready to bring astronomy into classrooms. These resources can impact the science literacy of millions of students across the country yearly. Indeed, a recent National Academies study examining the NASA Science Activation program for education and public outreach recommended that this high-quality material should be made even more widely available and made readily accessible
6 J. Shapiro Key, M. Hendry, and D. Holz, 2016, “Conveying Gravity: Communicating the Discovery of Gravitational Waves,” APS News, 25(8), American Physical Society, https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201608/backpage.cfm.
by K–12 teachers and college instructors.7 The COVID-19 pandemic brought online education and digital learning resources into virtually every school and to every learner in the United States, extending further still the opportunities for spreading astronomy educational materials across the country.
Astronomy is also a pioneer in developing “Citizen Science” projects such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and Galaxy Zoo,8 which enable students and other members of the public to participate in scientific research, projects that have led to important new discoveries. Over the past decade, more than 63,000 public volunteers from around the world have participated in programs run by the Zooniverse (Figure 3.2),9 and the model has since spread to hundreds of other projects in the sciences, medicine, climate, arts, humanities, and social sciences.
Conclusion: Astronomy is a leader in developing online citizen science projects, which enable students and other members of the public to participate in scientific research.
As a field that is driven by, and in turn drives, technological innovation, astronomy has always benefited the nation by invention and innovation of advanced technologies. In its essence, observational astronomy is remote sensing in the extreme. Its telescopes and instruments constantly push the limits of technology
7 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020, NASA’s Science Activation Program: Achievements and Opportunities, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
8 Zoouniverse, “Galaxy Zoo,” https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zookeeper/galaxy-zoo.
9 L. Trouille, 2020, “Astro 2020 State of the Profession White Paper: EPO Vision, Needs, and Opportunities Through Citizen Science,” Bulletin of the AAS 51(7), https://baas.aas.org/pub/2020n7i138/release/1, and “Astro 2020 Infrastructure Activity White Paper: Citizen Science as a Core Component of Research Infrastructure,” Bulletin of the AAS 51(7), https://baas.aas.org/pub/2020n7i144/release/1.
for precision and sensitivity, as they detect faint objects and extract delicate signals from a sea of noise. Its spectroscopy consists of detecting minute traces of chemical elements and molecules. Its reach extends from meter-length radio waves through the terahertz, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma-ray parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and has now extended even further to detecting energetic cosmic rays, neutrinos, and gravitational radiation from sources billions or trillions of kilometers away. Many of these technologies, whether they be innovations in detectors, wireless communication, information technology, algorithms, or even in public engagement and communication, have propagated as spin-offs to other sectors of STEM and the commercial sector. What follows are just a few examples from the past two decades.
- The technical demands of NASA space missions have been especially productive incubators for spinoffs. (NASA has documented more than 1900 spin-offs since 1976.10) Some most closely tied to astronomical applications include complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) imaging sensors (used in most smartphone cameras today), infrared thermometers, and image enhancement and analysis systems. Technology sent to Mars for the first time on the Perseverance Rover is already detecting trace contaminants in pharmaceutical manufacturing, wastewater treatment, and other important operations on Earth.
- The demands of ground-based astronomy have provided a similarly rich harvest of technologies that have found widespread application in society, though the time for their adoption sometimes is measured in decades. These include early prototypes of WiFi, atomic clocks, cryogenic cooling systems (also developed by NASA for space missions), and the underlying technologies making possible precision location of 911 calls and (with significant additional investment from the military) global positioning system (GPS) navigation.11 The latter requires corrections for the influence of Earth’s gravitational field on GPS signals, an unanticipated application of Einstein’s theory of general relativity developed more than a century ago. GPS in its modern precision form would not function without these corrections (Figure 3.3).
- Recent years have seen major improvements in the sensitivity of mm-wave and terahertz detectors. At the mm wavelengths, arrays of thousands of ultra-sensitive bolometric detectors have been developed to study the cosmic microwave background (CMB). In parallel, there has been steady improvement in radio-like receivers, but at a much shorter wavelength. These are exemplified by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Band 10 at 0.9 THz (roughly 0.3 mm wavelength) and, above 1.2 THz, by receivers based on hot electron bolometers. THz radiation can penetrate objects such as plastic and clothes, but not metals, and are not harmful to human tissues, and thus existing and in-progress sensitive detectors of THz signals have wide applications in airport security and medicine. These developments parallel the history of X-ray technology, another spin-off from astronomy in the 1960s.
- Software and information technology are other areas where the footprints of astronomy have left clear marks. Grid computing is a prime example. The open source Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) developed in the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, for volunteer and grid computing was developed to search data obtained with radio-telescopes for signals from extraterrestrial life (SETI@home). It has since been used in many other areas in astrophysics (LIGO [+Virgo] application of BOINC is looking for evidence of continuous, monochromatic gravitational waves from non-axisymmetric, unknown single neutron stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and LIGO noise diagnostics, for example) but also in many non-astronomical contexts, including medical, environmental, and humanitarian research sponsored by IBM Corporate Citizenship in the non-profit “world community grid,” and has even been used for COVID-19 research.
11 National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 2006, Radio Astronomy: Contributing to American Competitiveness, NRAO/AUI Report, October, https://www.nrao.edu/news/Technology_doc_final.pdf.
- Extending upon this, training and collaboration with computing and data science researchers could be an additional area of broad benefit in the context of the cyber future.
Conclusion: Astronomy continues to benefit the nation by invention and innovation of advanced technologies.
For all of these reasons, training in astronomy and astrophysics continues to pay dividends, whether individuals transition into long-term professional astronomy positions, STEM workforce roles in the private or public sector, or non-STEM-related jobs. The 2017 NSF biennial survey of earned doctorates shows a less than 2 percent unemployment rate of individuals with an astronomy master’s or Ph.D. degree.12 Those joining the private sector with a bachelor’s or Ph.D. earn a median starting income of $60,000 and $120,000, respectively.13 A significant driver of these employment outcomes may be the increasing importance of computational skills and data science that are increasingly included in astronomy training and research. Indeed, these skills position individuals for opportunities in a variety of in-demand sectors, such as defense, healthcare, or commerce, as well as teaching in the education sector.
Finding: Education in astronomy research provides valuable training for a broad array of careers in STEM.
One key indicator of the value of astronomy research training beyond astronomy itself is the fraction of astronomy Ph.D. recipients who forgo postdoctoral positions—traditionally the next step toward a permanent position in astronomy research—in favor of non-academic STEM workforce jobs. As of the most
12 See National Science Foundation, “Survey of Doctorate Recipients,” last updated April 2021, https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvydoctoratework. Similarly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports unemployment for life, physical, and social science occupations was about 2 percent in 2019–2020 (BLS, Household Data: Annual Averages: 25. Unemployed Persons by Occupation and Sex, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat25.pdf).
13 P. Mulvey and J. Pold, 2019, Astronomy Degree Recipients One Year After Degree, American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/astronomy-degree-recipients-one-year-after-degree.
recent survey in 2015–2016, nearly half of new astronomy Ph.D. recipients were moving directly into private sector jobs.14 This is a significant shift in career pathways for Ph.D.-trained astronomers in just over a decade; at the time of the previous decadal survey, fewer than 30 percent of astronomy Ph.D. recipients were taking the straight-to-industry career pathway.15
These shifting patterns in career interests and outcomes may signal a healthy shift in attitudes and expectations about what constitutes a “successful” career for those with astronomy research training. Going back a decade further still to Astro2000 and prior decadal surveys,16 the fact that a significant fraction of Ph.D.-trained astronomers were not obtaining or choosing permanent positions in astronomy research was seen as a cause for consternation. The question was: did the “mismatch” between the number of astronomy Ph.D. recipients and the number of permanent astronomy research jobs imply a need for policies to limit the number of students admitted to Ph.D. programs? No such policies were implemented, and as noted above, the number of students interested in astronomy has only continued to grow, even though the number of permanent astronomy research positions has not grown apace. The net result is the significant increase noted above in the number of individuals successfully and lucratively taking their astronomy research training into a broad range of STEM careers. Astronomy is now contributing more broadly to the nation’s technically skilled workforce, and there is no evidence of any mismatch at all (see, e.g., the income and unemployment statistics noted above) between the number of trained astronomers and the number of desirable career routes for which those with technical training in astronomy find themselves in high demand.
Conclusion: There is no evidence of mismatch between the number of Ph.D.- or postdoctorate-trained astronomers and the broad array of desirable career pathways into the STEM workforce.
At the same time, this technical and career landscape is changing rapidly. To keep astronomers current and competitive for jobs in the public and private sectors, even more deliberate professional development will be needed, specifically with regard to the ever-growing importance of advanced computational skills.17 The recent report from the Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs recommends embedding computational training explicitly as part of the undergraduate curriculum, with at least one first-year computer course and one upper-level methods/statistics course, with an applied focus to physics and astronomy.18 Early-career data scientists, as well as early-career instrumentalists, must also be nurtured and incentivized, as these skills represent evolving capabilities key to the future of astronomy and astrophysics.
Conclusion: One way to further enhance the competitiveness of physics and astronomy students for the broadest range of careers is to embed computational training in the undergraduate curriculum, with at least one course in programming, with a focus on applications to physics and astronomy.
Despite the strong career outcomes for students who have pursued education and research training in astronomy, the discipline underperforms relative to its potential for training an even larger number of col-
14 Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs, 2016, Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers, American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, http://www.compadre.org/JTUPP/docs/J-Tupp_Report.pdf.
15 National Research Council, 2010, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
16 National Research Council, 2001, Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
17 D. Huppenkothen, A. Arendt, D.W. Hogg, K. Ram, J.T. VanderPlas, and A. Rokem, 2018, “Hack Weeks as a Model for Data Science Education and Collaboration,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 115(36):8872–8877, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1717196115.
18 Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs, 2016, Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers, American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, http://www.compadre.org/JTUPP/docs/J-Tupp_Report.pdf.
lege students for STEM careers. Of the ~70,000 new college freshmen each year in the United States who express an intent to major in physical sciences, only 10 percent overall—and only 4 percent of underrepresented minorities—ultimately complete a physics/astronomy degree (see Table 3.2, Section 3.3), choosing instead degrees in the life sciences or social sciences or in non-STEM fields altogether (Figure 3.4).19 In contrast, in the life sciences the retention rate is substantially higher, at ~50 percent.20 When interpreting such statistics, it is important to recognize that the undergraduate curriculum for astronomers, whether they pursue degrees in astronomy, physics, or both, is dominated by coursework in physics, As a result, statistics for physics and astronomy undergraduate education are often aggregated. This also implies that improvements in the undergraduate component of the career pipeline for astronomers needs to be closely coordinated with similar efforts in physics education.
