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Astronomy Decadal Survey Reckons with Demographic Disparities, Societal Impacts

DEC 14, 2021
The National Academies’ latest decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics recommends federal agencies expand their efforts to address persistent demographic disparities in the field and urges astronomers to deepen their engagement with local communities.
Andrea Peterson
Senior Data Analyst

Hubble Telescope Team at Goddard

Members of the Hubble Telescope operations team in the control room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

(Image credit – Rebecca Roth / NASA Goddard)

Released last month, the National Academies’ latest decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics includes an intensive assessment of the “state of the profession” and its “societal impacts” for the first time in the survey’s 60-year history.

A dedicated survey panel was tasked with gathering community input and data on demographic trends, as well as with developing “actionable suggestions” to promote the health of the workforce and improve the diversity of the field. The panel also proposed that astronomers reenvision their approach to outreach and “broader impacts,” including by deepening their consultation with local communities over the placement of telescopes — a major issue confronting the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

Based on the panel’s input, the full survey committee presents 10 recommendations to improve the “foundations of the profession,” spanning matters such as expanding demographic data collection and diversity programs to adopting a “Community Astronomy” model of engagement and reducing astronomy’s environmental impacts. While the recommendations are not binding, they will carry considerable weight with NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, which sponsored the survey.

Mixed progress on diversity prompts new strategies

In general, the survey observes that individual scientists are currently facing a funding environment in which the chances of having a successful grant application have become too small. It points in particular to low proposal success rates in NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division and notes that the burden falls particularly heavily on researchers who are early in their careers or located at institutions with fewer resources, exacerbating inequities within the field.

The survey recommends that the division increase funding for individual investigator grants by 30% in real dollars over five years relative to their fiscal year 2019 levels, which it suggests would restore proposal success rates to a “healthy competitive level.”

In addition, the survey stresses the role of career-development programs, particularly as a way to increase diversity in the field. It recommends that agencies implement undergraduate and graduate “traineeship” programs modeled on the National Institutes of Health’s “cohort-based” programs , which fund institutional and departmental efforts to equip a diverse pool of students to complete their degrees. It also suggests increasing support for postdoctoral fellowships and early-career faculty awards for members of underrepresented groups. The survey calls for NASA, NSF, and DOE to together increase annual funding for these types of programs by $11 million over their fiscal year 2019 levels.

Analyzing trends in representation in the astrophysical sciences, the survey finds the demographic data tell a mixed story about the success of past efforts.

The survey relates that the rate at which women attain doctoral degrees in astronomy and astrophysics now matches the rate at which they earn bachelor’s degrees, and women now account for about 30% of new faculty hires, up from about 20% in 2003. The percentage of women among senior faculty is lower than among junior faculty, which the survey attributes to the propagated effects of past disparities as well as continuing “gender-associated differences in the distribution of family work and in career-advancing opportunities and resources.” The survey also notes the overall proportion of women in the field is smaller than in some other physical science disciplines, such as chemistry.

In contrast to the modest gains among women, the survey states racial diversity remains “abysmal.” African Americans and Hispanic Americans are underrepresented in the field by an order of magnitude relative to their proportion of the U.S. population, comprising just 1% and 3% of astronomy faculty, respectively. While the number of doctoral degrees earned by Hispanic Americans did rise steadily in the last decade, the share earned by African Americans has remained unchanged for three decades. Indigenous people make up 0.25% of Ph.D. astronomers, compared to 2% of the U.S. population.

The survey connects these disparities to challenges in attracting and retaining undergraduate students, noting that Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students who express interest in the physical sciences are far less likely than their white peers to complete undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy. More broadly, astronomy departments struggle to retain interested undergraduate students across demographic groups, especially in comparison to the life sciences. “These data signify a systemic failure to fully tap the available talent pool generally, and diverse talent in particular,” the survey states.

Emphasizing federal agencies’ ability to influence practices and policies across the research community, the survey highlights federal programs dedicated to addressing disparities such as NASA’s Minority University and College Education and Research Partnership Initiative and NSF’s Partnerships in Astronomy and Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE). Both programs focused on enhancing astronomy research and education opportunities at minority-serving institutions, and the survey laments that they were ultimately defunded, though NSF has requested $500,000 to restart the PAARE program in fiscal year 2022.

The survey also recommends that agencies “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.” For example, it suggests agencies could require diversity or mentorship plans as part of grant applications or require funding recipients to participate in agency-sponsored demographic assessments. It suggests that considering institutional and geographic diversity may also be appropriate, depending on factors such as the nature and scale of the project in question.

For small and single-investigator projects, the survey notes that an approach modeled on NSF’s requirement that grant applicants include a statement addressing the “broader impacts” of their research could be effective. NASA and DOE do not have an agency-wide broader impacts criterion like NSF’s, though NASA is preparing to require applicants for principal investigator-led space missions to describe how they will create and maintain an inclusive and equitable environment throughout the lifecycle of the funded project.

The survey also recommends agencies standardize collection of demographic data to facilitate monitoring of workforce trends and promote accountability. It states that NASA, NSF, and DOE all differ in how they categorize and report data and expresses frustration that the data they provided to the survey committee was “minimal.”

Finally, the survey addresses the persistence of racism, discrimination, and harassment in the field and recommends that agencies and professional societies address such behaviors in their integrity policies, treating them as a form of scientific misconduct. It highlights previous work on these issues, such as the National Academies’ 2018 report on sexual harassment in STEM fields and the American Institute of Physics’ 2020 TEAM-UP report on the underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy specifically.

Observing that best practices are readily available for combating malign behaviors and promoting inclusive work cultures, it states, “That the solutions sit before us, yet harassment and discrimination persist, is a disgrace.”

‘Community Astronomy’ model proposed

Thirty Meter Telescope groundbreaking

Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, and other activists protested at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Oct. 7, 2014.

(Image credit – Occupy Hilo, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Arguing for the field to increase its social engagement on issues such as climate change and human rights, the survey states, “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.”

In particular, the survey asserts that efforts to engage Indigenous communities have been insufficient and examines in detail the case of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve in Hawaii, which has hosted a number of observatories over the last five decades and is the proposed site for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The survey endorses NSF funding the TMT and highlights the facility as an opportunity to increase the participation of Indigenous people in the STEM workforce. However, it acknowledges that many Native Hawaiians oppose the development of astronomical observatories on Maunakea given the site’s cultural and religious significance and concerns over the environmental impacts of large facilities. Moreover, it observes that the scientific benefits of past observatories have not been widely shared, with only three Native Hawaiians earning doctoral degrees in astronomy over the past 50 years.

Accordingly, the survey suggests a more proactive model of community engagement is needed going forward. Pointing to examples from archaeology and other fields, it recommends that the American Astronomical Society lead an effort to develop a “Community Astronomy” model that “advances scientific research while respecting, empowering, and benefiting local communities.”

Looking ahead, the survey views the redevelopment of the site of the collapsed Arecibo Observatory as an opportunity to apply new strategies for local engagement. It also outlines potential principles the astronomy community could commit to, such as moving beyond 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,” it states.

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