Spectrum summarizes 2010 Decadal Survey’s approach towards minorities

by saurav on February 6, 2011

The January issue (pdf) of the Spectrum, the newsletter of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, summarizes the 2010 Decadal Survey Report’s (New Worlds, New Horizons, on Astronomy & Astrophysics) comments on minorities and what should be done in the next ten years to improve astronomy’s abysmal record. Given its length and unfamiliarity, most of the Decadal Survey was lost on me as I found it hard to parse and had to depend on blogs and discussions for summaries (for e.g. see posts on AstroBetter and on Cosmic Variance where Julianne Delcanton had a series of four posts on the Next  10 years of astronomy, space-based astronomy, ground based astronomy, and exoplanets). Hence, the two articles on Spectrum, one by Dara Norman & Lou Strolger and the second by Keivan Stassun, were very enlightening.

One significant thing the report seems to have done is, for the first time, put forward a detailed list of “approaches that might be adopted” by the community to improve the very small number of minorities in astronomy. The approaches include targeted mentoring, partnerships of community college and minority serving institutions with research universities and national labs, plugging in the leaks in our educational system by supporting bridge programs, cross-disciplinary training as an on-ramp to astronomy programs, and more family-friendly policies. Dara Norman & Lou Strolger deplore that

NONE of these are in the form of recommendations and furthermore none of these approaches are addressed to any particular segment of the community to pursue. This leaves ownership for addressing these issues in limbo and would seem to give the approaches little weight.

On the other hand, Keivan Stassun notes that the 2000 Decadal Survey said very little with respect to minorities, getting away with saying that equal access should be provided to all members of the community (without mentioning the word ‘minority’). Given the scenario, he thinks that

it is significant and important, therefore, that the 2010 report includes stronger language, culminating in a formal, boldface Conclusion. The report states: “There are many reasons why improving these abysmal statistics [on minority representation in astronomy] should be a matter of the highest priority.” And concludes with: “Agencies, astronomy departments, and the community as a whole need to refocus their efforts on attracting members of underrepresented minorities to the field.” The latter is not simply a sentence (which includes the word!), it is a formal Conclusion of the report, which elevates it so that official bodies such as the AAAC can track progress on it and hold the agencies to account.

I guess time will tell if the Decadal Survey’s mild tone is enough to persuade the funding agencies (and, more importantly, the astronomers themselves) to work towards a more inclusive and representative community. But it is a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, I encourage all of you read through these two articles which are well-written and easy to read.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Niall February 6, 2011 at 7:42 am

Interesting piece Saurav. One question that always pops into my head in discussion like this is are there any statistics on the diversity of the socioeconomic backgrounds of astronomers/scientists? I know that in the UK physical sciences are amongst the worst groups of subjects for having an unrepresentatively low proportion of working class students.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/28/social-class-university-data

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2 Saurav February 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Niall, good point. I have not seen any such statistics, but some other readers might have. In the United States, socioeconomic background and race are inextricably linked, perhaps more so than most countries; and socioeconomic class gets very little attention, I think. However, this past summer, there was been some discussion about colleges and universities not showing interest in admitting lower-class whites (see a New York Times pieceThe Roots of White Anxiety and the reader responses) as they do not increase their diversity numbers. As a result, lower-class whites are finding no support in the existing educational system and seem doomed to remain where they are. Perhaps, this also explains explains the increasing political radicalization among that population.

3 secretseasons February 6, 2011 at 11:05 pm

There almost certainly is a component of this that is socio-economic, but it frustrates the hell out of me that people use that to dismiss the also-real effects of gender, race, and ethnicity. I’m a white male from a working-class background — but no one can tell my class background just from the way I look. So stereotypes don’t attach to me; I’m just a white guy, so I’m “supposed” to be here. Women and minorities don’t have that implicit privilege. Stereotypes attach to them as soon as they come in the room because their gender, race, and ethnicity are apparent.

4 Niall February 7, 2011 at 12:17 am

“If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color”

Couldn’t have put it better myself. Anecdotally I’d say the stereotypical astronomer is white, male, had middle income parents with technical/scholarly/educational jobs. left-leaning and come from a non-practicing mainline Christian background (I tick all those boxes). While changing one of the first two of those will increase diversity, it only fixes part of the problem. While many of the issues that cause this lack of diversity come at an earlier stage than postgrad. Limiting of ambition based on background (personally, even though I was from a comfortable background, I never applied to Oxford or Cambridge at undergrad as I’m not upper class) and potential peer pressure at school discouraging taking more academic paths of study are two obvious examples which are difficult for universities to fix. However more subtle forms of discrimination exist, when groups of astronomers all come from the same backgrounds, share the same cultural reference points, dress in a similar manner and agree on most major issues, I could imagine coming in to such a group from outside could easily be off-putting and alienating.

As I said previously, much of this is based on anecdotes. I don’t know if any data exists on this specifically for astronomy, but I think it would be important to understand (and tackle) any and all biases in the backgrounds of astronomers.

