Archive for the 'The Business of Astronomy' category

Why most of Astronomy isn't Cosmology

This is mostly just an MLP ("Mindless Link Post"), and it's nearly two weeks late, but there's a post by Julianne over at Cosmic Variance that I think is of crucial importance. People who are outside the field of science very often lose sight of the huge amount of important science that is done, but doesn't produce the "amazingly sexy discovery" news headlines, or, say, the Gruber prize. Also, people working in one field of science often don't appreciate the value of other fields of science when it doesn't obviously overlap theirs... even though, as Julianne points out, all of that other "uninteresting" stuff may well have included things necessary to generate the bits that overlap their field!

In one of my first years at Vanderbilt (back in the days when I used to be a professor), one of the older experimental particle physicists came into my office, wondering why we were talking about supporting all the other boring star-and-planet formation science being done, when I was the only astronomer doing anything "really fundamental." (I was still working in supernova cosmology at the time.) One of these other astronomers was David Weintraub, not then but now the author of a successful popular science book Is Pluto a Planet?— a topic that would be hard to argue has no general interest. David was and is working on things that addressed the formation of our own Solar System, something which was not only one of the current hot and sexy topics in Astronomy, but which is easily of as much "basic human interest" as the origin of our Universe, and more immediate (so to speak) and tangible besides! This particle physicist nodded, indicating surprise, saying that I had a good point that different people might think different things are of the most basic interest.

It's easy to find particle physicists who think that cosmology is the only thing in astronomy even vaguely of interest. (Just as it's easy to find atomic and solid state physicists who think that particle physics is useless musing whose valuable period ended well before the 20th century, and just as it is easy to find astronomers who think that cosmology is all poorly-grounded crap that represents only borderline interesting science, and is mostly a land grab by particle physicists interested in astronomy funding sources.) There really are two things here. First is the fact that there is an awful lot of interesting science out that that people in your field genuinely have no reason to care about. Second, though, and this is something that as an astronomer as frustrated me watching particle physicists come in and think they know how to use telescopes: people outside of your field know a lot of things about how to do their science that you don't know, and you dismiss them at your peril. Julianne says it best:

...if you limit astronomers' ability to go forth and characterize what the universe is actually like, no one will be laying the foundations for the next generation of crazy-physics-you-can-study-in-space. For astrophysics, the Universe is our LHC, and we've got to be free to characterize our widgets, even if they're boring ole brown dwarfs rather than panels of supercooled silicon wafers.

4 responses so far

On Universities, Wealth, and Research Funding

Jul 26 2007 Published by under Academia, Self, The Business of Astronomy

A couple of years ago, I went to a meeting for junior faculty at Vanderbilt about the tenure process. The ostensible goal of the meeting was to help us feel more comfortable by letting us better understand the process. The practical upshot for me, at least, was to ratchet up the tenure stress another notch or two, as well as add to the growing sense of despair I had about the whole thing.

Today, Chad points to an article in Inside Higher Ed about the size of university endowments. You know, those universities that have been increasing student tuitions at rates much faster than the rate of inflation. Just last week, Steinn pointed to another Inside Higher Ed article about how Harvard is in a bind trying to figure out how to spend the excess endowment funds that have built up.

As somebody (a well-regarded teaching somebody, mind you, and a somebody who has won prizes for research both internal and external) who is leaving academia because he was told that his tenure chances were less than 1% due to trouble getting government grant support from a capricious and extremely oversubscribed National Science Foundation, I certainly have thoughts about this. However, I can't share them directly, because using that kind of language on this blog might well get me in a load of trouble.

Let me just share this, however.

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9 responses so far

A farewell to academia

Loved the teaching. Loved the science. Couldn't take the politics. Couldn't take the tenure stress. That about sums it up.

