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?



Science: Not Just A Girl Thing

A few days ago, the European Commission launched a new project aimed at getting teenage girls interested in science as part of its Women in Research and Innovation initiative. It’s called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, it has a snazzy website with lots of pretty girls and make up and colours and fun. They also released a teaser video that essentially manages to alienate everyone working in science: men, women, young, old. I wasn’t at all impressed when I saw it a few days ago, posted online by a colleague who was invited to the launch event in Brussels, and I don’t think I’ve seen such a universally negative response to any such campaign, ever. Here it is:

I’m amazed at the way the Commission managed to screw this up. I’ve attended an EC-sponsored “women in research” event in the past and it was clearly well-motivated, researched, and featured some excellent speakers. What happened here?

The tag line first of all is just weird. Science, “a girl thing”, really? And going by the video, by “girl” they mean a 17-year old in stilettos and a short skirt blowing kisses at the camera? I’ll repeat what I wrote recently:

When in doubt, replace “woman” with “old guy”, “non-white person” or “disabled person” and if that feels wrong, just don’t go there

Let’s try that for a minute. “Science: It’s a Black Thing!”. “Science: It’s a Jewish Thing!”. “Science: It’s a Thing for People in Wheelchairs!”. Yeah, doesn’t sound right, does it?

The video is extremely slick so I assume it was produced by a marketing or PR firm, at considerable expense. It features a nerdy guy in a lab coat who can’t help himself but ogle lots of smiley girls in tiny outfits. And there are lots of close ups of make up – lipstick, nail polish, powders etc. What does this even mean? You don’t have to be a barefaced sourpuss to work in science? (Oh right, thanks!) Or are they saying that instead of boring stuff like astrophysics and curing cancer you could be developing the awesome next generation of eyeshadow compacts? I understand I’m not the target audience for this video, but I do think we should show our smart young boys and girls a little more respect than this.

Why did they even bother with a “trailer”, and what audience did they expect to reach that a video-less campaign could not? The only things that really go viral on YouTube are dogs with stupid faces, dancing babies and Scarlett Johansson’s bum. The video was pulled from the site, presumably after they realised that everyone was slating it online, which I don’t understand either. Was this backlash really a surprise to them? Did they not show it to any scientists, male or female, before the launch? Why did they not stand behind it, and have a conversation about it? Much as I hate the video myself, controversies are not always a bad thing if they get a public debate going.

It’s all a little baffling. The project’s website actually contains some good stuff: profiles of European female scientists, a description of real-world challenges, and the events may well be really good too. The accompanying press release has lots of numbers and graphs about the under-representation of women in scientific careers. The Commission invests a huge amount of money into scientific research. They are in a perfect position to make a real difference. How did they fail so badly with this?

Curt Rice, who is Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø in Norway and who says sensible things about science and gender and open access, tweeted that he was on the expert group for the project, who are now preparing a statement. I look forward to learning a bit more about the background of this thing. The twitter hashtag to follow is #sciencegirlthing, and I expect this will rumble on for a while longer….

For dotAstronomy, Amanda Bauer has already proposed to make an alternative video showing some real women in science as another one of her creative/musical hacks. I hope it happens!

[Update, 26/06: Here's the statement from members of the expert advisory panel. It doesn't really add anything interesting, I guess they aren't actually allowed to comment on what happened behind the scenes. But I do agree that (i) fundamentally the discussion is important and should continue, and (ii) the Commission essentially has the right intentions.]