Why do astronomy and physics capture such a relatively small market share of interested students? The answer, at least in part, could be that the (physics-dominated) curricula are aimed primarily at producing
19 S.E. Bradforth, E.R. Miller, W.R. Dichtel, A.K. Leibovich, A.L. Feig, J.D. Martin, K.S. Bjorkman, Z.D. Schultz, and T.L. Smith, 2015, “University Learning: Improve Undergraduate Science Education,” Nature 523:282–284, https://doi.org/10.1038/523282a.
future academic leaders, often prizing the most basic and fundamental over the practical. As a result, students whose intellectual interests are in astronomy or physics, but whose practical career ambitions may lie outside of pure academic research, realize quickly that the curriculum and technical training opportunities are not intended for them. Indeed, quantitative and qualitative research of educational outcomes and student experiences consistently paint a very clear picture in which otherwise smart, capable students who could leverage their passion for astronomy and physics into meaningful STEM workforce careers not only choose to leave but feel “encouraged to leave.”21 This is in contrast to the messaging in many other disciplines, such as social sciences and biomedical sciences, which not only welcome and actively recruit interested students but intentionally structure the undergraduate curriculum and research training experiences at the undergraduate and graduate levels with the purpose of preparing the vast majority of students for successful careers outside of basic academic research.22
Finding: The vast majority (>80 percent) of college students desiring technical careers and having an interest specifically in physics or astronomy currently switch out of physics/astronomy and either obtain their technical training through another STEM field or else abandon STEM altogether, in contrast to the ~50 percent retention rate in the life sciences.
All of this suggests that astronomy and physics have a large opportunity to much more fully retain talented students and to much more fully contribute to the nation’s technically trained STEM workforce, simply by shifting from a “weed out” mentality in the undergraduate curriculum, and from a “pure scientists only” mentality in research opportunities, toward approaches that much more intentionally attract and prepare—and value—students for the broad array of good career outcomes that astronomy and physics training provides anyway. The exclusive focus on academic careers, when options and positions are very limited, is overly constraining on trainees who might otherwise see industry as an interesting and lucrative career path through which they can continue to add value to the nation’s technically skilled workforce. Indeed, the potential for advisors to guide students exclusively into academic careers and thereby discourage other good career outcomes may not serve the best interests of the students while simultaneously diminishing the overall STEM workforce pipeline.
Conclusion: While astronomy and astrophysics have prepared students for a broad variety of technical careers in the public and private sectors, in practice, advanced technical training in astronomy and astrophysics continues to largely select for those students most likely to seek academic research careers, representing a missed opportunity to welcome students interested in other applications and disciplines enabling astronomy and astrophysics to contribute more fully to the nation’s broader STEM workforce pipeline.
3.3 FACTORS SHAPING ASTRONOMY’S CURRENT AND FUTURE PROFESSIONAL LANDSCAPE
As noted above, the astronomy and astrophysics profession is vital to the success of the survey’s vision specifically and that of the astronomy and astrophysics enterprise more generally. A core principle and goal is to create an equitable field that allows full participation by all, and to achieve that goal requires identifying and addressing potential problems at every stage of training and practice. The SoPSI panel report
21 E. Seymour and A.B. Hunter, eds., 2019, Talking About Leaving Revisited: Persistence, Relocation, and Loss in Undergraduate STEM Education, Cham, Switzerland, Springer, https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030253035.
22 S.E. Bradforth, E.R. Miller, W.R. Dichtel, A.K. Leibovich, A.L. Feig, J.D. Martin, K.S. Bjorkman, Z.D. Schultz, and T.L. Smith, 2015, “University Learning: Improve Undergraduate Science Education,” Nature 523:282–284, https://doi.org/10.1038/523282a.
provides extensive documentation and background references on the broad array of issues, challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions, the latter of which involve a combination of cultural change, removing structural barriers, and promoting accountability. This section briefly summarizes some of the key issues and challenges, and distills the most pressing opportunities and solutions in order to provide guidance to the agency sponsors, policy makers, and the community. The focus here is primarily on areas that can be affected by agency funding, while acknowledging that this is only part of the larger work that needs to be done, and referring the reader to the full SoPSI report for details on additional areas of opportunity.
3.3.1 Where Astronomers Work
Almost everything about the way astronomers conduct their work—including the structure and size of research teams and the skill sets for which students are trained—has undergone massive shifts in the past two decades. The field is becoming dominated by large collaborations and survey-scale missions, an explosion of data, and a workforce that is more digitally connected and more geographically distributed than ever before. Indeed, occupationally speaking, astronomy research today bears little resemblance to the old stereotype of a lone scientist cloistered in a remote observatory. Rather, most astrophysicists’ work has evolved to an “office job” over the decades, resembling in its rhythms, structures, and interactions the activities of most other modern-day white-collar professions. This includes an ever-growing recognition of the importance of—and expectation for—professional conduct (e.g., workplaces free of sexual harassment), professional development (e.g., intentional training for important technical, management, and leadership skills), professional work-life balance (e.g., accommodating the realities of childcare, eldercare, and other personal obligations), and other features that continue to make the astronomy profession, simply put, more professional.
According to a survey of American Astronomical Society (AAS) members (Table 3.1), more than half of full-time employed members of the profession with astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D.s work at institutions of higher education; 33 percent work at government labs, research institutes, or observatories; and a few percent work in industry.23 This pattern of employment and funding has held relatively stable over the past decade.
One consequence of this pattern of employment is that a large fraction of professional astronomers depend to varying degrees—in some cases to a large degree—on federal grant resources for their own support and/or for that of their research teams (Table 3.1). Another consequence is that, since the vast majority of astronomers’ employers are divided between universities/colleges on the one hand and large research centers/facilities on the other hand, the organizational approaches to workforce development may differ depending on organizational mission, structures, and mechanisms for accountability. For example, higher education institutions generally have teaching and training as core parts of their organizational mission, with accountability to parents, alumni, state legislatures in some cases, and university boards and leadership. And because they depend on federal funding for much of their research activities, the policies and priorities of these organizations can be influenced by the expectations and requirements of the funding agencies. In contrast, nearly all of the major facilities supported by NSF and NASA are operated through cooperative agreements, contracts, or other instruments with managing organizations (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Associated Universities, Inc., and others). It is not clear what accountability mechanisms the funding agencies have implemented with these organizations specifically with regard to training and employment outcomes.
These differences in employment contexts have implications as well for approaches to diversity and inclusion efforts. Many, although certainly not all, institutions of higher education have implemented efforts
23 J. Pold and R. Ivie, 2019, Workforce Survey of 2018 US AAS Members: Summary Results, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics, https://aas.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/AAS-Members-Workforce-Survey-final.pdf.
TABLE 3.1 American Astronomical Society 2018 Survey of Employment and Salaries of AAS Members
|Current Employer of US AAS Members with PhDs, 2018|
|Employer or Sector||%||N|
|University or 4-year college||54||514|
|Govt. lab or research facility||14||135|
|Planetarium or museum||1||7|
Includes full-time employed respondents with PhDs excluding current postdocs.
|Funding Sources for Salaries of US AAS Members 2018|
|% Receiving Funding||Average % of Total Funding|
Categories with <3% are not included
NOTE: These data represent only those individuals with active AAS membership; not reflected in these statistics are the large number of individuals who obtain academic degrees in astronomy and astrophysics but who “leave the profession” for jobs in the private or public sectors, and for whom the data suggest their training has enabled gainful employment in the STEM workforce (see Section 3.2). In the table at right, the rightmost column gives the percentage of a typical individual’s salary that derives from a given source—for example, 44 percent of AAS members receive salary support through their college/university employer, and those individuals typically receive 90 percent of their salary support from that source. “Total N” indicates the total number of people included in the survey; it is not the sum of the rightmost column, as the formatting might suggest. SOURCE: Courtesy of the American Astronomical Society/American Institute of Physics 2018 Workforce Survey.
toward greater diversity and inclusion as core elements of the organizational mission, and university-based investigators applying for federal grants are now routinely expected to address requirements for broader impact in their funding proposals, including with regard to broadening participation of underrepresented groups. Again, it is not clear what accountability mechanisms the funding agencies have implemented for the facility-managing organizations with regard to diversity and inclusion expectations. However, the managing organizations have communicated a positive stance toward diversity and inclusion, with official policies, and with officials assigned to provide oversight, internal diversity and inclusion training, and promote community values. Most of NASA’s research centers are managed by the agency directly, and thus NASA could in principle directly implement targeted procedures and accountability for outcomes. In addition, the increasing complexity of new observatories and observational methods can and has been attracting people from other engineering and science fields into important roles in astronomy; the excitement of astronomy can potentially draw in a wider and eventually diverse pool of engineers and other scientists.
3.3.2 Demographics of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Profession
The current demographics of the field, and trends in these demographics over the past decades, tell a mixed story. For example, with regard to gender, Figure 3.5 indicates that the field still has a way to go to achieve the higher levels of gender parity that are now the case in other physical science disciplines such as chemistry. At the same time, astronomy has now reached an important milestone in terms of gender representation, with the rate of Ph.D. attainment among women now matching the rate with which women
earn baccalaureate degrees (see Figure 3.5). Indeed, as a discipline that is respected and influential in public opinion, astronomy’s ability to model growth toward equitable participation and inclusive practices may influence other sciences and professions.
In addition, according to statistics from the American Institute of Physics (AIP),24 the representation of women among the astronomy faculties of colleges and universities has shown clear improvement over the past decade, particularly among the recently hired assistant professors and recently tenured associate professors, for whom women now comprise about 30 percent, up from about 20 percent in 2003. There is a marked drop-off by roughly a factor of 2 in representation from the associate to the full professor ranks, although the absolute percentage of female full professors has increased to 15 percent (from roughly 10 percent) over the same period. At the senior ranks, the lower percentage of female faculty is in part shaped by lower fractions of women in Ph.D. programs in the past. In addition, AIP surveys show that women remain systematically disadvantaged by gender-associated differences in the distribution of family work and in career-advancing opportunities and resources25 that may have become exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conclusion: Ensuring the movement of women into the top leadership ranks (full professor and beyond) continues to be an important area needing attention.
24 J. Pold and R. Ivie, 2019, Workforce Survey of 2018 US AAS Members: Summary Results, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics, https://aas.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/AAS-Members-Workforce-Survey-final.pdf.
25 A.M. Porter and R. Ivie, 2019, Women in Physics and Astronomy 2019, American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/women-physics-and-astronomy-2019.
Racial/ethnic diversity among astronomy faculty remains, in a word, abysmal. African Americans and Hispanics comprise 1 and 3 percent of the faculty, respectively.26 This collective representation of 4 percent is about an order of magnitude below these groups’ joint representation in the U.S. population. This underrepresentation was identified as a problem as far back as the 1980 decadal survey.27 As of 2012, there was not a single astronomy department that had representation of both African American and Hispanic faculty, and roughly two-thirds of astronomy departments had representation of neither. Funding agencies have traditionally invested in early-career faculty through dedicated programs such as the NSF CAREER awards and programs that support intentional transitions of postdoctoral researchers into faculty positions such as NSF Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP)28,29; these can be valuable levers for incentivizing faculty hiring in general and, to the extent that such programs include diversity efforts in their selection criteria, can help to incentivize faculty diversity as well.30
Conclusion: Racial/ethnic diversity among astronomy faculty remains abysmal. African Americans comprise a mere 1 percent of the faculty, over all ranks, among astronomy departments; Hispanics comprise 3 percent. This collective representation of 4 percent is roughly an order of magnitude below these groups’ joint representation in the U.S. population.
