Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Future of Astronomy?

Let me start off by saying that I had a really, really bad day.

I started off by making a major mistake. After I made sure my program was still chugging along, I surfed the web for current outlooks on the astronomy job market. Yes, I'm an f-ing genius. It was, as so many post docs say, positively depressing. Too many PhDs, too little money, too little opportunities... etc.

Post docs spend the majority of their time stressing about the number of papers they publish. It's considered that any less than 1-2 papers a year is a death sentence for getting a faculty job, no matter how good their papers may be. Despite what most people say, in astronomy, quantity trumps quality.

Then, in a quirky twist of fate, I went to Science Coffee, where we briefly discussed a paper on applying economic principles to astronomy. The gist of the paper was about how the scientific community could gauge the "value" of a theory (though I assume this applies to most research projects in general). The value of a theory could be determined by such factors as growth rate in the field, number of faculty jobs, number of cited papers, etc. With this in mind, appropriate projects could be pursued, and grant money would be allocated to the projects deemed most valuable. Now, this paper in and of itself may not have much lasting impact. Most people in the room kind of snickered at it or dismissed it entirely, but it made me angry.

No. It made me really, really angry.

My idealized, rose-colored vision of how astronomy functions is quickly diminishing, and this paper is a symptom of it. With all this focus on publication rates, it's no wonder arXiv papers have become so boring. Nobody can tell me why their research is important, because nobody wants to do a risky project. Nobody wants to do a project that will take longer than 1-2 years to complete. That could impact publication rates! No, it's much better to choose a safe, non-threatening project that can be done will minimal effort. Plus, if it's safe, it's much easier to get that research grant approved.

This, in my opinion, has only one effect. It breeds conservatism and stagnation within the field.

Once upon a time, I thought scientists were the heroic people who did science for the love of science. In reality, scientists are forced to do science for the publications. I understand that research will always be impacted by what money-granting institution thinks is in vogue, but that's no reason to buy into it entirely. Yes, some major discoveries were intentional, but the vast majority of major discoveries came by accident. If we all knew where to look, don't you think we would have done it already?

Discoveries are built upon surprises and the unexplained. They are built upon innovation, creativity, and a healthy heap of luck. How can you put a number of publications on that? How do you define if this risk is good or bad?

I was once told that the hard work science demanded was rewarded when you got to be the first person in the world to understand something. Think about that feeling for a second. I wonder how much it happens anymore.

A part of me understands that astronomy is a field in contraction. The competition is so fierce for so few academic job openings, that nobody will dare go against the status quo. That would be career suicide. But some part of me wistfully thinks back to Agent Fox Mulder of the X-Files, who always pushed his wild theories because he knew he was onto something. It didn't matter what the people around him said, or how much he jeopardized his career. He was going to try and collect the proof he needed.

Corny, I know, but I think the spirit of it is beautiful.


  1. I agree that this is a bad situation, there is a huge amount of competition. I suppose a person can't be and amateur scientist because access is needed to facilities that require professional status. What I've learned from my dabbling in photography is that often some of the best work is done by amateur photographers and I believe this is because they are doing the work out of love for the medium. Of course there are certainly great professional photographers too, but don't discount the amateur.

  2. I'm sorry to say that the lack of daring exists beyond just your field. My peers and I in the Rhetoric PhD program have some radical ideas, but most of the conversations we have about them end with "And I will totally write about that after I have tenure." Sad, but realistic.

    That said, I saw Salman Rushdie (who is kind of a prick, but whatever) give a talk a couple of years ago and he made a good observation. We make progress not by making huge leaps, but through the concerted effort of those who push at the edges of our understanding. Maybe the solution is to find a way to stay in the comfort zone, but always try to push at the edges to make that zone grow. Now, if only I knew how to do that...

    I hope your program finishes running. :)

  3. I think your right. And I don't mean that because I like you and to be agreeable. But sadly that is kind of the way it is for everyone.

    Let's put this into even better persective. Let's take Belly Dance. I mean really look at this! Let's say you have this radical way of thinking that you'll pro rate students that have to travel further to get to you classes or oh no someone actually teaches a class on a Saturday! What would happen? I mean would other teachers lose money because you decided that Saturday would be a money maker? I'd like to find a teacher that is willing to give up an hour of her Saturday or Sunday to teach a class. Because I have to give up two hours for a Saturday and four hours we a week day depending on how late the class is. I'm not willing to give up that much time anymore. But I can give up two can a teacher give me one hour of her weekend?