A couple weeks ago, Sean over at Cosmic Variance brought up the topic of “smart” with respect to Steve Jobs and I want to use that post to springboard to a slightly different opinion piece: Astronomy (and Physics) will not be as scientifically productive as it could be and will not make meaningful progress towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity until we change the value system currently in place to assess “smartness.” Building instruments, reducing data, writing code, and the like need to be just as highly valued as doing problem sets and thinking like a theorist. If you can do science, you are smart.
What needs to happen is a complete overhaul for how we asses and reward students who are good at the various things that are crucial for Astronomy to move forward. (Requiring theory-inclined students to take a lab course is not anywhere close to what I’m talking about.) The current hierarchy is bad for Science and bad for scientists. This is a fundamental problem with our field and we need to all be working towards fixing it in whatever ways we can.
What can you do? First and foremost, everyone should be careful with their own language and call out our colleague’s language. In our everyday conversations, formal and informal, we should be very careful about perpetuating the current out-of-wack system.
Second, there are the bigger issues of getting rid of the Physics GRE requirement for admission and changing the qualifying exams for PhD candidacy, especially in joint Physics and Astro departments. But these are tough and need to be dealt with on a department-by-department basis. Although maybe the AAS, in conjunction with the AIP Statistics folks, can make some statement about the lack of correlation between GRE and Qual success and future meaningful contributions to Astro. If you know of some good references for these stats, please post in the comments.
Third, community-wide, the Roman Technology Fellowship program is a huge step in the right direction towards giving instrument builders the early-career support they need and deserve. But this program is decades late. We can’t afford to wait that long to start valuing our astronomers who are coding geniuses. Do you think there should be a fellowship program dedicated to supporting our colleagues who write data-reduction pipelines or other fundamental pieces of code?
What else do you think we can be doing to properly define what it means to be a “smart” Astronomer in our hearts, minds, prizes, admissions criteria, degree-granting requirements, and funding opportunities?