Recommendation: Funding agencies should increase funding incentives for improving diversity among the college/university astronomy and astrophysics faculty—for example, by increasing the number of awards that invest in the development and retention of early-career faculty and other activities for members of underrepresented groups.
3.3.3 The Academic Pipeline into the Profession
The past decade saw a substantial growth in the desire of Americans to participate in the excitement of astronomical discovery. The number of astronomy B.S. and Ph.D. degrees shows continued growth (Figure 3.6). There has been a steady increase in the number of women and Hispanic Americans earning astronomy degrees (Figures 3.6 and 3.7), although the number of African Americans earning Ph.D.s remains low and unchanged over three decades. Encouragingly, the number of African Americans earning B.S. degrees has increased in recent years (Figure 3.7), making it all the more important to redouble efforts to recruit and support these students as they move into doctoral programs. Research suggests at least two key innovations in graduate STEM training, discussed below, that can help to address the persistent challenge of underrepresentation: (1) graduate training that is more explicitly motivated by pro-social concerns (i.e., work that is seen as positively impacting one’s own communities),31 and (2) more holistic approaches to evaluating individuals for entry to graduate programs.32
26 AIP Academic Workforce Survey, 2016, unpublished results referenced in A.M. Porter, J. Tyler, S. Nicholson, and R. Ivie, 2020, Faculty Job Market in Physics and Astronomy Departments: Results from the 2018 Academic Workforce Survey, American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/faculty-job-market-physics-and-astronomy-departments.
28 National Science Foundation, “Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER),” https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503214.
29 National Science Foundation, “Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP),” https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5474.
30 W. Brown-Glaude, ed., 2009, Doing Diversity in Higher Education: Faculty Leaders Share Challenges and Strategies, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
31 M.C. Jackson, G. Galvez, I. Landa, P. Buonora, and D.B. Thoman, 2016, “Science That Matters: The Importance of a Cultural Connection in Underrepresented Students’ Science Pursuit,” CBE Life Sciences Education 15(3):ar42, https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-01-0067.
32 J.D. Kent and M.T. McCarthy, 2016, Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions: A Report from the Council of Graduate Schools, Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, DC.
Finding: The number of students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics and astronomy continues to grow, and the field is becoming more representative of American demographics, with steady increases in the number of women and Hispanic Americans. Representation of African American students, however, remains nearly steady and alarmingly low.
A broader snapshot view of the academic pipeline into astronomy and astrophysics (see Table 3.2 for statistics and sources) reveals important patterns of ongoing disparities in the profession. Only about 2 percent of all first-year college students in the United States expressed an interest to major in the physical sciences. Of these, about 11 percent of white students complete a physics or astronomy bachelor’s degree, whereas only 4 percent of students from underrepresented groups with similar interests do so, a disparity of about a factor of 3. While there is no longer a significant ethnic/racial disparity between the baccalaureate and Ph.D. stages (the combination of ~30 percent graduate admission rate and ~60 percent Ph.D. completion rate for those admitted are similar for all groups; see Table 3.2 and discussion below), the very large disparity at the source (undergraduate) level nonetheless culminates in a very low number of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Ph.D.s in physics and astronomy, with obvious long-term consequences for the diversity of the profession at the postdoctoral level and beyond. These data signify a systemic failure to fully tap the available talent pool generally, and diverse talent in particular.
Finding: Only 4 percent of college freshmen who are underrepresented minorities intending to major in physical sciences complete a physics or astronomy bachelor’s degree (compared to 11 percent for white freshman). Of those, only 16 percent continue to a Ph.D., comparable to 18 percent for their white peers.
Conclusion: There exists an enormous opportunity to tap into the nation’s diverse talent already in the higher-education pipeline.
Table 3.2 is a snapshot representation of a cohort of American students in physics and astronomy, from entering first-year students in 2007 to Ph.D. recipients in 2018. This is a synthetic cohort in that it does not
TABLE 3.2 Physics and Astronomy Synthetic Cohort from College First Year to Ph.D.
|First-year, first-time undergraduates, all majors (2007)b||2,764,690||1,655,714||766,844|
|Estimated number intending physical sciences major (2007)c||66,000||41,000||11,500|
|… of whom __ complete physics or astronomy degrees||10%||11%||4%|
|Bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy (2012)d||6,664||4,596||473|
|… of whom __ are admitted to graduate programs||29%||NA||NA|
|Entering graduate programe in physics or astronomy (2012)d||1,937||NA||NA|
|… of whom __ complete the Ph.D. in 6 years||59%||NA||NA|
|Ph.D. degrees in physics and astronomy (2018)d||1,151||805||76|
|Overall retention from bachelor’s to Ph.D.||17%||18%||16%|
a AHN = African Americans/Blacks, Hispanic/Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Natives/Native Hawaiians. These were the names of the categories used by NSF at the time these data were collected.
b Enrollment of first-time, first-year undergraduate students at all institutions, by citizenship, ethnicity, race, sex, and enrollment status, Table 2-2, 2004-14 (2013 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA, WMPD) available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.
c Based on numbers in Appendix Table 2-16, Freshmen Intending S&E Major by Field, Sex, and Race or Ethnicity, 1998–2012 [NSF Science and Engineering Indicators, 2016]. Unfortunately, the number of entering first-year students who intend to major specifically in physics or astronomy is not known.
d AIP Enrollments and Degrees Survey.
e Includes M.S. and Ph.D. students.
represent a literal longitudinal tracking of the same individuals over time; rather, the experience of the cohort is inferred by comparing national demographics data at time points separated by the typical duration of various academic stages. There are also limitations to a simple, linear “pipeline” progression model; however, it does provide a convenient basis for useful comparisons. For example, the progression depicted in Table 3.2 does not disaggregate students who begin their undergraduate education at 2-year community colleges, where roughly half of all underrepresented minority students begin their post-secondary education.33 In addition, physics and astronomy are linked by the fact that students who eventually earn Ph.D.s in astronomy and astrophysics often begin as physics majors. While data captured by AIP on Asian Americans who earn Ph.D.s in physics (5 percent Ph.D.s among a total population of 6 percent of Asian Americans in the overall population),34 the numbers do not directly reveal the challenges or makeup of this uniquely diverse group, defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent” in the U.S. Census.35 Inclusive recommendations that benefit all underrepresented groups while focusing on the extremes will allow for broad-reaching benefit.
The data also show that past and current efforts to engage with local and Indigenous communities have not been effective enough, specifically in the context of education and training opportunities. (See Section 3.4 for more general discussion and recommendations around improved engagement.) For example, astronomical first light on at Hawai’i’s Maunakea Observatories—a site of great cultural significance to the Kanaka Maoli—was almost exactly 50 years ago, yet in that time Ph.D.s in astronomy or astrophysics have been awarded to a total of three Native Hawaiians,36 one of whom is currently on the faculty of a U.S. college/university astronomy program; Native Hawaiians thus comprise ~0.05 percent of astronomy faculty, compared to comprising ~0.2 percent of the U.S. population.37 Indigenous people in the United States more generally represent ~0.25 percent of Ph.D. astronomers, compared to comprising ~2.0 percent of the population in 2019.38,39 In addition, engagement of Native Hawaiians and Native Americans in astronomy at the undergraduate level is among the lowest of all physical sciences, averaging ~two individuals per year. Relative to overall field size, the underrepresentation in astronomy is worse than in most other physical sciences, including chemistry, Earth sciences, and physics (Table 3.3). The importance of engagement with local and Indigenous communities in the context of sites where ground-based research facilities are built and operated is discussed in Section 3.4 below, including a major recommendation for the development of a new model for respectful, collaborative decision making in partnership with Indigenous and other local communities.
There have been efforts in the past decade to increase the economic, cultural, and educational benefits of astronomy facilities for local and Indigenous communities. Examples include the `Imiloa Center in Hilo, Hawai’i, and the Indigenous Education Institute.40,41 Another example is the program in place at the Kitt Peak National Observatory that coordinates with the Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal employment office
33 K.G. Stassun, 2003, “CSMA to Host Special Session in Seattle on Role of Minority Serving Institutions,” Spectrum, January, American Astronomical Society, https://aas.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/spectrum_Jan03.pdf.
34 AIP Statistical Research Center, “Race and Ethnicity of Physics PhDs, Classes of 2018 and 2019 Combined,” American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/statistics/data-graphics/race-and-ethnicity-physics-phds-classes-2018-and-2019-combined.
35 U.S. Census Bureau, “About the Topic of Race,” https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html.
36 The first astronomy Ph.D. to a Native Hawaiian was awarded nearly three decades ago; the second was awarded in 2015, becoming the first Native Hawaiian to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy from the State of Hawai’i’s own university system; and the third was the very next year through the NSF Partnerships in Astronomy and Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE) supported program at Vanderbilt and Fisk Universities, which that same year also awarded the first astrophysics degree to a member of the Sioux Nation. See Section 3.3.4.
38 D.J. Nelson, “The Nelson Diversity Surveys,” http://drdonnajnelson.oucreate.com/diversity/top50.html.
39 U.S. Census Bureau, 2019, “Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2019,” Release Number CB19-FF.11, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2019/aian-month.html.
TABLE 3.3 Bachelor’s Degrees Earned by Indigenous People per 1,000 Degrees in the United States
|Degrees per 1,000 (2003)||Degrees per 1,000 (2013)||Change|
|Atmospheric science||0.4||0.4||No change|
|Ocean sciences||0.2||0.2||No change|
|Other physical sciences||0.2||0.4||Gain|
SOURCE: American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/statistics/data-graphics/number-bachelor-degrees-earned-nativeamericans-physical-science-fields.
on preferential hiring of Native Americans at Kitt Peak, as well as opportunities for technical training. The Akamai Workforce Initiative, led by the University of California and supported in part by funding from NSF, Air Force, Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, and others, has helped hundreds of local students, including many Native Hawaiians, attain employment with telescopes and the broader STEM workforce (Figure 3.8).42 There are also examples from other countries, such as the ALMA observatory in the Atacama region in Chile, which involves the Likan Antai people in many of its activities, including efforts to preserve the Indigenous language and cosmic worldview.
Conclusion: Fewer Native Americans are receiving baccalaureate degrees in astronomy than for any other physical science. Astronomy has not fully engaged with communities with a cultural stake in the places where astronomers build facilities. Funding to principal investigators (PIs) at tribal colleges, from Indigenous communities, or at institutions that predominantly serve Indigenous populations would enable long-term research partnerships and culturally supported pathways for full participation of Indigenous people in science careers.
