Monday, February 25, 2013

What Does a Progressive Scientific Society Look Like?

In principle, scientific societies can play an important role in helping scientists perform, discuss and publicize their research. If they are progressive and open-minded, rather than old-fashioned and elitist, these societies can be very effective at enabling science and science communication.

The question I'll address in this blog post is how progressive and open-minded is my scientific society, the American Astronomical Society (AAS)?

The AAS is over 110 years old and was once dominated by people who looked like this:

Some astronomers at the AAS meeting in 1910. Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf digital item number, e.g., apf12345], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
and this:

The AAS meeting in 1910. Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf digital item number, e.g., apf12345], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

[As an aside, when I look at pictures like the ones shown above I imagine someone whispering "carpe", which gives me an excuse to show a clip from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society:


Enough with the movie-watching digression. Here's a recent movie from real life showing what AAS members look like now:

based on a party held recently at the 221st meeting of the AAS, in Long Beach, California.

The people attending the AAS have changed a lot in appearance, but how well has the AAS kept up with these changes? How representative is the AAS membership of the general population and where are the disparities? What is the AAS doing right and where is there room for improvement?


Those early photos show that AAS meetings were once male-dominated. That's not a huge surprise. This domination began with the leadership, as the AAS presidents were all men from 1899 until Margaret Burbidge took on the role between 1976 and 1978. Another lull followed until Andrea Dupree became president between 1996 and 1998. Since then three women have been president, not including Meg Urry (@UrryM on Twitter), from Yale University, who was recently announced as the latest AAS member to take on this role, beginning next year. This is a great development because Urry has made exceptional efforts to enhance the participation of women in astronomy, and received an award last year from the AAS for this service.

Of the 16 plenary, or keynote, sessions held during the day at the recent AAS meeting, 5 were given by women. That's not terrible, but it could be better. For the press briefings the number was lower: only 4 out of 45 speakers. So, there's definitely room for improvement there. [I decided to check back over our own publicity with Chandra X-ray Observatory to see how we're doing with including women and our numbers aren't very different. We also have room for improvement.]

What about broader statistics for women in astronomy and the AAS? An article by Joan Schmelz, chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women, pointed out that women make up only about 15% of the tenured faculty members of PhD astronomy departments in the US. This is higher than the 7% figure that applied in 2001 but it's still pathetic, as pointed out by Ann Finkbeiner in an interesting blog post at the excellent blog The Last Word on Nothing.

I tweeted about these statistics and the AAS quickly gave a response on their Facebook page:
"A tweet today by @peterdedmonds, points out that only about 15% of tenured astronomy faculty are women. This graph helps explain why. The demography of the American Astronomical Society is not uniform with age. 
The oldest astronomers have roughly a 15 to 20 percent fraction of women (or less), while the youngest age brackets are nearly at parity. This has not always been the case. In the 1970s, the Society had roughly 15% women in all age categories. 
Progress is being made, but it takes time, policy changes that welcome women into our field and support them during their career as well as engaged women interested in pursuing a career in astronomy. 
We don't know if women are being disadvantaged in other ways from our data, but are working on a longitudinal survey with the help of the American Institute of Physics to find out."
Here's the graph mentioned by the AAS correspondent on Facebook:

Blue bars are the fraction of women in that age group, and yellow is the fraction of men. Credit: AAS.

Similar graphs were produced for 1995 and 2003. A good discussion followed on the AAS Facebook page about whether a disproportionately high percentage of women drop out of the AAS as they get older. The Facebook correspondent from the AAS stated that this wasn't occurring. Michael Merrifield attempted a quick test of this claim by taking the 1995 data, then moving it forward 15 years and overplotting it on the 2010 graph (astronomers like playing with numbers). The resulting figure gives a hint of systematic drop-outs in the youngest of the age bins where a comparison is possible. However, it's unclear whether these differences are significant because the raw numbers are not given and error bars cannot be estimated. The youngest and oldest age bins contain relatively few members, as mentioned by the AAS in the Facebook discussion, so the errors bars could be large.

A comparison between the gender balance of the 2010 AAS and the 1995 AAS shifted by 15 years. Credit: AAS and Michael Merrifield. 

