Astronomy Expands Its Scope From the Heavens to Humans

In the coming decade, astronomers will surely solve some cosmic mysteries. Maybe by 2029, scientists will know what “dark matter” actually is, so they can give it a better name. Maybe they’ll find out how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, so they can stop fighting about it. Maybe they’ll find a planet that’s actually like Earth, and not just kinda Earth-sized.

To decide where to focus their efforts for the next 10 years, astronomers are currently doing a formal review called a “decadal survey.” It’s not the kind of survey that would involve sending multiple-choice Scantrons to scientists; by “survey,” they really mean “overview of the discipline.” Astronomers across the US—from lowly graduate students to exalted observatory directors—provide input, usually in the form of papers, about what they think is scientifically important to study and craft recommendations about how the field should pursue it. Their papers will go to 13 subcommittees (called “panels,” because astronomers can’t use normal words in normal ways), each dedicated to a particular topic. Once the panels have chewed these ideas over, they’ll pass them along to a committee, which will prepare a public report.

This report basically dictates astronomy’s near-term trajectory: Agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation proactively use the committee’s recommendations to decide which projects to fund. “Should we build a Hubble?” for instance, was once little more than a glimmer on committee members’ computer screens. “The decadal survey has given the breath of life to some of the grandest things we’ve ever done in astronomy,” says astronomer Grant Tremblay of Harvard and Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics. But for the first time ever, this year’s survey will ask astronomers to contemplate something other than the cosmos: humans.

While 12 of the panels deal with research-centric topics like cosmology, galaxies, particle physics, and “electromagnetic observations from space,” the 13th panel is about people. Called the “Panel on the State of the Profession and Societal Impacts,” it asks astronomers to consider issues of “demographics, diversity and inclusion, workplace climate, workforce development, education, public outreach, and relevant areas of astronomy and public policy,” according to the webpage of the National Academy of Sciences, which oversees this process. (The survey is mandated by Congress, and is sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.) In other words, the panel gives astronomers the power to tackle social issues like gender bias, lack of diversity, and the effects of their work on indigenous communities—all problems that many practitioners argue the field should dedicate more resources to solving.

Take, for example, one of the dozens of papers sent to the human panel, which came from a team co-led by Kaitlin Rasmussen, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. It’s titled “The Nonbinary Fraction: Looking Towards the Future of Gender Equity in Astronomy.” In frank terms, it lays out some of the disparities faced by nonbinary astronomers and concrete ways the field can do better by them. Nonbinary, says Rasmussen, is “an umbrella term for all genders not represented by the categories of ‘male’ or ‘female.’” As an example of inequity, Rasmussen says that when signing up for conferences, or submitting job applications, they always had to tick off a gender but saw no option for their own. They felt frustrated, excluded, and like they didn’t belong.

But things began to change for Rasmussen about a year ago, when they joined Twitter. “I started to see that there were other nonbinary scientists,” Rasmussen says. Here, they could speak openly about the ways in which academia excludes them. One day last May, a Twitter friend, Erin Maier, posted about gender research in astronomy—which examines things like the disparities between men’s and women’s careers, the social dynamics of who asks questions at conferences, and efforts to diversify conference speaker lists. Some of those research papers noted that, while the authors acknowledged the existence of nonbinary gender identities, they chose to treat gender as a M/F split in their research. Several such papers included a line to this effect: “While we recognize that gender is not binary, we do not include nonbinary people in our analysis due to lack of statistical significance.”

Maier’s post tapped a vein among some nonbinary scientists, who felt the sting of being overlooked. After all, if you’re a nonbinary person, it’s hard to read that line and not feel like you are not significant, yourself. “Part of me is like, ‘This is normal,” says Rasmussen, who is disappointed but not surprised by research language like this—they grew up on this planet, after all. “A newer part of me says, ‘This is not right. This is harmful. This is excluding me. This is excluding my friends.’”

Maier didn’t expect the tweet to attract so much notice. “I made the tweet, I fell asleep, and I woke up and had more notifications on Twitter than I had ever seen in my life,” says Maier. “It was a spotlight that I wasn’t really expecting.” The post garnered a couple dozen retweets, and more than 150 likes. Beck Strauss, an independent researcher who studies planetary geophysics, reached out to Maier about writing up a rebuttal.

“HELLO friends, it has been a wild couple of hours & I am marveling at the power of twitter,” Maier posted in response. “In any case, if anyone is interested in being added to a group DM to legitimately discuss the possibility of turning this into a white paper, please respond to this tweet or DM me!”

Soon, Maier was messaging with interested parties, including Rasmussen, and discussing a potential paper for the decadal survey panel. Maier’s post, Rasmussen says, “brought us out of the woodwork.”