3.3.4 The Role of Federal Agencies and Professional Societies for Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession
There have been positive and negative trends in the diversity of the Ph.D. pipeline over the past 25 years (see Figure 3.9). While the factors driving these trends are no doubt complex, a simple comparison of the timing of recent gains and losses in the diversity of the academic pipeline at the baccalaureate and especially the Ph.D. levels suggests that at least some, and perhaps much, can be attributed to funding initiatives by NASA and NSF that, starting about 20 years ago, began to invest specifically in workforce diversity, and in particular through partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).43 Taking one of the first of these programs as a specific example, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program began in 2004 with NASA support until 2007 and subsequent NSF support with a final award in 2013.44 The program’s first cohort began to complete their Ph.D.s in 2009, and by 2015 the program was responsible for an average of six Ph.D.s per year to underrepresented minority students, by itself representing an increase of ~30 percent over the number that was being awarded nationally when the program began. By that time, the cumulative impact of additional programs (see below) was becoming evident (see Figure 3.9).
These programs served to engage underrepresented students in research experiences while enhancing the astronomy and astrophysics research capacity of the MSIs. The choice to specifically form partnerships with MSIs was in recognition of the outsized role that these institutions play in the recruitment, support, and preparation of underrepresented minorities for science and engineering careers. For example, all 10 of the top 10 producers of African American baccalaureate degrees in physics are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).45
Finding: Minority Serving Institutions—including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities—are a large and diverse talent pool for the field. For example, all 10 of the top 10 producers of African American baccalaureates in physics are HBCUs.
Importantly, these funding initiatives were operated at the relevant division levels of the agencies with purview over astronomy and astrophysics, not centralized at the top agency levels where their impact specifically on the astronomy and astrophysics workforce at the undergraduate and graduate levels might be diffused. The NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) program was called the Minority University
43 MSIs include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
44 K.G. Stassun, 2017, The Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program: Broadening Participation of Underrepresented Minorities in the Physical Sciences, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/bk-2017-1248.ch006.
45 K.G. Stassun, 2010, “Hearing on Broadening Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM),” Congressional Testimony, March 16, Vanderbilt University, http://astro.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~stassuk/KGStassun_CongressionalTestimony_30Jul2010_revised.pdf.
and College Education and Research Partnership Initiative (MUCERPI),46 and the NSF AST program was called Partnerships in Astronomy and Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE).47 Although not fully comparable to PAARE or MUCERPI, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science does run a Visiting Faculty Program (VFP, formerly Faculty and Student Teams [FaST]) that supports individual MSI faculty or small faculty-student teams.48 Some of the most well-known programs of the past 20 years—such as the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program (see above),49 the Columbia Bridge to the Doctorate Program,50 the CalBridge Program,51 and others—have been “bridge”-type programs through which underrepresented students at the undergraduate level are trained and supported specifically across the transition into graduate-level training (Figure 3.10). As noted above (see also Table 3.2), ethnic/racial disparities from the baccalaureate to the Ph.D. stages of education and training in physics and astronomy are no longer significant, which is a significant accomplishment in itself. All of these programs got their funding start through MUCERPI, PAARE, FaST, or some combination of these and institutional resources.
46 P.J. Sakimoto and J.D. Rosenthal, 2005, “Obliterating Myths About Minority Institutions,” Physics Today 58(9):49–53, https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2117823.
47 National Science Foundation, “Partnerships for Astronomy and Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE),” https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=501046.
49 K.G. Stassun, S. Sturm, K. Holley-Bockelmann, A. Burger, D.J. Ernst, and D. Webb, 2011, “The Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program: Recognizing, Enlisting, and Cultivating Unrealized or Unrecognized Potential in Underrepresented Minority Students,” American Journal of Physics 79(4):374, https://doi.org/10.1119/1.3546069.
51 A.L. Rudolph, 2019, “Cal-Bridge: Creating Pathways to the PhD for Underrepresented Students in Physics and Astronomy,” Physics Today 72(10):50, https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.4319.
In recognition of the early successes of these programs,52 the American Physical Society (APS) launched a program to emulate these efforts and incentivize similar programs in physics departments nationally.53 NSF AST’s 2013 portfolio review specifically recommended line-item funding for “workforce diversity” as part of its broader recommendation for augmenting the small- to midscale budget for NSF AST.54 Unfortunately, all of these division-level workforce diversity funding programs have since been defunded, as a result of budget pressures, top-level agency programmatic consolidation, or both. Reinvesting in these programs could yet yield significant benefits for the diversity of the field. As noted above, the amount of time required
52 A.L. Rudolph, K. Holley-Bockelmann, and J. Posselt, 2019, “PhD Bridge Programmes as Engines for Access, Diversity, and Inclusion,” Nature Astronomy 3:1080–1085, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-019-0962-1.
53 T. Hodapp and K. Woodle, 2017, “A Bridge Between Undergraduate and Doctoral Degrees,” Physics Today 70(2):50, https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.3464.
54 National Science Foundation, 2011–2012, “AST Portfolio Review,” Division of Astronomical Sciences, https://www.nsf.gov/mps/ast/ast_portfolio_review.jsp.
for individuals to complete Ph.D. training and for programs to ramp up implies that programs likely need to be supported for at least 5–10 years to enable reaching steady state impact.
Finding: Previous NASA, NSF, and DOE funding programs (e.g., NSF PAARE, NASA MUCERPI, DOE FaST) focused on training in state-of-the-art research methods and preparation for future leadership in research—including computation, instrumentation, etc., especially through partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions—have been defunded. Importantly, these funding initiatives were not centralized at the top agency levels where their impact specifically on the astronomy and astrophysics workforce at the undergraduate and graduate levels might be diffused; rather, they were initiated and operated at the relevant division levels of the agencies with purview over astronomy and astrophysics.
Recommendation: NASA, NSF, and DOE should reinvest in professional workforce diversity programs at the division/directorate levels with purview over astronomy and astrophysics. Because academic pipeline transitions are loss points in general, supporting the creation and continued operation of “bridge”-type programs across junctures in the higher education pipeline and into the professional ranks appear especially promising.
One outcome of efforts to accelerate the participation of underrepresented groups in graduate education is that many departments have modified their graduate program application requirements to more effectively attract talented, high-achieving students from an increasingly diverse pool of candidates. Indeed, there is an emerging sensibility around the imperative of equity-based holistic review—a practice that has applicability not only for admissions but also for hiring, awards, grants, and leadership positions. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) task force on diversity and inclusion in graduate education compiled lessons learned from the movement to improve graduate admissions, recruitment, and mentoring, as well as program climate and data use. Their recommendations were endorsed by the AAS in January 2019, amplifying recommendations and toolkits from the first Inclusive Astronomy meeting that was convened in 2015 and endorsed by the AAS (Figure 3.11).55,56,57 Importantly, one core recommendation from Inclusive Astronomy in the “Power, Policy, and Leadership” category was that the Astro2020 decadal survey should “include recommendations (i.e., not merely findings as in previous decadal surveys).” More generally, the Inclusive Astronomy recommendations included a roadmap for establishing a “community of inclusive practice,” engaging the astronomy community as a whole (including AAS committees such as SGMA, CSMA, CSWA, and WGAD, among others)58 in ongoing two-way engagement between professional societies and the members that comprise them to create a much more powerful voice for the decadal goals, as well as create a more engaged, diverse, and inclusive community of scientists working toward common purposes.
Finding: Leadership by the astronomy community in the past decade has produced exemplary efforts for inclusive excellence in graduate education, including the promotion and implementation of equity-
55 A. Rudolph, G. Basri, M. Agüeros, E. Bertschinger, K. Coble, M. Donahue, J. Monkiewicz, A. Speck, and K. Stassun, Final Report of the 2018 AAS Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education, American Astronomical Society, https://aas.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/aas_diversity_inclusion_tf_final_report_baas.pdf.
56 Council of the American Astronomy Society, 2016, “AAS Endorses Vision Statement for Inclusive Astronomy,” https://aas.org/press/aas-endorses-vision-statement-inclusive-astronomy.
57 See “Inclusive Astronomy: The Nashville Recommendations,” AAS Groups Wiki, https://tiki.aas.org/tiki-index.php?page=Inclusive_Astronomy_The_Nashville_Recommendations.
58 Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA), Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA), Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD). https://aas.org/committees-and-working-groups.
based holistic review practices for admission, evidence-based practices for mentoring, and data-driven approaches to improved program climate.
In addition, an important principle to emerge from multiple National Academies reports addressing discrimination and harassment (see below and Box 3.1) is that early-career scientists from undergraduates to graduate students to postdoctorates need greater access than is currently the norm for funding support that provides independence and flexibility (so as to lessen over-reliance on individual advisors and/or hierarchical training relationships), while at the same time increasing access to more structured opportunities for mentoring networks, evidence-based pedagogy, training for different career paths, and so on. Exemplar approaches suggested by, for example, the National Academies report on the Science of Effective Mentoring (2018) and the AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) report (2019) includes connecting students to structured cohort-based research training programs, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) awards (undergraduate) and “T” training grant programs (graduate), as well as independent fellowship funding at the postdoctoral level, and ensuring that such funding is awarded to a broadly diverse set of institutions to ensure equitable access.59
59 For example, the NASA Hubble Fellows Program (NHFP) is conducting an independent, outside review of its policies and procedures to improve equitable access and diversity in fellowship recipients and host institutions.
Recommendation: NSF, NASA, and DOE should implement undergraduate and graduate “traineeship” funding, akin to the NIH Maximizing Access to Research Centers and NIH “T” training grant programs, to incentivize department/institution-level commitment to professional workforce development, and prioritize interdisciplinary training, diversity, and preparation for a variety of career outcomes.
Recommendation: NASA and NSF should continue and increase support for postdoctoral fellowships that provide independence while encouraging development of scientific leaders who advance diversity and inclusive excellence (e.g., NASA Hubble Fellows program, NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowships program).
3.3.5 Addressing Racism, Bias, Harassment, and Discrimination
No discussion of the factors shaping the profession would be complete without addressing the uncomfortable but all-too-real challenges of racism, bias, harassment, and discrimination in the field. Building toward a
fully diverse and inclusive workforce is unequivocally a long-term priority for the profession, and the persistence of discrimination in the field in any form—including in the forms of racism, bias, and harassment—will continue to fundamentally hamper progress toward that important goal. As noted in the SoPSI report, “discrimination in the profession (be it structural or between individuals, overt or implicit) impacts (1) professional well-being by producing stress and other negative health outcomes; (2) equitable participation and advancement by not accounting for these differences in experience and mental/emotional load when evaluating performance and outcomes; and (3) economic prosperity and innovation by limiting the degree to which minoritized populations can obtain and maintain jobs in the profession and further a deeper understanding of the universe.”
These challenges extend beyond astronomy and have been addressed in numerous reports over the past 5 years, including several National Academies studies highlighted in Box 3.1, the 2019 report of the AAS Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in Graduate Education,60 and an extensive report from the AIP’s
60 AAS Task Force, 2019, “Diversity and Inclusion Task Force Delivers Its Final Report,” American Astronomical Society, https://aas.org/posts/news/2018/12/diversity-inclusion-task-force-delivers-its-final-report.
