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Decision time for UK ground-based astronomy June 3, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
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By the end of this year, UK astronomers are likely to know what ground-based observational facilities they will have access to in the next decade. Today, the Science and Technology Facilities Council or STFC, the body that administrates funds for UK astronomy and particle physics, has published a (long-rumoured) consultation document inviting the community to discuss priorities in ground-based astronomy in the next 10 years. The document was prepared by STFC’s recently formed Ground-based Facilities Review Panel, made up of 6 UK-based senior astronomers (incidentally all men). An electronic questionnaire will be available in the near future for astronomers to express their views, and “facility directors and interested groups” are invited to submit paper contributions. (more…)

Gender bias in peer-review: the final word? June 1, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science, women.
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It’s a much-quoted argument by advocates of “equal opportunities” in science that scientific papers written by female authors are consistently ranked lower in peer review than those of their male colleagues. Indeed, several studies (Bornmann et al, 2007; Budden et al., 2008; not exclusively in physics & astronomy) have appeared to indicate that women authors don’t fare as well in peer review, be it for papers, grant applications or fellowship proposals. It’s a popular topic of discussion in the “Women in Science” circles as a clear-cut, proven area where discrimination on the basis of gender takes place. (more…)

The Real World: Astronomers’ Edition April 30, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
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Compared with other branches of science, you could think there’s not much at stake in real world terms in astronomy research. The amounts of money involved are relatively small**, both in terms of investment and potential gain. Also, galaxies (fortunately!) don’t take us to court if we get their redshifts wrong, and young stars don’t die horrible deaths if they don’t get their shots. Both the community itself and the public see astronomers as this beautiful global brotherhood (a few sisters even these days) working together to unlock the secrets of the Universe. Unfortunately the days where our competition is purely intellectual are long gone, and the modern way of astronomy, as with most fields in science, is a bloody fight for resources, regconition and cash. And the battle grounds are the journals that publish our work. (more…)

Funding people, not projects April 23, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
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Today I attended a talk by Prof. Cornelis van Bochove, who was appointed as Professor of Science Policy Studies at Leiden University in February last year. Van Bochove has had an interesting career: after a number of years in econometrics research, he became Director of the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics for 5 years until 1999, after that Director of Research and Science Policy at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science until 2007. In those years he apparently always showed a keen interest in astronomy and was a strong supporter of the Dutch astronomy community, which has a long history of international excellence. Rather than hang up his hat, van Bochove joined Leiden to go back to the bench. The focus of his research is “evidence-based science policy”. So he’s looking at the science behind funding science. A bit of a brain twister, I know. But the talk turned out to be very interesting, and a little bit surreal. (more…)

Putting astronomy to work March 10, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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We astronomers often get asked about the point of our research. Why do we care about galaxies, about dark matter and 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 general, matters a great deal to everyone – even to those who think it is far removed from their beds. Watch it here.

This week’s issue of the Economist has the Technology Quarterly, where new technological developments are highlighted, and as usual it contains some really interesting stuff. One story in particular put a big smile on my face, as it’s applying astronomy research that I myself have worked on in the past,  albeit indirectly, to a hugely relevant issue, both economically and environmentally: scientists in San Diego are using astronomical  wavefront sensing technologies to determine when and how much fields need to be irrigated. Many modern telescopes use a technique called adaptive optics to remove the blurring effects of the turbulence in the atmosphere – the effect that causes the familiar twinkling of stars in the sky, from the light as it enters the instrument. By measuring the distortions in real time, several hundreds of times per second during every exposure, and feeding the information to a thin flexible mirror, the light can literally be bent back into shape. The process of measuring the blur of the light is called wavefront sensing.