Call for Proposals at the IAU Development Office

For a few years now, the International Astronomical Union has had a dedicated office to promote astronomy as a “tool” for development, to encourage astronomy activities in countries where perhaps it isn’t a very common pastime or profession. Astronomy is known to be an effective “gateway” for science education, so the idea is that promoting astronomy as a fun and inspirational activity for all will drive  people to learn more and explore, and get a bit more science goodness into their lives or that of their children. Any astronomer who’s given talks in schools, led public observing nights or participated in Stargazing Live, has stories of the enthusiasm they see in people of all ages for space, the planets, the stars and the Universe.

The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), based in South Africa and headed by .Astronomy alum Kevin Govender, leads this great initiative. Since last year, funds have been made available to support astronomy-related projects around the world, specifically in those countries without an established astronomy community or to reach communities that may not have access to astronomy resources. I was happy to play a small part in determining how those funds were allocated, and as a result the IAU has supported some really exciting and worthwhile initiatives this year.

The OAD recently issued its 2013 call for proposals for the second round of this programme, with a deadline for application of 31 August. There are three categories: Universities & Research, Children & Schools and Public Outreach. If you have an idea or a pet project that you’d like to see funded in these areas, particularly for reaching those communities that regular funding streams aren’t getting to, you should consider putting in an application.

Full details and application forms are on the OAD webpages!

Science Online: The Good, the Bad and the Crazy

In 2010, astrophysics professor Pavel Kroupa at the University of Bonn – he of the stellar Initial Mass Function - published a paper in which he highlighted problems with the Standard Model of Cosmology (the so-called ΛCDM model, of which cold dark matter is a crucial ingredient), particularly in its predictions related to environments of large spiral galaxies. In a provocative move, he cited the discrepancies between the model’s predictions and observations as evidence that ΛCDM “doesn’t work”, and that we should explore alternative theories. One of these alternatives is Modified Newtonian Dynamics, or MOND.

In the months after the publication, the University of Bonn hosted a debate on this thorny subject between Kroupa and one of the architects of the ΛCDM framework, Simon White, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching. I thought this was an excellent idea, wrote a few blog posts about the matter and posted the live blog and video of the debate.

To those that read or watched the debate, it was clear that the two scientists don’t disagree in a fundamental way - ΛCDM has proved an extremely successful framework for cosmological structure formation, but the dwarf satellite problem is generally acknowledged. Kroupa’s most important point is that the community should not ignore those observables that don’t match the predictions of ΛCDM, and he encourages scientists not to get locked into a “cold dark matter” mindset, but to explore entirely novel theories, of which MOND is one example. This discussion has been expanded and illustrated further in a blog run by Marcel Pawlowski, a member of Kroupa’s group in Bonn, the Dark Matter Crisis, now hosted on, which is run by Nature and the German edition of Scientific American.

[Read more...]

Equal Opportunities: Not Just a Women’s Issue

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, where the interwebs celebrates women in science, engineering and technology. In past years I’ve written a little something for the occasion, but as I was travelling yesterday I had to give this year a miss. Do take a look at the many posts that were written on

On the subject of women in science, I was irked today when I heard about the upcoming elections for a new Equal Opportunities officer at my institute. The Max Planck Society prides itself on its family friendly policies and equal opportunities initiatives that aim to create a level playing field for men and women, and allow us to combine a “stable social background” with our scientific careers. Each of the 80 Max Planck Institutes around Germany elect their own EO officers, who are actively involved in the hiring of new staff, provide information to female staff on institute- or Society-wide initiatives, etc. They do good and valuable work.

Here’s the catch though: only women are allowed to stand for election for these posts, and only women are allowed to vote. If I understand it correctly, this is a Society-wide rule, in no way specific to our institute or to (astro)physics. I’m quite amazed at the short sightedness of this. Not only does it effectively remove all men from the entire process of creating a level playing field for men and women – men! the majority of the scientific workforce! -, it ignores all other kinds of bias that might occur, based on nationality, religion, skin colour, whatever. It’s making equal opportunities a women’s issue rather than something for everyone to think about.

Furthermore, it’s known that women themselves are as guilty of unconscious bias as men (this recent study was a good reminder). So while it’s good to have someone around with a clear mandate to spot biases in the hiring process, there’s really no reason why this should be a woman.

The attitude among men, in my experience, typically lies somewhere between complete disinterest and active annoyance. Though there are of course exceptions, men who truly care about the diversity of their workplace and the success of everyone, many seem to feel lthat women are getting an unfair advantage these days. When I see how often they are completely sidelined from discussions of equal opportunities, work-life balance or family-friendliness, I can sometimes sympathise (though to be clear: I do not agree).

Personally I try not to give the women in science “issue” too much thought these days. As a senior postdoc, being an excellent, conscientious, enthusiastic, self-promotional, hard-working publishing monster, ideally also healthy, sane and reasonably happy, is far more important than losing sleep over diversity in my workplace (sad, I know). Still, I don’t like this exclusion of men from gender or equal opportunities debates: at best, it gives them a free pass to think this is not their problem, at worst it makes them feel actively disregarded.

[The Max Planck Society has a lot of information on its family friendly policies on its webpages, and reading last year's Annual Report, they certainly seem to be putting effort into supporting their female scientists. The report also contains lots of gender ratio figures in all areas of employment, so all the numbers are publicly available.]