TEAM-UP (see Figure 3.12). The report’s recommendations61 are grouped into five key “factors” that include a sense of belonging, physics identity, academic support, personal support, and leadership and structures. The principles here can also be applied to diversity efforts beyond the undergraduate experience, including staff hiring such as engineers, administrators, and those from other scientific backgrounds as well. The TEAM-UP report is an especially important and timely one for the field, at a time when growing awareness of the effects of systemic racism continue to have significant, substantive, and negative effects on the African American community specifically and communities of color generally, and how these societal and structural problems present real barriers to inclusion for the physics and astronomy community in particular.
Progress is also being made in implementing many of the recommendations from these various reports. At the STEM-wide level, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) STEMM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change program62 is a comprehensive initiative aimed at advancing inclusion and persistence of scientists from historically underrepresented groups, and incorporates proven self-assessment elements to establish goals and measure progress toward reaching them. In physics, the APS has initiated an Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) program63 that is aimed to implement many of the TEAM-UP recommendations (including physics and astronomy departments). These examples serve as models for the types of follow-up activities needed within astronomy itself.
Up to now, this discussion has mainly focused on diversity and inclusion efforts in professional education and academic departments, but improvements are needed in the research sector as well. The funding agencies have also taken some proactive steps to mitigate bias in the awarding of resources for research. Proposals for observations with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope were the first to employ a dual anonymous proposal review process in 2018, after analysis of gender-based proposal successes over 10 years demonstrated a small but consistent pattern of male PI success exceeding that of women’s success.64
61 TEAM-UP Project, “The AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP),” American Institute of Physics, https://www.aip.org/diversity-initiatives/team-up-task-force.
The effect on women’s success rates after implementing the dual anonymous review process varies with proposal category and observing cycle. One large and noticeable effect of the implementation of proposal review focused on the science and not on the scientists was a large increase in the percentages of new PIs in a mature facility (Figure 3.13). NASA SMD is following with a trial implementation of dual-anonymous proposal review procedures for selected programs in astrophysics and beyond, and some NSF supported observatories are following suit as well. As a respected field influential in public opinion, astronomy’s move toward such equitable and inclusive practices may influence other professions. It is encouraging to see NASA and NSF piloting and assessing the impact of this approach.
Finding: NASA and some NSF-supported observatories have implemented a trial of dual-anonymous procedures as part of the proposal merit review process, in a proactive effort to mitigate bias in proposal evaluation and selection.
Even so, much more remains to be done. As indicated by a number of widely reported cases in astronomy and astrophysics in the past decade, the astronomy and astrophysics profession cannot yet claim to have eliminated the scourges of sexual harassment and discrimination that continue to afflict many professions. Indeed, as powerfully illustrated in the recent National Academies (2018) report on Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the “obvious” or most blatant cases often represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the data reveal that experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination remain much more widespread than many scientists imagine or would like to admit.65 For example, the 2018 report reveals that
65 See the widely circulated iceberg infographic from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The National Academies Press, https://www.nap.edu/visualizations/sexual-harassment-iceberg.
“the academic workplace (i.e., employees of academic institutions) has the second highest rate of sexual harassment at 58 percent (the military has the highest rate at 69 percent).” Academic science is, evidently, a high-risk workplace for a certain type of occupational safety hazard.
To be sure, the situation today is certainly better in many ways compared to a time when harassment was more pervasive and blatant, and some types of discrimination were even legally permitted. But such a comparison is small comfort given how prevalent harassment and discrimination remain, and it certainly does not represent a high bar for fairness, let alone excellence.
Conclusion: The persistence of harassment and discrimination in astronomy and astrophysics is intolerable, and it must not be tolerated if the astronomy and astrophysics profession is to retain and successfully draw from the full diversity of talent available, not to mention avoiding the toxic and corrosive effects that such behaviors have on individuals, organizations, and the entire profession.
What needs to be done to fully address this issue once and for all is not a mystery; there are well-established best practices, documented solutions, and veritable how-to guides that can be implemented at the individual, organizational, and profession-wide levels (see Box 3.1) that the astronomy and astrophysics community could endorse, adopt, and most importantly, work deliberately to implement. These include an especially important role for the federal funding agencies that, backed by existing federal laws, can use the power of the purse as a forcing function to help drive needed change.
Finding: There are best practices to eradicate and prevent harassment and discrimination, and to promote healthy and inclusive work cultures across the astronomy and astrophysics profession, described in detail in previous National Academies and other reports.
That the solutions sit before us, yet harassment and discrimination persist, is a disgrace. That perpetrators of harassment and discrimination are not decisively and consistently stopped—indeed, that they are sometimes tolerated or even professionally rewarded despite their shameful behavior—is a profound injustice to people who have been harmed and is morally wrong. And it is ultimately, as multiple recent reports argue, a failure of leadership to muster the courage to break free of organizational blame-avoidance: “Too often, interpretation of Title IX and Title VII has incentivized institutions to create policies and training on sexual harassment that focus on symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability, and not on preventing sexual harassment” (see Box 3.1). Just as hazardous workplaces such as factories and construction sites carefully track and publicly report the number of work-days without injuries, let astronomy strive as a profession for nothing less than a 100 percent safety record (i.e., no tolerance for those who abuse their position and their colleagues) with regard to harassment and discrimination in our classrooms, laboratories, observatories, research centers, and everywhere that members of the profession—and those who aspire to it—do their work.
Recommendation: NASA, NSF, DOE, and professional societies should ensure that their scientific integrity policies address harassment and discrimination by individuals as forms of research/scientific misconduct.
3.3.6 Demographics Data, Outcomes, and Accountability
Across astronomy and astrophysics, there is a growing emphasis on making the field a place where everyone can thrive. However, while ideas abound for improving inclusion and access, it is not possible to assess whether any strategy is working without the associated data to measure what is happening.
Obtaining these critically needed data remains a challenge. For example, the SoPSI panel requested data on astronomy-related programs from NASA, NSF, and DOE as well as management organizations for major astronomical facilities. Requested data included demographics of staff, contractors, review panels, proposers, and awardees of grants and fellowships, along with data on agency programs and funding that promote broader access to opportunities and reduce barriers to achieving success in the field for underrepresented groups. Unfortunately, the data produced by the federal agencies were minimal.
While all three agencies collect some demographic data (usually binary gender, race, and ethnicity) on staff and applicants for funding, several issues are clear. First, the agencies do not collect and track the same quantity or categories of demographic data. NSF has gathered demographic information for many years but publishes it only in aggregated form.66,67 In response to a 2015 critique by the Government Accountability Office,68 NASA began collecting additional demographic data through its proposal submission website, the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES),69 but the data are not yet publicly available. The DOE Portfolio Analysis and Management System (PAMS) collects demographic data on applicants,70 but is not designed for data analysis, and separate program offices within the Office of Science maintain their own databases. Individual laboratories within the Office of Science do collect and report demographic data on employees, although not on facility users (e.g., Argonne National Laboratory71).
Second, the policies of the agencies differ concerning public release of the information. NASA shared some information on the inferred binary gender of awardees (based on given names). By contrast, NSF declined to share specific information of this type, reserving the specific data it gathers for use in internal reviews and assessments. Third, even when the requested data were collected, they were not made readily available, or the committee would have had to aggregate the information itself. Last, none of the agencies appear to track programs and funding aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion.
There is an excellent precedent from the NIH, which has for decades collected demographic information from researchers in its external grants program (currently about 80,000 applications/year, larger than NASA’s, NSF’s, and DOE’s grants programs combined). This process is managed by the Office of Extramural Research through their electronics grant system, the Electronic Research Administration (eRA). The funding agencies for astronomy and astrophysics are in the best position to collect, evaluate, and make available demographic data to provide a comprehensive picture of the workplaces of the profession and the experiences of its people in it and to track funding specifically aimed at promoting community values. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides an example for the agencies to emulate.
Recommendation: NASA, NSF, and DOE should implement a cross-agency committee or working group tasked with establishing a consistent format and policy for regularly collecting, evaluating, and publicly reporting demographic data and indicators pertaining at a minimum to outcomes of proposal competitions.
For any system of accountability to be meaningful, there must be clear expectations and guidelines that specify the basis for evaluation. To the extent that the profession expects improved outcomes with
66 National Center for Science Engineering Statistics, “About NCSES,” National Science Foundation, http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/about-ncses.cfm#service.
67 NSF, 2020, National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Process Fiscal Year 2019 Digest, National Science Board, https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/pubmeritreview.jsp.
68 U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2015, “Women in STEM Research: Better Data and Information Sharing Could Improve Oversight of Federal Grant-Making and Title IX Compliance,” https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-14.
70 Office of Science, “SC Portfolio Analysis and Management System (PAMS),” Department of Energy, http://www.energy.gov/science/office-science-funding/sc-portfolio-analysis-and-management-system-pams.
71 Argonne National Laboratory, “Argonne Employee Demographics,” http://www.anl.gov/hr/argonne-employee-demographics.
regard to workforce development, equity, diversity, and inclusive excellence, there must be alignment between these values and the criteria by which success and excellence are measured and evaluated. As the saying goes, “measure what you value, instead of valuing only what you happen to measure.” This is especially important in the context of funding awards, since these are arguably the most effective levers for communicating expectations and for incentivizing the outcomes that the community values. NSF currently incorporates proposal evaluation criteria for outcomes related to workforce development, training, diversity, and so on, in the form of its “broader impacts criterion,” which explicitly values “broadening participation of underrepresented groups,” among other criteria. NASA and DOE do not in general include similar evaluation criteria for funding awards at either the individual investigator or mission levels. Such criteria need to be adapted to the scale of the projects; expectations for documenting diversity, training, and workforce development efforts for a NASA Explorers or probe project, for example, would clearly be greater than for an individual investigator grant. However, this need for flexibility does not disqualify agencies from establishing such guidelines. The SoPSI Panel report provides examples of criteria that might be established—for example, describing plans for achieving diversity, participation in agency-sponsored demographic and climate assessments, mentoring and advising plans for project students and postdoctorates, and others. In this context, the committee interprets diversity to encompass not only demographic diversity but also possibly institutional and/or geographic diversity, depending again on the appropriateness of such criteria for the nature and scale of the projects being proposed. For small and individual investigator projects, approaches similar to the NSF “broader impacts” requirements may be more appropriate, but the same principles of commitment to and accountability for addressing diversity and inclusion apply.
Recommendation: NASA, DOE, and NSF should consider including diversity—of project teams and participants—in the evaluation of funding awards to individual investigators, project and mission teams, and third-party organizations that manage facilities. Approaches would be agency-specific, and appropriate to the scale of the projects.
Agencies may need to provide resources, including access to appropriate experts, to support the community in responding positively and successfully to enhanced criteria and accountability mechanisms, especially for proposers working at institutions where such support is not provided locally.
