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Political snippets March 8, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
Tags: ,

I’ve been catching up on some of the other science blogs and a few stories have caught my eye – so here is some politically tinted fodder to chew over.

On Cosmic Variance Jullianne talks about Senator John McCain ridiculing science earmarks in his Twitter feed (inspired by Maureen Dowd’s NYT column):

Simply, most people assume science has absolutely nothing to do with them. Nobody blinks an eye at massive building projects that funnel money to construction workers, even though construction accounts for only 5% of the non-farm employment in the US. However, even though the “average american” is highly unlikely to work in construction, they at least imagine that they could.

She makes some good points, definitely worth a read. What surprised me though is the comments on the post. The feeling on the whole seems to be that scientists themselves are responsible for people’s lack of understanding of the relevance of their work:

I think it’s obvious that scientists aren’t great communicators in general. It is also true that scientists don’t usually value educating others. [ts]


It is purely my personal observation that many scientists are unambitious, happy to relax into a comfortable zone the moment they achieve tenure or another position in their career that is secure. The culture of science , as some people have mentioned, actually promotes lethargy after a certain point, because typically, very senior (in terms of years spent) scientists do not often have to justify themselves to anyone, much less the taxpayer. [Nash]


So many of the problems of science are the fault of science itself. The attitude of elitism prevalent among scientists is simply a part of the problem. [PiddlyD]

So there’s some food for thought. While I don’t agree with many of these commenters, I do think there are things wrong with the way we work in science. Yes, scientists certainly don’t do enough to tell the public about their work. Taxpayers fund our work and we have a responsibility to tell them about it. And yes, too many researchers aren’t passionate enough about teaching as they should be. This is at least in part due to our job performance being judged with one metric: the numbers of papers we publish.  I’ve done quite a bit of outreach work in the past and I’m always left with the niggling thought that I should have been doing science instead. How many spectra could I have reduced while writing this post? Sometimes I wonder, is the number of papers we can get published the best way of measuring our scientific successes?

The second comment in particular is surprising. One of the things I like about working in astronomy is that the vast majority of people are really passionate about their subject. True, there are things that annoy me about my job – endless meetings, a bit too much travel at times, and having to do administrative stuff that in industry I would have an assistant to do for me – but in the end, if I wasn’t very passionate about astronomy as a subject I wouldn’t be in my job. After all I can get more money, more glory and a much quieter life in a job elsewhere.  

As for science being “elitist”, well of course it’s elitist. But isn’t any other specialty that requires some brains and education as well? Do we complain that doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians are elitist? Well, no, we want them to know their subject and help us with the stuff we don’t understand. 

Another interesting story is on Phil Plait’s blog, and reported in the Financial Times. It seems like a US Congressman, John Conyers, is proposing a bill essentially banning free access to scientific publications. Called the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” is of course strongly supported by the publishing industry, and I’m glad to read that strong opposition has come from a variety of corners, from patients’ rights associations to the libraries. How would astronomy actually be affected if this got passed, I wonder? I suppose scientists would flock to the European journals en masse and still post onto astro-ph? I’m curious to see what will happen.



1. Stuart - March 8, 2009

What can I say? I agree with your points. Phil’s post did make me think that MNRAS and A&A might get a bit more attention from North American astronomers.

I don’t think the quantity of papers should be the main or only metric. Whilst I know that publishing results is good, it does encourage people to publish just for the sake of publishing. I can’t help but think that this encourages the noise to grow compared to the signal (interesting/important results)?

I’m also uncomfortable with the way this drive for quantity encourages collaborations to put everybody’s name on every paper. The author list should consist of people who contributed to *that* paper scientifically (or technically if it is a technical paper). I am guilty of being on one paper where this is the case although I did suggest to the first author that I should be removed (they didn’t agree). In my main collaboration I have actively removed myself from several papers that I could be included on for the same reason. I am also aware that this is likely to be career suicide.

2. andyxl - March 9, 2009

Sarah – I am tickled by the Nash comments about scientists settling into lethargy when they get tenure. Actually just about academic I know visibly stepped up a gear after getting tenure; firstly the pressure is on to get grants, and secondly there is suddenly an opportunity to get more famous – you have room to think more ambitiously. Donald Pettie, who many years back moved from Ferranti to SERC to become Chief Engineer at ROE, used to recount his shock on finding out what astronomers are like. He assumed it was a gentlemanly occupation, but found that in fact most astronomers “would be prepared to sell their grandmother to get an extra night on the telescope”.

3. SarahAskew » Putting astronomy to work - October 14, 2010

[…] dark energy? It happens at the best of times, but in these economic climes even more so – see my previous post. Phil Plait made a great video telling us exactly why astronomy, and scientific research in […]

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