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.