3.4 ASTRONOMY’S SUSTAINABLE FUTURE: CLIMATE, LIGHT, LAND, AND COMMUNITIES
Astronomical activities do not occur in vacuum, disconnected from other global concerns. To the contrary, how and where astronomers conduct their work can both endanger, and be endangered by, the rights and activities and concerns of others. Indeed, some of these concerns rank among the most pressing global challenges of our time, from climate change to human rights. Consequently, the future of astronomy, like the future of so much of the world to which it is bound, will depend on the development and implementation of more sustainable practices and partnerships with the global community, commercial ventures, and Earth.
For example, astronomical data collection from the ground suffers from increasing levels of electromagnetic encroachment (e.g., “light pollution”) by telecommunications and navigation systems, systems that otherwise represent high-value commercial interests and that are highly valued by billions of people around the world. And like all people, astronomers, in their individual and collective choices and actions, contribute to the carbon footprint that literally imperils life as we know it. At the same time, astronomical facilities on the ground are constructed on lands that are in some cases regarded as hallowed or revered with human, cultural significance by local and/or Indigenous peoples. A renewed focus on sustainability is therefore also intertwined with the need for the development of a new model for respectful, collaborative decision making in partnership with Indigenous and other local communities.
3.4.1 Engagement with Local and Indigenous Communities: The Model of Community-Based Science
Much of astronomy is conducted on the ground—ground that is governed by laws, regulated by governmental entities, and in many cases regarded as hallowed or revered with cultural significance.72 Nowhere do these overlapping concerns manifest themselves more poignantly and pointedly than in the case of lands that have significance for Indigenous communities. Engaging with Indigenous communities requires deliberate, respectful efforts to consider the many, complex factors both intrinsic and extrinsic to astronomy, legal and extralegal, as well as societal histories, that span decades or even centuries. The specific case of Maunakea is an example that recently has involved tensions and has a long history wrapped up in the formation, history, and future plans for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve (see Box 3.2).73
At the same time, strides have been made within other scientific disciplines to create even broader “community-based” models of active, up-front, and sustained engagement with local and Indigenous communities (see Figure 3.14). While there have been efforts in the past decade to increase the economic, cultural, and educational benefits of astronomy facilities for local and Indigenous communities (see Sec
72 The survey drew heavily for this section from a set of white papers submitted by the community, including especially those titled “Kū Kia’i Mauna: Historical and Ongoing Resistance to Industrial Astronomy Development on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i,” “Impacts of Astronomy on Indigenous Customary and Traditional Practices as Evident at Mauna Kea,” “A Collective Insight into the Cultural and Academic Journeys of Native Hawaiians While Pursuing Careers in Physics and Astronomy,” “Collaboration with Integrity: Indigenous Knowledge in 21st Century Astronomy,” and others cited in the SoPSI panel report.
tion 3.3.3), astronomy is not the only scientific discipline to have found itself at odds with the values and needs of local communities impacted by research activities. In the ways that astronomy and astrophysics research often involves literally “breaking ground” on sacred land and involves paradigms for authoritative knowledge that may differ from those of Indigenous cultures, astronomy is in many ways similar to the field of archaeology. Archaeology has evolved over time from a harmful past toward professional norms and ethical practices that are more respectful of local cultures, more reflective of the needs of local people, and more empowering of communities (see Box 3.3).74
74 Acknowledging that the term “empower” could imply an imbalance in which one group has the right to grant power to another; the intent here is to recognize the power and autonomy that is a right of all people.
Finding: There have been strides within other scientific disciplines to create “community based” models of active, up-front, and sustained engagement with local and Indigenous communities-based on partnership.
Astronomy can follow the example of archaeology, forestry, arctic science, and others to develop a Community Astronomy approach toward a more sustainable model of engagement with local and Indigenous communities. Such a community-based model requires first that the astronomy community adopt and communicate a shared set of values and principles that guide it. These values for how to conduct ourselves and engage with one another include respect, reciprocity, trust, and integrity.
To be sure, these are not the only shared values, and they are not unique to this matter. At a minimum, these values speak specifically to both the failures of past engagements and the healing required for positive sustained engagement going forward. To ensure alignment of current and future engagements with these shared values, the astronomy community could commit to the following principles specifically as part of a Community Astronomy model:
- Listen and empower. Make every effort to ensure that all stakeholders are heard; while it may not be possible for all to have a formal say or vote in every matter, all can have a voice, and all stakeholder voices deserve to feel listened to. At the same time, a true community-based approach empowers the
- local community with at least partial control, even if power sharing is not legally required (see Box 3.3); actively listening to the community means giving the community a seat at the table where decisions are made and where governance occurs.
- Aim to do good for all. The astronomy community adopts a higher standard than the bare minimum of legal compliance. Beyond the scientific benefits, astronomical activities would ideally add human value—educational, cultural, economic—respecting that different communities and cultures may ascribe value in different amounts or kinds and may judge worth and worthiness through different lenses. A corollary is that the astronomy community must be willing to sometimes make difficult choices, and to be open to alternative solutions that optimize more than the science alone.
- Invest in the future, together. We cannot change the past, but we can make an effort—an extraordinary effort, if necessary—to work in partnership with communities and stakeholders to create a future defined by positive, long-lasting mutual benefit and respect for diverse ways of knowing. Communities and stakeholders are defined not by legal status alone but also by history, by potential impacts, and
- by opportunities. Regardless of the ground we stand on, we share a wonderment of one sky, and the quest for human understanding and connection with the cosmos can only be realized through full engagement of our diverse human talents.
Recommendation: The astronomy community should, through the American Astronomical Society in partnership with other major professional societies (e.g., American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, International Astronomical Union), work with experts from other experienced disciplines (such as archaeology and social sciences) and representatives from local communities to define a Community Astronomy model of engagement that advances scientific research while respecting, empowering and benefiting local communities.
In support of this important goal, the astronomy community will need to seek to affirm, communicate, and continually reaffirm the astronomy community’s framework of values and principles above for engage-
ment with all stakeholders. The astronomy community could, as a sign of mutual respect, implement new journal citation standards, developed in partnership with Indigenous communities, that can be used in journal articles and talks in order to appropriately and respectfully credit Indigenous Traditional knowledge, oral histories, and protocols, and acknowledge the use of historically Indigenous lands. In addition, in alignment with other recommendations in this report toward increased transparency and accountability, facilities could engage in proactive efforts to assess local, societal, and cultural impacts—through a Community Astronomy approach that goes beyond mere regulatory compliance—including all stakeholders; as recommended in a previous National Academies report, “facility design should cultivate, incorporate, and build on the perspectives of human dimensions research.”75 Facilities could also report openly and regularly on these assessments and make plans for ongoing improvements, throughout the full life cycle of a project, that reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders. Last, they would ensure that local stakeholders have meaningful influence—including through decision-making and governance structures at every stage—and involve local stakeholders in periodic assessments of when to decommission facilities.
In conclusion, there is the example of Arecibo Observatory, which in December 2020 experienced an unexpected and catastrophic loss owing to a support cable failing and leaving a 100-foot gash in the dish below and the collapse of the platform and towers.76 The observatory, over the course of its nearly 60-year history, became very highly regarded by many of Puerto Rico’s citizens as a source of pride and local economic benefit, as well as of access to training and employment for many local people. Already, there is a groundswell of local support for efforts to preserve the site for educational and cultural activities even if not for research; recognizing the challenges of maintaining the visitor’s center while the future is being planned, Astro2020 supports its continuation as an important nexus for education, community, and developing a diversified STEM workforce. The future of the Arecibo site for scientific research is discussed further in Section 5.1.5. As in the case of Maunakea and other sites, a Community Astronomy approach could fruitfully guide NSF, the local community, and the astronomy community in making plans for the disposition and future manifestation of Arecibo in a manner that is consistent with the scientific and programmatic priorities of this decadal report and that reflects the values and principles articulated above.
Conclusion: NSF, NASA, DOE, facility managing organizations, project consortia, individual institutions, and other stakeholders can work to build partnerships with Indigenous and local communities that are more functional and sustained through a Community Astronomy approach, and by increasing the modes of engagement and funding for (1) meaningful, mutually beneficial partnerships with Indigenous and local communities; (2) culturally supported pathways for the inclusion of Indigenous members within the profession; and (3) true sustainability, preservation, and restoration of sites.
3.4.2 Light Pollution and Radio Frequency Interference
The sensitivity of ground-based optical telescopes has been impacted by human-made light pollution for more than a century. The search for darkness has driven new observatories to remote sites, while pursuing local regulations to mitigate light pollution and interference. Nonetheless, increasing human population density and new technologies such as light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures continue to encroach on major observatory facilities (including the Vera Rubin Observatory). The collection of radio frequency data for astronomical use has had impacts from sources of radio frequency interference almost from the origins of radio astronomy. Recent developments in technology designed to improve quality of life such
as car radar and radio frequency identification tags among others, increase the amount of radio frequency interference experienced by radio astronomers. Satellite constellations pose a parallel threat to the radio sky as to ground-based optical telescopes.
22.214.171.124 Light Pollution from Satellite Constellations
In the coming decade, a new technological advancement threatens ground-based optical observatories. Earth-orbiting satellites have always been visible to astronomical telescopes (and human eyes), but their numbers were small enough that they had minimal scientific impact. The situation is rapidly changing. Vastly reduced satellite launch costs, effective networking technologies, and ambitions for global low-latency data-transmission have advanced plans for so-called megaconstellations. Since mid-2019, when the Astro2020 decadal survey process began, the number of large (>100 kg) satellites in low Earth orbit has increased by an order of magnitude, and this extremely rapid growth is likely to accelerate. At the time this report was being prepared, three major constellations (SpaceX Starlink 1st and 2nd generation, OneWeb Phase 2, and Amazon Kuiper) were being proposed, with a total of tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.77 This landscape is evolving very rapidly, but the threats to nighttime astronomy as well as radio astronomy (Section 126.96.36.199 below) are clear.
Finding: Under current proposals, the number of large low Earth orbit satellites will increase by orders of magnitude compared to 2018 levels, owing to reductions in launch costs, expected increasing demand for Internet connectivity, and increasing effectiveness of networked satellites.
Spacecraft in low Earth orbit also experience contamination from these satellites crossing their field of view,78 and this is an important consideration for space assets in this region in the present and future. The topic of space debris is one that has long had the attention of NASA, and the increased number of satellites in these megaconstellations will almost certainly affect collision frequency. While these are still of concern, the new threat to the dark skies of ground-based optical astronomy is the one that requires assessment owing to the new and changing environment.
Thousands of these satellites will be easily detected by modern telescopes, with their brightness depending on the time of night, the position above the horizon, and the phase of the satellite’s life cycle. The satellites are visible at visual wavelengths only when sunlit, and thus are most visible during twilight or at low elevations looking in the sunset or sunrise direction. Higher-altitude satellites may be somewhat fainter but will remain in sunlight longer and at higher elevations, and hence have larger impacts; during summer, some satellites at 1000 km altitude may be visible through the entire night.