The three and their other coauthors worked on writing up concrete ways the field could improve for nonbinary people. Among the changes they suggested in their paper: Asking people to volunteer their gender identity for demographic research (rather than, say, asking an ickily-named automated program called SexMachine to infer it), paying social scientists to help do research in astronomy, and anonymizing telescope proposals to minimize gender bias by putting all the applicants’ ideas on the same footing.

The authors are mostly graduate students (for many, this is their first published paper), but their early-career ideas and insights will reach astronomy’s highest echelons—thanks to the human panel. “There’s just so many more people out there caring about these issues than I thought,” says Maier.

The human panel will consider issues beyond gender, too. One of the papers is about how to create “realistic job training” for astronomy students, most of whom won’t become professors in the overcrowded field. Another group sent along ideas for combating unconscious bias in areas like recruitment, hiring, choosing guest speakers, and evaluating scientific proposals, based on methods the Space Telescope Science Institute has employed and tested. Other researchers presented a path and rationale for dropping the GRE, which they argued doesn’t accurately predict a student’s success in graduate school but does show “statistically significant score differentials across gender, race, and citizenship, with notably lower scores for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Nave Americans, and women of all races as compared to White and Asian American men.” The authors of one paper suggest that the field invest in hiring astronomy faculty at minority-serving institutions, while another recommends making astronomy careers more accessible to people with disabilities.

Several of the papers deal with the conflict over Maunakea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians where astronomers want to build a big instrument called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). For years, Native Hawaiian opponents, who see the scope as a colonialist intrusion, have clashed with scientists who want to move forward with construction anyway. In 2015, Hawaii’s state supreme court revoked TMT’s construction permit, and then restored it in 2018. Last year, protesters camped at the base of the site for months, blocking building access.

The papers about TMT aren’t just about constructing a telescope: They’re about confronting the fact that people who study the cosmos can’t just railroad Earthlings’ concerns. The authors also point out that if astronomers truly want a more inclusive and diverse discipline, they should change their interactions with the communities where they erect huge instruments. “We’re providing a starting point for astronomers to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” the authors of one such decadal paper, called “Reframing Astronomical Research through an Anticolonial Lens,” wrote in an email to WIRED. Their paper recommends actions the astronomy community can take, like giving Native Hawaiians a seat on the decadal panel, pausing telescope construction until there’s more consensus, and writing a set of best practices guidelines for how to do no harm while doing your science.

Which is, really, the idea undergirding the addition of the human panel. It’s a good addition, those at the top believe. “I think we’re all very happy,” says Caltech astronomer Fiona Harrison, who sits at the head of the decadal survey committee.

Over the coming months, each of the 13 panels will pore over the scientists’ papers, and send their analysis to Harrison’s committee, which will use their input to write the final report, due out in early 2021. But we might not ever find out what the committee says about scientists’ many and varied suggestions. In contrast to the scientists’ very public input, these deliberations are closed-door: How they decide on their recommendations and priorities never becomes public. And that’s something not everyone in the astronomy community is happy about.

“The only information we have about the process at the end of the day is the final report,” says astronomer David Hogg of New York University. In his own human panel paper, called “A Better Consensus,” Hogg wrote that last decade, he was invited to be on one of the deliberating panels. Then officials handed him a non-disclosure agreement, which extended in perpetuity, until the end of the universe, or at least civilization and telescopes. That kind of opacity, he believes, doesn’t serve a community that offers up its most heartfelt ideas, yet has no window into how they’re received. “I felt like I couldn’t serve,” he says. And he didn’t.

Whatever the officials say about the nonbinary paper, writing it—and knowing it has a place in the decadal survey—has been significant for its authors: “Just to say to the people around us, ‘Hey! We are in your field. We are also doing science,’” says Strauss.

They’ve also been cheered by the supporters who have signed onto it. The paper has a two-page-long list of co-signers, and Strauss says it’s been heartening to witness younger students looking over that long list. “‘Oh, oh, that’s so-and-so!’” Strauss recalls hearing them say. “‘They’re a huge deal!’”

For Maier, finding community from a tweet fired off in frustration was the most important part of the paper-writing process. “Now I have this group of people that I can talk to whenever,” they say. “Prior to writing this paper, there were like two whole nonbinary astronomy people who I talked to and knew about.” Members of the planetary science community, which does its own version of a decadal survey, have asked the authors to write a version for them. And more Twitter groups, Strauss says, have materialized, sharing job postings and internship ideas.

Rasmussen feels hopeful, too, that the work will resonate beyond Twitter DMs. “Once our recommendations are part of the decadal survey. It will really sink in that this is the future,” they say. “This is the next 10 years of the future.”

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