Although the data presented here are inconclusive, it's certainly plausible that a higher fraction of women than men drop out of astronomy as they get older. A recent article in the Guardian noted that the fraction of women in biomedical science drops off as one goes to higher professional levels. One possible explanation given for these trends is that women are treated less fairly than men, as suggested by a paper led by Corinne Moss-Racusin from Yale University. Astrophysicist John Johnson has written about this very interesting study and the effects of unconscious bias, and Meg Urry also wrote about the Moss-Racusin paper for CNN.

Another considerable challenge involves work-life balance. As pointed out by Mary Mason from Berkeley in a longitudinal study:
"family formation—most importantly marriage and childbirth—accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline between Ph.D. receipt and the acquisition of tenure for women in the sciences."
A related issue is unreasonable travel workloads for Principal Investigators, as explained by astrophysicist Sara Seager from MIT.

These problems are difficult to counter. The Moss-Racusin paper and the Mason study both present some suggestions and I encourage you to read them. Regarding work-like balance, astrophysicist David Charbonneau from Harvard University has argued that improved access to childcare should be provided. I expect that the AAS Committee on the Status of Women is working on some possible solutions. With Meg Urry as president elect and with responsive AAS officers and councilors, I'm hopeful that real progress can be made.

I'm encouraged by the AAS's attempts to be inclusive with members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning (LGBTIQ) communities. There is a AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ equality (WGLE) and at the recent AAS meeting there was a workshop on "How to Be a Better Professor or Teaching Assistant for your LGBT Students". There was also a reception held by WGLE and a LGBTIQ networking dinner. I haven't seen reports about the effectiveness of these workshops and networking opportunities, but it's good to see that attempts are being made to be inclusive.

I'm less encouraged by the possibility that the number of African Americans in astronomy will rise significantly above the current number, which is very small. Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer of the AAS, admits this is a considerable challenge. There are limits to the influence that a scientific society can have. We're lucky to have one of the most famous scientists in the world in our ranks - Neil Tyson - but strong role models can only help so much. Also, Tyson is still relatively young for a renowned scientist, so many children inspired by him will not have graduated yet from school or university. This important topic is appropriate for a separate discussion, preferably led by astrophysicists like Neil Tyson and John Johnson.

Meeting Etiquette

The winter and summer meetings held by the AAS are the "largest and most logistically complex astronomy meetings in the world". To help with this complexity, the AAS included a "Guide to AAS Meeting Etiquette"in the handbook for the recent meeting. A cynic might argue that his guide is just common-sense advice for nerds with poor social skills. But, I think it's more than that, as it includes discussion of several important and subtle issues. It also acts as compensation for the lack of professional development that many scientists experience, beyond standard research skills.

The guide begins with a general statement that
"It is AAS policy that all participants in Society activities will enjoy an environment free from all forms of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation."
It provides a link to the anti-harassment policy of the AAS and a few pages later gives the text for this policy, following a letter from the current AAS president, David Helfand, titled "Harassment Will Not be Tolerated at AAS Meetings". Helfand's letter ends with:
"We must all work together to ensure an environment free of harassment so that our scholarly and collegial interactions are focused on our common mission: to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe. We can only accomplish this mission fully when we respect each other as professionals, and I call on each of you to help us in this regard."
The guide later gives some tips about asking questions during meetings:
"When asking questions of speakers, please be professional, courteous, and polite. This is especially important when questioning students presenting their dissertation research."
I think this is useful advice, especially for any older astronomers who were "broken-in" as students by aggressive questioning at talks, and who might think behavior like this is professional. Of course, it's up to the session chair to control and, if necessary, stop this sort of behavior.

The issue of "astronomical bullying" has been discussed in at least two different venues by Joan Schmelz, including a previous AAS meeting, as reported in this blog post and a talk at my institution, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. A pdf of the presentation is included here. I'm sure various forms of academic bullying occur in other scientific disciplines, and it's important for them to be addressed.