One Small Step

As a 30-something, I grew up with the Moon landing firmly established in the collective mind, yet equally firmly it was a thing of the past. The names of the pioneers who made the first adventurous journeys into space and all the way to the Moon – John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin – rang familiar, but as Europeans we could never claim any of them as our national heroes as in the US. But as Armstrong’s famous words as he became the first human to step onto the lunar surface inspired the name for my blog, I feel I should write something here in respect of his passing, last week, at the age of 82.

It’s hard to imagine what the space race must have felt like to those living in that era. I gained a huge amount of appreciation for the space programme and the first astronauts (and kosmonauts!) after reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. This book, which chronicles this era of competition and discovery, talks about the early astronauts as people and as pilots, which most of them were before heading into space. Pilots were technically already flying in space, or very close to it at least, using state-of-the-art military jets, and some of the frist astronauts were disappointed that as astronauts they weren’t actually getting to “fly” anything initially. Instead, they were more or less being catapulted into space in tiny capsules and free-falling back down again. A monkey could do it. In fact, a monkey did do it.

Incidentally, human safety in space became highly topical in the wake of the Shuttle accidents, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. But compared with the safety of the test pilots who became the first astronauts, space travel wasn’t so risky.

To get a good feel of what it might have been like to witness the first Moon landings from here on Earth, I recommend watching The Dish. It’s a super sweet film set in the Australian town of Parkes, which hosts a well-know radio telescope that becomes a hub of excitement as the Moon landings approach. It’s really funny and it left me feeling a little bit of the wonder and amazement that the those witnessing it from their living rooms.

I’ve never been quite sure where I stand on human spaceflight. In the last week, many have talked about what a shame it is we haven’t visited the Moon in such a long time, or explored further afield in the Solar System. Should we send humans to Mars? It would undoubtedly be an awesome achievement and a huge inspiration to all here on Earth. But the cost of human missions compared with robotic ones is enormous. There’s also an ethical question: how do we ensure that we don’t interfere with the solar system’s own ecosystem by going there? How do we prevent contamination of these other worlds, that may be even more fragile than our own? This is an important discussion to have, particularly in the context of human spaceflight, but for robotic landers as well.

But it’s clear that, without the courage of early pioneers like Neil Armstrong, who continued to inspire many people all over the world long after they walked on the Moon, we might not be having these debates at all.

Peer review, Open Access and the Arxiv

In recent months it’s started to look like the UK is getting serious about open access: several high profile scientists and members of the government have spoken out in support of making publicly funded research openly available. Yesterday Science Minister David Willetts announced plans to enforce open access in the UK by 2014 in an interview with The Guardian:

Under the scheme, research papers that describe work paid for by the British taxpayer will be free online for universities, companies and individuals to use for any purpose, wherever they are in the world.

It’s everything we ever wanted! Or is it?

The catch lies in the implementation of such a scheme. Publishing still costs some money, and several models are commonly discussed in the context of open access. The proposed plans in the UK seem to envisage a “gold model”, where the publication costs are transferred to the science community, who could face charges of ~£2000 for the publication of a paper, which will then be freely available to anyone and everyone. No additional funds will be made available in grants to pay for such charges, so scientists face an additional financial burden just to get their work published.

A few thousand here and there may seem like a drop in an ocean where billions are spent on research every year. But at the level of individual groups this is a non-trivial amount of money. Here at MPIA we were informed of a budget shortfall this year, and asked to consider publishing in cheaper journals like MNRAS to keep costs down. Incidentally, as long as the expensive journal has a higher impact factor and is more visible in the US community, and search committees are told to care about such things, I will continue to submit to the expensive journals. Senior professors can take a stand and refuse to pay publication charges, but at the PhD and postdoc level we just can’t afford that luxury. And if you happen to work at Queen Mary in London you may be screwed on that front even if you have a permanent position.

I think it’s great that this debate has become so high profile, and that people at a high level are aware of the benefits of public access to research. But there’s some grumbling about the extra costs involved, and the sanity of introducing such measures unilaterally in one country. Some complain that freeing up UK research only will give a competitive advantage to the rest of the world.

In astronomy > 90% of all literature ends up on the Arxiv so in a sense we have dealt with our open access problem already. I had an interesting twitter exchange with Peter Coles, Mike Merrifield, Andy Lawrence and Matt Burleigh (his blog post on the subject here) after the news from the UK was announced, about ways to incorporate the stamp of approval lent by peer review into the Arxiv system (I see Peter has written about it too). I grumbled, and they came up with an idea.

[If only they'd been at .Astronomy! We could have had the whole service set up already for a trial.]

Papers submitted to Arxiv could be voluntarily submitted for peer review, which is provided by some kind of independent service where reviewers are paid a small amount of money for their effort. As the case is now, the referee can vote to reject the paper. If it’s accepted, the Arxiv submission could gain some sort of mark of endorsement on the webpage to inform readers of the quality of the research. In parallel, authors could still post their conference proceedings or other non-refereed writings to the Arxiv as they do now. As Peter writes, such a system requires some organisation and funding but there are no fundamental barriers (besides influence from the journals of course) to the implementation.

Who will take the lead?