A satellite’s brightness varies both with distance and the satellite’s orientation. The visually striking Starlink “trains” occur only for the early phase of a satellite’s life cycle, after a group of satellites has been deployed and while they are being raised to operational altitude. During this phase, large surfaces such as solar panels are visible from Earth, and the satellites may be comparable in brightness to naked-eye stars seen in twilight. In the operational phase, the satellites are no longer concentrated in a single train, and their solar panels are oriented toward the Sun; reflections off the satellite’s lower surface are fainter
77 A. Venkatesan, J. Lowenthal, P. Prem, and M. Vidaurri, 2020, “The Impact of Satellite Constellations on Space as an Ancestral Global Commons,” Nature Astronomy 4:1043–1048, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-01238-3.
78 S. Kruk, The Impact of Satellite Trails on Hubble Space Telescope Observations, European Space Agency, https://indico.esa.int/event/370/contributions/5925/attachments/4238/6337/Sandor_Kruk_The_impact_of_satellite_trails_on_Hubble_observations_compressed.pdf.
(but often still visible to the naked eye), with a prospect of reducing that further. Other satellites will likely show similar behavior depending on their design details.
Wide-field imaging survey telescopes such as the Vera Rubin Observatory suffer the most severe impacts from megaconstellations. The large field of view increases the probability of a satellite being present, particularly for science programs that are executed in twilight and at low elevation such as near-Earth object (NEO) searches for asteroids. Impacts may also be significant for programs that rely on extreme control of systematics such as large cosmological weak-lensing surveys. The large aperture of Rubin Observatory means that the satellite will approach or exceed the saturation level of the detector. Cross talk between different detectors in the camera will result in multiple ghost trails whose brightness is a nonlinear function of the main satellite trail. Modeling by the Rubin Observatory project indicates that some of these effects might be mitigated by data processing, particularly if satellite brightnesses are reduced,79 but overall may have a significant impact on many science programs.
Conclusion: The impact of megaconstellations is noticeable for wide-field imaging at optical wavelengths, will become more significant in the future, and will be potentially severe for some programs (especially from satellites in orbits above 600 km), unless their effects are mitigated. Facilities especially impacted include the Vera Rubin Observatory. Scientifically, the greatest impact is on searches for near-Earth objects.
Assessing impacts and possible regulatory frameworks are now being addressed on a number of fronts by government agencies and the international astronomical community. This is a dynamic situation with complicated regulatory aspects; even in the past year, the situation has changed dramatically. JASON (an independent group of academic leaders that interfaces with the security community) was asked by NSF and DOE to assess the impact of current and planned large satellite constellations on astronomical observations, and issued reports in September and November 2020.80 The AAS has formed a Working Group on Satellite Constellations, and co-sponsored workshops with the NSF National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) (SATCON1) in the summers of 2020 and 2021; even more recent efforts (SATCON2) took place toward the end of the period of this decadal study. Since this is a global threat, the AAS has also coordinated closely with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in addressing the issue. In May 2021, the IAU presented a Conference Working Paper to the Scientific and Technical Sub Committee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The approach of these groups has largely been to facilitate dialogue between the astronomical community, the relevant aerospace companies, and national and international stakeholders. A public fact-finding workshop was held by this decadal survey on the issue, and it was attended by representatives of one such company, SpaceX.81 SpaceX has been responsive and has been exploring methods for reducing the impacts of their constellations.
Addressing this growing challenge will require the same levels of coordination and ongoing attention by the astronomical community and agencies that have served radio astronomy so well over the past decades. This need includes providing accurate models of satellite visibility and impacts, coordinating between astronomers and satellite operators, developing mitigation approaches, and advocating for astronomy. The entry of the NOIRLab to this arena is especially welcome, and the survey committee envisages it playing a similar coordinating role to the one that National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has fulfilled
79 J.A. Tyson, Z. Ivezic, A. Bradshaw, M.L. Rawls, B. Xin, P. Yoachim, J. Parejko et al., 2020, “Mitigation of LEA Satellite Brightness and Trail Effects on the Rubin Observatory LSST,” The Astronomical Journal, https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-3881/abba3e.
80 Impacts of Large Satellite Constellations on Optical Astronomy, JSR-20-2H-L2, September 10, 2020. Space Domain Awareness: Impacts of Large Constellations of Satellites, JSR-20-2H, November 2020.
81 April 27, 2020.
so effectively in radio spectrum protection. It is crucial that this framework be developed soon, so that mitigations can be built in during the early stages of constellation design and deployment. It is beyond the scope of this survey to recommend specific actors and actions, particularly due to the dynamic evolving nature, but it is clearly an issue that requires broad participation.
Recommendation: The National Science Foundation should work with the appropriate federal regulatory agencies to develop and implement a regulatory framework to control the impacts of satellite constellations on astronomy and on the human experience of the night sky. All stakeholders (U.S. astronomers, federal agencies, Congress, satellite manufacturers/operators, and citizens who care about the night sky) should be involved in this process. This is an international issue; therefore, international coordination is also vital.
188.8.131.52 Radio Frequency Interference
Threats to the radio sky differ from those in optical and infrared astronomy. Radio frequency interference (RFI) is multidirectional, and radio services, including commercial, military, and scientific operators, share the same spectrum. The system is managed by spectrum allocations to the various interests. There is increasing pressure on the radio spectrum from commercial interests, particularly at high frequencies that were previously of interest only to radio astronomers.
The radio spectrum, defined as electromagnetic radiation up to 3 THz, is coordinated internationally by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency within the U.N., which proposes intergovernmental treaties on the coordination of spectrum. Allocations for radio astronomy form a small portion of the available spectrum: only ~1.5 percent at frequencies less than 5 GHz (6 cm), 29 percent for frequencies less than 94 GHz (3 mm), and 65 percent in the range 95–275 GHz.82 For the most part, radio astronomy is a passive user of the spectrum, with the exception of radar astronomy, which is primarily used for solar system observations. Modern, sensitive receivers seeking to detect faint sources use large bandwidths that are broader than the allocations specific to radio astronomy. Extensive observations of highly Doppler-shifted radiation, such as galaxies in the early universe, means that frequencies are often shifted from their laboratory values, and lines can be at many locations in the spectrum. Frequencies of 90–240 GHz are used by projects such as Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 (CMB-S4), because they are near the peak of the cosmic microwave background spectrum. Modern, sensitive receivers working at these frequencies, particularly those employing broadband bolometric detectors, are vulnerable to RFI and cannot easily avoid or excise it.
Within the United States, the spectrum is managed jointly by the Office of Spectrum Management of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), within the Department of Commerce, for federal interests, and by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for commercial interests. NSF is responsible for spectrum management for scientific purposes, through its Electromagnetic Spectrum Management Group (NSF ESM). This intra-agency group coordinates with the NTIA and the FCC on all aspects of spectrum management. The ESM also represents the United States internationally at meetings of the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC). The National Academies Committee on Radio Frequencies (CORF) considers the needs for radio frequency requirements and interference protection for scientific and engineering research, coordinates the views of the U.S. scientists, and acts as a channel for representing the interests of U.S. scientists.
82 L. van Zee, Indiana Universtiy, presentation to the steering committee, June 9, 2020.
These regulatory and advisory structures have served the radio astronomy community relatively well. This section highlights two recent developments that will require close attention and management over the coming decade—namely, the rapid expansion of the commercial broadband spectrum and RFI from satellite constellations.
Commercial services such as the mobile broadband standard 4G/LTE previously operated at frequencies below 1 GHz, and the resulting RFI issues were in the centimeter wavelengths. In spring 2020, the FCC held an auction for allocations in five bands between 24 and 47 GHz—prime observing bands for the Very Large Array; these are likely frequencies for 5G technology. In addition, the FCC has recently stated that “The agency is creating new opportunities for the next generation of Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz and above 95 GHz band.”83 Mobile devices and smart vehicles will become widespread, moving sources of RFI. The higher radio frequencies, 20 GHz and above, are extremely valuable to astronomers. This frequency range figures prominently in the science case for the Next Generation Very Large Array, and is needed to accomplish science objectives like exploring the formation of solar system analogs on terrestrial scales and using pulsars in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy for fundamental tests of gravity. At present, frequencies above 275 GHz are not controlled, and these are prime observing bands for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Further encroachment into this band could impact ALMA science.
The new existential threats to radio astronomy observatories are satellite constellations. Instead of a limited number of satellites in relatively predictable orbits in the geostationary orbit, which can be avoided, the new trend is for constellations of low Earth orbit satellites. In addition to downlink radio signals, there are also inter-satellite radio signals for station-keeping. The proliferation of these satellites will render spatial avoidance of RFI extremely difficult. To give one example, the constellations of satellites from Space X’s Starlink and OneWeb pose a significant risk to measurement of the CMB in the 20 and 40 GHz bands if steps are not taken to turn off transmission when the transmission beam and its sidelobes overlap observing sites. Planned CMB experiments have fields of view between 9 degrees and 35 degrees wide, and they achieve their sensitivity by measuring all the power that lands on them in roughly a 30 percent bandwidth. At any time, there will be multiple satellites in their field of view, and the satellite’s RF power at peak transmission will blind the detectors. Even when they are in the sidelobes, their emission will be significant. An additional concern is the frequency purity of the signal. Second, third, and fourth harmonics are in other key observing bands from 85–105 and 140–170 GHz. Without action, RF emission from these satellites may well eliminate bolometric measurements of the CMB, both in temperature and in polarization from the ground in these critical frequency windows in the not-too-distant future.
Conclusion: The impact of commercial services and satellite constellations on radio frequency interference is becoming severe and threatens the scientific study of cosmic microwave background radiation, as well as detections of faint continuum sources necessitating wide bandwidths. Future large facilities especially impacted are the CMB-S4 and the Next Generation Very Large Array; in particular, the lower frequency bands of the CMB-S4 project will be compromised and may become unusable unless action is taken.
To protect access to the radio sky, sources of RFI need to be eliminated to the greatest extent possible (see Figure 3.15). Mitigation through post-observation software analysis is not always possible, since
very bright sources of RFI, unplanned out-of-band emissions, or RFI that is broadband or slowly varying in time are difficult or impossible to excise with software. Direct and early coordination between commercial, federal, and radio astronomy interests is critical, preferably with primary allocations for radio astronomy in key frequency bands. NSF is a key player in this process, but DOE and NASA projects are also impacted. CORF has stressed the importance of spectrum management to radio astronomers and for the protection of radio observatories: “[D]eveloping coordination agreements between commercial applications (including satellites) and radio observatories is a critical step toward protecting radio astronomy receivers from direct transmissions that not only corrupt observations but could also damage equipment.”84
In addition to ensuring allocations to critical bands for radio astronomy at frequencies of 95 GHz and above, passive use of the remaining spectrum by radio astronomers may be maximized through a multifaceted approach of careful spectrum monitoring and effective RFI mitigation. Strategies for mitigation include geographical separation, spectral separation, and temporal separation, and/or the establishment of a radio quiet zone. It is important that new facilities take account of the changing RFI environment, and the necessary RFI excision methods, when selecting a site and budgeting for hardware and software needs.