Journalists & Embargoes

The next section in the conference handbook is about journalists and embargoes. Because it isn't very long and it overlaps with my professional interests, I'll include the complete text from this section:
"If your presentation covers results that have been, or will be, submitted to Nature or Science or any other journal with a strict embargo policy, be sure you understand how that policy applies to scientific meetings. No journal wishes to hinder communication between scientists. For example, both Science and Nature state explicitly that conference presentations do not violate their embargo policies. 
But both journals also state that if your presentation covers work that has been, or will be, submitted to them, you should limit your interaction with reporters to clarifying the specifics of your presentation. As Science puts it, "We ask that you do not expand beyond the content of your talk or give copies of the paper, data, overheads, or slides to reporters." That does not mean you should be rude if a reporter asks you for such materials or poses a questions that you do not want to answer - just explain that your results are under embargo at Science or Nature, and the reporter will understand why you cannot be more forthcoming."
This is good advice, which isn't surprising considering that the AAS press officer Rick Fienberg managed to get onto Ivan Oransky's Embargo Watch honor roll, and to maintain this status by smart handling of an embargo break.

I've noticed there is sometimes confusion about Nature and Science embargoes among astronomers, and presumably other scientists as well. Some astronomers are surprised to hear they can talk about their Nature or Science papers at conferences, and post their papers to the arXiv before publication.

Blogging & Tweeting

Another section of the etiquette guide concerns blogging and tweeting, and again I'll include their text because it isn't very long and because it overlaps with my interests:
"If you blog, tweet, or otherwise post near-real-time material from the meeting online, you must follow the guidelines above concerning the use of computers, tablets, mobile phones, and AAS wireless bandwidth. 
Please do not publicly report private conversations — only scheduled presentations and public comments are fair game for blogging, tweeting, etc. 
Remember that many presentations at AAS meetings concern work that has not yet been peer-reviewed. So think twice before posting a blog entry or tweet that is critical of such work. It is helpful to receive constructive criticism during the Q&A after your talk or while standing next to your poster, but it is hurtful to be raked over the coals online before your session is even over and with no easy way to respond.
New York Times editor Bill Keller said it well. When it comes to meetings among colleagues, he explained, "We need a zone of trust, where people can say what's on their minds without fear of having an unscripted remark or a partially baked idea zapped into cyberspace. Think of it as common courtesy." "
I think their advice here is well-intentioned, even if it might give the impression to uninitiated readers that Twitter and blogs are dominated by critical and hasty commentary. I'm interested to hear if other scientific societies have guidelines for blogging and tweeting.


My conclusion is that the AAS is progressive and open-minded and is serving its members well. Feel free to add comments if I've missed some key problem areas or if you have suggestions for improvements. I am happy to pass these comments along to the AAS.

For scientists who aren't astronomers, how is your scientific society doing? For non-scientists, I hope you've enjoyed this small window into the thinking of a modern scientific society.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ScienceOnline in Three Words

Performance, feedback, revision. Those three words will be immediately familiar to fans of Baba Brinkman, including people who attended his talk and performance at the ScienceOnline2013 meeting held recently. Not only was Brinkman brilliant, but I think his words capture the spirit and motivation behind the best conference I've ever attended. (The words will also be familiar to people who read Kelly Oakes' excellent blog post about the same meeting and words. Most of my post was already written before I saw Kelly's post and we have different viewpoints, so I decided to finish this post.)

Science-lovers online and offline at the ScienceOnline meeting at North Carolina State University. Conference maestro Karyn Traphagen can be seen chatting in the background on the left. Credit: Russ Creech.

There were many outstanding aspects to the ScienceOnline meeting, the 7th one held. The organization was superb, with close attention given to minimizing typical conference distractions, like "where shall we eat", and maximizing chances for interactions between people. The "converge" sessions, similar to key-note talks, were stimulating and entertaining, and the smaller discussion sessions covered a lot of interesting material. To accommodate the many people unable to attend the meeting, the converge sessions and some of the discussion sessions were streamed live, and watch parties were organized around the world.

The food was excellent and the coffee was apparently very good. There was a quiet room where people could gather their thoughts by escaping the intense post-session discussions. New science books were curated and there were skills workshops. There were field trips before the meeting started, so the newcomers could get to know each other, and people were kept informed about late-breaking news on Twitter. For example, that's how I discovered that a spot opened up on the tour of the Duke Lemur Center, a few days before the meeting. I could go on.

Surely an important reason for this excellence is that the organizers, Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker have listened carefully to feedback given at previous conferences and revised the details many times. It's the process that Baba Brinkman uses in improving his rap performances, as explained in this video, and highlighted by blogger Joe Hanson.

