Oct 12, 2021 - Science

Astronomy's 10-year plan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Astronomers are awaiting the release of a series of proposals and recommendations that will guide the field for the next decade.

Why it matters: Astronomy is at a transitional moment. Large ground and space-based telescopes are nearing completion, and the field is reckoning with sexism, racism and harassment — all issues that shape the science at least as much as new technologies and missions.

  • The document — called the decadal survey — won't just make recommendations about the next missions NASA and others should fund, it's also expected to address the inequality that's plagued and hindered the field.
  • "I'm proud and happy that our community is acknowledging that science is, you know, a human endeavor," astronomer Grant Tremblay told Axios.

Catch up quick: Scientists have been waiting for the decadal's release since last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the teams putting together the document.

  • The release of the report is expected by year-end.

How it works: The decadal survey is expected to have three major pillars.

  • One will focus on recommendations for space-based telescopes and missions, including at least one new, expensive flagship mission to follow the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope.
  • A second pillar will focus on ground-based astronomy. It may include a recommendation on the future of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, which many native Hawaiians have protested for a number of years.
  • The third pillar will look at the state of the profession itself, examining what it will take to make astronomy more equitable and providing recommendations for how to make that happen.

What's happening: The previous decadal in 2010 acknowledged that people of color are under-represented in the field, but this year's document is expected to make specific, actionable recommendations on how to address diversity, inclusion and harassment.

  • "Findings can be ignored by funding agencies, but recommendations cannot," Jane Rigby, a scientist involved with the writing of the decadal, told me.
  • Just 3% of Ph.D.s in astronomy were awarded to individuals from under-represented groups from 2002 to 2012, according to National Science Foundation data.

The big picture: Under-representation is a documented problem across the sciences.

  • Black and Latino students leave science degree programs at higher rates than white students, and Black and Hispanic professors are under-represented on faculties.
  • A 2020 report from the American Institute of Physics outlined the systemic problems facing Black students in the field, including a lack of support and financial challenges.

Between the lines: The science and inequality in the field are inexorably linked.

  • Although science is oftentimes framed as an objective search for knowledge, the people behind that pursuit bring their own knowledge and biases to it.
  • Having people who come from a variety of backgrounds looking at scientific problems from many angles is key to the health of the profession, but it also takes a concerted effort to make sure those voices are heard.
  • Including the state of the profession in the decadal puts the spotlight on these issues and has the power to bring some accountability to these problems, according to some experts.

"Over the time it took to conduct Astro2020 [the decadal survey], the nation began reckoning with the legacy of systemic racial injustice," Rigby said.

  • "That reckoning has led to growing awareness within the profession of the issues that some of our colleagues have worked tirelessly for decades to address."
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