84 L. van Zee, D. DeBoer, D. Emerson, T. Gergely, N. Kassim et al., 2019, “Spectrum Management: A State of the Profession White Paper,” APC white paper submitted to Astro2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, https://baas.aas.org/pub/2020n7i136/release/1.
Finding: The radio frequency spectrum is a resource facing rapidly growing demands from commercial users such as satellite constellations and increased commercial use of higher frequencies, while at the same time new scientific instruments and capabilities increase the portions of the spectrum radio astronomers are using. Increasingly sensitive detectors can pick up on additional sources of interference.
Recommendation: To ensure that the skies remain open to radio astronomy, the National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with other agencies as appropriate, should support and fund a multi-faceted approach to the avoidance and mitigation of radio frequency interference. It is critical that the astronomical community formally monitor commercial and federal uses of the spectrum managed by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and actively participate in the spectrum management process by seeking critical primary allocations to radio astronomy in the high-frequency bands above 95 GHz, by providing comments to filings for spectrum allocations and by supporting the efforts of the Committee on Radio Frequencies, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the Electromagnetic Spectrum Management division of NSF. To be most effective, international coordination is required.
3.4.3 Climate Change
As the 21st century progresses, human-induced climate change will be one of the greatest challenges. As with every other part of our society, astronomy and astrophysics must engage with this through several challenges: educating and informing people about climate change, understanding and minimizing our impacts on climate, and recognizing and adapting to inevitable changes.
As noted in Section 3.2, individuals with training in astronomy and astrophysics are generally very strongly positioned for careers and leadership roles in science and technology beyond astronomy, and this includes specifically efforts toward climate change solutions. Indeed, astrophysics provides a natural home to discuss the greenhouse effect and global climate change. Greenhouse trapping of heat by increased mid-infrared opacity is a consequence of the same physics that determines the structure of stellar atmospheres. Our own solar system provides a natural laboratory to explore this concept, through the comparative temperatures of planets with varying abundances of CO2 and other atmospheric heat traps; showing that Earth must be significantly warmed by greenhouse effects is an easy calculation for an introductory astronomy class. Studies of the solar cycle have helped confirm that external effects are not driving the warming observed over past decades. As exoplanetary systems are characterized, the greenhouse effect will be similarly important in their habitability.
Finding: Introductory astronomy classes could allow students to quantitatively understand the basics of global warming, and astrophysicists everywhere can be part of the public conversation reinforcing the reality of climate change.
As with other people and activities, astrophysicists also contribute to climate change. Two recent studies have shown that the professional activities of a typical astrophysicist generate ~20–35 tons of CO2 per year, excluding personal consumption such as food or home energy use.85,86 This compares to approximately
86 K. Jahnke, C. Fendt, M. Fouesneau et al., 2020, “An Astronomical Institute’s Perspective on Meeting the Challenges of the Climate Crisis,” Nature Astronomy 4:812–815, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-1202-4.
20 tons per year for an average American, including all sources. A significant contributor to the difference is air travel, along with emissions associated with electricity consumption from computation resources, particularly supercomputing facilities. Reducing this impact is an achievable goal for astronomy (as for all other fields).
Recommendation: The astronomy community should increase the use of remote observing, hybrid conferences, and remote conferences, to decrease travel impact on carbon emissions and climate change.
3.5 BUDGETARY IMPLICATIONS
The preceding sections of this chapter argue for a sustained recommitment to the future of the field, through significant re-investment in the profession and with an increased focus on matters of equity, diversity, and sustainability. For the astronomy and astrophysics profession, the benefits of these investments include a workforce that, through its diversity, is more creative and innovative and reflective of society’s full human potential; a professional community that, through equity and fairness, delivers on the promise of equal opportunity for all who would contribute their talent; and a set of policies and practices that, through their sustainability and accountability, ensure good stewardship of the natural and human resources necessary to achieve the field’s ambitious science goals. For the broader society, the benefits of these investments include expanded gateways to a very broad array of STEM careers; engagement in the excitement of astronomical discoveries for learners of all ages; expansion of the societal imperative of STEM literacy; and technological innovations with applications to remote sensing, navigation, and national security, among others. Together, these benefits contribute significantly to the nation’s global leadership in science and technology beyond the obvious contributions to astronomical discovery.
The necessary investments span a range of types and costs. Indeed, a number of urgent recommendations can be implemented at little to no cost, such as policies and procedures aimed at combating racism, bias, harassment, and discrimination or reducing the carbon footprint of professional activities. Some needs may already be addressed by current programs at the agencies. For example, NASA’s PI Launchpad Workshop, held at the University of Arizona in 2019, targeted diverse potential new NASA mission PIs. Still others will require non-trivial levels of funding, some new, some of it a restoration of previous investments. Table 3.4 provides budgetary guidance on those recommendations that carry funding implications for the agencies, drawing principally from the analysis and guidance provided by the SoPSI Panel report. This is intended to provide rough guidance on the funding implications for meaningful action on the survey’s recommendations, and as a reminder to the community as a whole that such action requires investments. In keeping with the general approach of this survey, the committee has refrained from dictating explicit programmatic priorities in general, in order to afford the agencies flexibility in obtaining and allocating the relevant funding. However, the maintenance of accurate data on funding outcomes is sufficiently critical to the other recommendations that it is the most urgent need. The committee appreciates that stewardship of these important areas resides at various levels within the agencies, and may require coordination across them.
TABLE 3.4 Budgetary Guidance Pertaining to the Profession and Its Societal Impacts
|Recommendation||Funding Guidancea (annual)||Assumptions (see also SoPSI panel report)|
|Collecting, evaluating, and regularly reporting demographic data and indicators pertaining to equitable outcomes||$0.5 million—NSF $0.5 million—NASA||Modeled on effort at NIH.|
|Faculty diversity, early-career faculty awards||$1 million—NSF $1 million—NASA $0.5 million—DOE||Typical early-career faculty award of $1 million over 5 years.|
|Workforce development/diversity, “bridge”-type programs and MSI partnerships||$1.5 million—NSF $3 million—NASA||Typical NSF PAARE site award of $2.5 million over 5 years; NASA MUCERPI site award of $3 million over 3 years.|
|Undergraduate and graduate “traineeship” funding||$1 million—NSF $1 million—NASA $1 million—DOE||Typical NIH T32 site award of $1 million over 3 years.|
|Independent postdoctorate fellowships||$0.5 million—NSF $0.5 million—NASA||Typical NASA Hubble and NSF AAPF awards of ~$100,000 per year.|
|Mitigation of radio frequency and optical interference from sources including satellite constellations||TBD—NSF|
|Totals||$4.5 million—NSF $6 million—NASA $1.5 million—DOE|
a Amounts listed represent new funding, reinstated funding, or augmentations over current funding, as appropriate.
3.6 CONCLUDING REMARKS
This chapter ends where it began, quoting from the SoPSI panel’s report: “The pursuit of science, and scientific excellence, is inseparable from the humans who animate it.” Indeed, the ability of astronomy and astrophysics to inspire and to awe is not only because of the grandeur of the cosmos and the grandness of our wonderment about it; it is also, perhaps even more so, because it is people—seemingly so small and insignificant in relation to that vastness—who dream the questions and who dare to try to answer them. Our ability to grasp the universe is as great as it is because it is driven by the boundlessness and breadth of human curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, and diversity. The profession of astronomy and astrophysics understandably takes considerable pride in its many contributions to the nation and the world, not only to scientific knowledge but also as a shining example of how science can enrich, inspire, and stir the imaginations of people everywhere, of all ages and walks of life.
At the same time, because it is a human endeavor, astronomy and astrophysics is not immune to human foibles and failings, nor is it wholly separable from larger societal forces—for better and for worse. This Astro2020 decadal exercise has been no exception. As aptly noted by the SoPSI Panel and paraphrased here: As this report was written in mid-2020, the United States was in the midst of profound self-examination of social and economic inequalities resulting from historic and systemic racism, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, sexual harassment and inequalities highlighted by the #MeToo movement, and the starkly inequitable and severe health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color, including a shocking and disturbing rise in violent crimes of hate against Asian Americans. For these reasons, the time during which this report was written was a dark time indeed for many in the astronomy
community and around the world. Unfairly, it was an even darker time for those to whom fairness has too often been denied.
Over the past decade, our profession has made strides, individually and collectively, to address its longstanding structural inequities, borne of the historic barriers of race, gender, class, background, and identity inherited over decades across all of academia and society. As documented in this chapter and in the SoPSI Panel report, slow progress is being made on many fronts, and through the leadership of the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics, efforts are ongoing to build on the successes. Many of the major federally funded institutes and NASA and NSF themselves are recognizing the needs and opportunities for leveling the playing field and removing the vestiges of bias and barriers to access in the awarding of resources. And the makeup of the field has become measurably more diverse, at least in some ways. These important steps are a beginning, and they are to be celebrated.
Against that backdrop, it can be unsettling to many to be reminded that astronomy and astrophysics, like nearly all of the other sciences, still has a very long way to go before we can claim any semblance of victory over the inequities remaining within the system we oversee, regardless of how they came about, and the inordinate pressures that we often impose upon ourselves, especially among students, early-career scientists, and individuals from the many marginalized communities we represent and must encourage—including those discussed in detail above, as well as the disabled community, the LGBTQIA+ community, the Muslim American community, and others—through the structure of our career pipeline and the environments we create in departments and workplaces. If we truly aspire to serve as a beacon and gateway to science for all people, then our composition ought to reflect our people, all of them. If we aspire to create and nurture a professional family of individuals, we need to treat each other as family, with mutual respect, empathy, and support regardless of career stage, personal identity, or scientific identity within our diverse profession, and with no tolerance for those who abuse their position and their colleagues. And if we hope to continue to benefit from the resources of our planetary home and of the global communities that inhabit it, we must conduct ourselves with sustainability as a greater priority than ever before.
Much of the challenging task of exploring this complex landscape was taken up by the Panel on State of the Profession and Societal Impacts, and the report they produced was candid, and critical where it needed to be. Some will find passages to be provocative reading, whether the topic is racial and ethnic representation and discrimination, sexual harassment and discrimination, stewardship of observatory sites, or the many other issues and areas addressed in the report. Facing such truths by listening, reflecting, and facilitating ongoing dialog will uplift and empower not only those who face barriers to entering and advancing in the profession but also enhance the entire astronomy and astrophysics community. It also requires the will to act, and a commitment to devote the resources necessary to ensure that our values are reflected not only in where we direct our labor but in how we spend the dollars entrusted to us.
Together, the SoPSI report and this survey strive for a common goal: to address our charge and provide constructive findings and conclusions—and to make actionable, resourceable recommendations—for making our profession more representative of our society, more inclusive, and a more collaborative partner with the communities within which we work. Which is to say, to make our profession better.