5 Kelle February 7, 2011 at 8:59 am

I think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are deeply embedded in our society at large and it’s not reasonable to expect Astronomy to be able to create a grand utopia of egalitarianism. We are not the only ones who have these problems and we especially can’t fix them alone!

That said, WE ALL SHOULD BE DOING SOMETHING! It is not sufficient to just “not be racist” or “not be sexist.” We all have to put effort into diversifying our field. There is a really nice article on astrobites that describes the value of volunteering to benefit Astronomy: The Hubble Effect.
The more we get out there interacting with, nay RECRUITING people from a diversity of cultures, races, sexes, and socio-economic backgrounds, the more likely we are to see them (or their children) wanting to be part of our culture.

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6 Marcos February 7, 2011 at 10:02 am

I’d like to point out that “diversity” can be a distracting goal. You could recruit a bunch of grad students or faculty from a lot of other countries and that would make a diverse department, but it wouldn’t solve the problem: the problem is that a large fraction of the US population, namely US-born ethnic and racial minorities aren’t getting into the sciences/astronomy. Importing students or faculty from other countries would make us ‘diverse’ but it wouldn’t solve the underrepresentation problem.

Though, ironically, at this point, given the PhD overproduction problem, I don’t encourage anyone really to go to grad school at this point: so while I’m troubled I guess about the plight of minorities in astronomy, it strikes me as a lower priority problem than just say, getting hispanic high school and college graduation rates up. Ultimately, the problems of underrepresentation can’t be solved at the top: there must be systemic changes to the educational system much earlier to really change anything. Here’s a question, is astronomy doing better or worse in minority participation than other physical and life sciences? (physics, biology, etc?)

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7 Saurav February 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Amen, Marcos! I would add that imported diversity does not count as the imported scientists probably grew up as the majority in their country and will almost always identify as such.

From my understanding (based on coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Insider Higher Ed), the minority participation is a problem across the board because, as you pointed out, of the leaky pipeline in K-12 and college. Hence, the post-college number of minorities is small to start out with. That said, engineering and life sciences are marginally better than the physical sciences as they provide more immediate dividends in terms of either money or effect on society. I stress that these are qualitative and quantitative summary based on what I read online.

8 secretseasons February 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Ultimately, the problems of underrepresentation can’t be solved at the top: there must be systemic changes to the educational system much earlier to really change anything. Here’s a question, is astronomy doing better or worse in minority participation than other physical and life sciences? (physics, biology, etc?)

I’ll tackle the simpler point, your final question, first, and perhaps come back later for the first statement.

Assuming this is a good-faith question/interest, here’s a good faith answer: You can get information like that off of webcaspar.nsf.gov. I don’t have the table for minorities laying around, but I have 2005 PhD production rates for women: Biology PhDs were just over 50% women; physics and astronomy nearly 30%; computer science under 25%; engineering under 20%. So not all fields are faring equally.

And I think this can start to become a bad feedback loop: if a field gets a reputation as being more inclusive, then it looks more attractive; as other fields get a reputation for being backward, they become less attractive (to talent from all backgrounds).

9 Saurav February 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Here is a table that breaks down the most popular fields of study for a given race/ethnicity. Of course, not surprisingly, physics and/or astronomy do not make it to the top ten. While the top fields and the proportion of people choosing that field seem fairly similar across races/ethnicities (for Bachelor’s, Masters, and PhDs), I noticed a slight trend of minorities leaning towards the more popular fields. Perhaps, this is from lack of minority role models in the less popular field and, as secretseasons talked about, fields getting a negative reputation. So how do the class of incoming graduate students look by field of study?

The 2009 report from the Council of Graduate Schools says that, in general, minorities make up ~29% of incoming graduate students. Worst are Physical & Earth Sciences (19%) and Arts & Humanities (18%) while Public Administration & Services (35%) and Mathematics & Computer Sciences (34%) are the best. Biological & Agricultural Sciences (25%), Engineering (30%), and Social & Behavioral Sciences (33%) are other notables. Unfortunately, these classifications are rather broad but are still quite enlightening.

In terms of gender (59% female in total), Health Sciences (81%), Education (76%), Public Administration & Services (76%) lead the field while Engineering (22%), Mathematics & Computer Sciences (31%), Business (42%), and Physical & Earth Sciences (45%) are the worst. Biological Sciences (55%), Social & Behavioral Sciences (63%), and Arts & Humanities (59%) are other notables.

10 Marcos February 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Well, if minorities are going to grad school in computer science and engineering instead of physics… I can’t say I would shed a lot of tears over that. The former ones have a far more obvious pipeline into a job.

Women’s representation is a different problem. Women don’t have the systemic educational disadvantages at a young age. Not to say that some teachers aren’t treating girls differently than boys, but they are going to the same schools as men, getting the same (or better) grades, graduating HS at a probably higher rate, etc. So the challenge of getting more women into academia / grad school, etc. is very different because at least the K-12 system isn’t completely out of whack for women. But others more knowledgeable than I can opine on the issue of women in astronomy.

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