I am sending off today a signed offer letter for employment with Linden Lab, the folks who create and run Second Life. I will be an engineer or ops/developer or something... wait, hang on. Here we go, "Productions Operations Engineer" is the title listed in the offer letter. I will write more about this in the near future, and probably a lot more in the ongoing future. Let me say, though, that I'm very excited to be going to work for Linden. A lot of the rest of this post is going to sound negative, because this post is all about academia. However, I don't want it to sound like Linden is "just my escape valve." It was the only job I applied for this summer-- so I wasn't entirely looking to flee, but saw some things very positive about this job in particular. If you had asked me what I wanted to be back in 9th or 10th grade, I probably would have said "computer programmer." So, in a sense, I'm finally getting back on track where I was in 1984 or thereabouts.

As for academia... it is not without a lot of regret that I decide to leave. I will be giving things up, and I'm fully aware of that. I will mourn leaving academia. My mother said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was out in the SF Bay Area interviewing at Linden that she thought I have a real gift for teaching. I said, perhaps (having read some really nasty student evaluations, it's difficult for me to fully admit that), but it's OK if we all have gifts and talents that we don't use in our primary vocation. She strongly agreed with this. I will really miss the teaching. I will miss playing around with the advanced physics and astronomy, and helping others to learn it and see what's so beautiful and powerful about it. I will miss surfing at the front of astronomy research.

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67 responses so far

A New Proposal Failure Mode

Jul 06 2007 Published by under Rant, The Business of Astronomy

Before I say this, let me preface my remarks with the statement that I understand the reasoning of the Time Allocation Committtee (TAC), and it's not an insane decision. It's as I predicted; they're worried that the observations are too hard because the targets are faint. My collaborator and I knew this going into the proposal, but thought it was worth a shot.

I just got back the NOAO TAC report for a proposal I wrote for 5 nights on the WIYN 3.5m telescope this year. I know form inside information that this semester, the telescope was not very oversubscribed-- the number of nights requested was only 10% or so more than.the number of nights available As such, I felt optimistic that our proposal would be scheduled, and was surprised when I found out it wasn't.

The report contains these two bits of information:

  • Ranked in the top quartile of all requests on this telescope.
  • Nights Granted: None

Although I've already said I understand the decision, I do have to notice that even the proposals that are (relatively) highly ranked by the committees that read them come out as failures!


7 responses so far

A better model for funding astronomy?

Jul 02 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, The Business of Astronomy

The current way we fund astronomy research in this country is
horribly flawed. There must be a better way. Let me suggest one that I
believe that we should consider.

Now, yes, you are all going to be cynical and say, "Rob thinks it's
flawed because he's had trouble getting funding, and the main flaw is
that he doesn't have any funding." While it is true that I have been
burned by the system, and am admittedly bitter about that, I think that
there are rational arguments for my case.

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16 responses so far

Two aspects of the word "privilege"

In a recent post, I expressed frustration with the observation that those who sometimes question the tactics and language of some fighting for gender-equality then get lumped in with "everybody else who is clueless and oppressive," even if we care deeply about the issue. One of my complaints was irritation with the word "privilege," which generated a lot of hostility and confusion which, unfortunately, ended up obscuring my core point.

I would like to thank Annie (commenter in the previous thread, who continued the conversation with me in e-mail) for her calm and reasoned and non-attacking e-mail on the subject which helped me understand where it was all coming from. At the same time, I would like to say "foo" to those of you who thought that my objection to the phrases "white privilege" and "male privilege" were a denial that there was any unfairness or that anybody else has it harder than I do. I have seen a few have those sorts of reactions— and objecting to those sorts of reactions were exactly the point I was attempting to make with the previous post.

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17 responses so far

Why go to grad school in science? Nod to R. Ford Denison

Jun 19 2007 Published by under Academia, The Business of Astronomy

In this post at the blog "This Week in Evolution", R. Ford Denison hits the nail squarely on the head.

Why should you go to grad school? Because you want to do grad school.

If you are viewing grad school as something you have to grind through in order to get the faculty job you covet, don't go. Your chances of getting that faculty job are too low.