Baba Brinkman performing at the converge session at ScienceOnline. Credit: Russ Creech.

I was skeptical when I first heard about an evolution rapper performing at the conference party on Thursday night, but Brinkman quickly won me over during his talk and performance at the Converge session the next morning. One highlight was "I'm a African", a rapping guide to evolution where he explains that we all came from Africa originally. He also enjoyed mocking our natural inclination to say "I'm an African" as he coached us to sing the title words properly. I won't give any more details, but I strongly encourage you to watch the video from the converge session if you weren't there, or to watch it again if you were. You can also watch him on YouTube:

The first step, of performing rap or science communication - or both, in the case of Brinkman - is important. However, I would argue that the second step, of listening to feedback and criticism, is even more important. Even though it can be difficult to hear critical comments, for science communicators and science writers it's a key part of their job.

The session Nadia Drake and I led at the meeting was driven by the desire for feedback. It was titled: "Working towards better press releases: What do writers want?" and was aimed at seeking advice from science writers. Thanks to some popular competing sessions - see below - and useful information from the meeting app, we knew that few writers were likely to attend our session, so I sent questions to science writers by email and received some excellent, detailed responses. These will be included in a future blog post. We also wrote two blog posts before the session, an introduction by me and an entertaining reply by Nadia. So, this was a more personal case of feedback and revision.

My two major concerns about the session were that I would mumble incoherently, without the crutch of powerpoint slides, and that this would result in a lack of discussion. So, I was happy and relieved that the discussion ended up being energetic and stimulating. It was mostly attended by PIOs and people who produce, rather than consume, press releases, but there were some very useful comments from writers Peter Aldhous, David Harris, and, of course, Nadia. Thanks to everyone who came and joined in.

Nadia Drake at the end of our session on press releases.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this meeting was the friendly and unpretentious attitude of the people who attended. There were many talented writers, scientists, educators and communicators at the meeting, some with substantial fan-bases, yet everybody was very welcoming to me, as a newcomer. This attitude was openly encouraged by the organisers and reinforced by details such as the lack of institutions or titles on the name badges.

At the reception to open the meeting, I met the well-known author and science writer Maryn McKenna and I mentioned that a session she was co-moderating was going to occur at the same time as my session on press releases with Nadia. I then mentioned that I hadn't met her co-moderator David Dobbs.
So, she ran off looking for him so she could introduce us. How welcoming is that? She was unable to find him, and I didn't get a chance to meet Dobbs later, but I appreciated her effort.

Readers may have seen an excellent interview that Matt Shipman did with Dobbs recently, where they discussed a number of topics about writing, including Dobb's reaction to feedback:
"CB [Shipman]: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the science community about your work? 
DD [Dobbs]: Mostly good, but I’m well aware that may be because most people like to be nice, or at least to avoid conflict, and so are more likely to say nice things than ugly things. I’m pleased, though, truly, when a scientist presses me a bit or lodges an objection or correction or difference of view or opinion. I know I’m not getting everything (anything?) as right as I’d like to, so appreciate all the critical feedback I can get. 
I’m writing about behavioral genetics right now, so count myself lucky that geneticists tend to be especially frank about their field. Alas, it’s a field that’s ludicrously complicated and in extreme turmoil, so that makes it almost impossible anyway. That’s why the book is taking a bit longer than I’d hoped."
This attitude is extremely refreshing. If people are openly receptive to feedback then they're much more likely to receive it, and then improve. For example, I feel sheepish about complaining when I see press stories that contain errors because I wonder whether writers - whom I mostly don't know very well - might be turned off by receiving criticism. We like writers to write about our stories with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, not avoid them because they don't want to hear complaints.

At ScienceOnline2013 I enjoyed meeting people who I'd interacted with on Twitter throughout the last year, including my talented co-moderator Nadia Drake, and others like Matthew FrancisEmily WillinghamMatt Shipman, and Ivan Oransky. All of these writers and scientists have different backgrounds and interests, but they share a devotion to receiving and responding to feedback. It's a lesson that many people at ScienceOnline, especially the organizers and Baba Brinkman, are great at passing onto others. I was excited and proud to be a small part of it.