If you want the faculty job, you have to go to grad school. But you should believe that when you come out the other side, you will find grad school to have been a worthwhile experience even if you don't get the faculty job, and end up doing something (e.g. teaching high school, working in industry) that you might have been able to do without the PhD.

If you want to be a doctor, go to med school. Grind through it. You may not get a top job posting, but you can be pretty sure to be a doctor somewhere.

Even though grad school at least in Physics is still entirely designed to replace the faculty-- to make people into researchers in Physics-- the same very much does not apply. We produce way too many Physics PhDs for all of the faculty jobs and government research lab jobs that are out there. You have to want to go to grad school itself to rationally go to grad school.

Read the post I link to above. It's good.

9 responses so far

If you aren't a part of the witch hunt, you're a part of the problem

Anybody who's been reading my blog for a while knows that I'm aware of, very concerned about, and even active in the plight of women and minorities in science. See, for example:

I've stuck my neck out on this issue. I've even gotten whacked for sticking my neck out on this issue.

I have blind spots, but I'm not the typical clueless male who sticks his head in the sand and ignores the issue.

However, I am seriously considering becoming one. Why?

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70 responses so far

Advice for junior faculty at a research university

May 25 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, The Business of Astronomy

Chad just posted a bit of pre-tenure advice, including the very important advice to take all advice with a grain of salt. I would say that also applies to the rest of his advice, because I'm about to post contradictory advice. You should also take my advice with a grain of salt. Be aware that it comes from somebody who has been beaten into being very cynical about the system. On the other hand, you can learn from my mistakes.

My advice here is specifically for faculty at a research University, most specifically Vanderbilt. It's primarily for physics and astronomy (indeed, primarily the latter), but will apply to a lesser extent to anybody in the physical sciences. I would hope that the two new hires in astronomy at Vanderbilt will at least read and think about this, even if they decide thereafter that I'm full of it.

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10 responses so far

Why there is no point in applying to the NSF

May 19 2007 Published by under Rant, The Business of Astronomy

Excerpts from the individual and panel reviews on my latest proposal:

The proposed work is very well motivated, well organized, with clear plans and goals.

There is also:

Guaranteed access to the CTIO 1.5 m, and an established track record with WIYN 3.5 m observations, add to the strength of the proposal. Preliminary work from both telescopes are presented, indicating that the proposed aims for the project are achievable.

And, indeed, in another one:

This is a well written proposal (though I found unnecessary details in places such as section 4).

I should note that the stuff I put in section 4 was in response to comments of a previous TAC about a certain element of the feasibility.... What one panel sees as missing, the next sees as too much information when its added.

Despite all that, in another review I have:

In general the proposal is not well written and important information about the expected results and feasibility are not given.

and, in a panel summary, contradicting something above:

The resources available to the project do not appear to
be sufficient for the proposed research.

It's really not clear to me what to do with all of this. It's all over the map. Was it well written? Or not? Are there clear goals? Or not? Are the resources I have a strength of the proposal? Or are they insufficient? No way to know. I mean, I do know, but there's no way to know how I can convey that information to a putative future panel.

There were some criticisms offered that I would agree, yes, there should be more information about that in there— although these were not things mentioned in previous years. It's such a moving target that it's frustrating. But when you get such mixed messages in one year— what is one supposed to think? Clearly it wasn't good enough, but these kinds of messages make me think that it's not possible to make this project into something good enough. The only thing that would be good enough would be if I were to happen to, effectively, win the lottery— figure out what is going to be the most exciting science du jour, and write it up well and thoughtfully.

It's too frustrating for words.

Addendum: It's also worth mentioning that the public-outreach portion of the proposal was unanimously viewed as a strength this year and two years ago. Last year, however, the reviews objected that it wasn't related enough to the science in the proposal. Again, what's a strength one year may be insufficient the next....

13 responses so far

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