Weak Justifications

I am at a meeting at an undisclosed location, and concurrently the weak lensing folk are having a workshop on future surveys, so I am slumming at their sessions in my copious spare time.

This morning Tony Tyson is leading a discussion on the technical aspects of the surveys, with LSST as the working example.
That is all well and good, and it is actually extremely interesting to hear people talk about the nitty gritty – I think it is good for theorists to hear about what it is really like down in the trenches, as it were.

But, the really interesting aspect is the discussion diverged into career issues, and how the large collaborations can attract postdoctoral researchers to work on “must-do” medium term technical tasks, like software pipelines and science simulations, without destroying their career paths, or, better still, while actively improving their career options.

Now, it is true that working on such projects makes people very employable outside of astronomy, but there is also some truth that it can make it harder to get faculty level research positions.
There was a very lively discussion on how the situation in astronomy compares with other fields (specifically particle physics) and Lupton made the interesting point that there are relatively few research institutions in astronomy (the comparison was Fermilab for physicists) where there are permanent positions with primary focus on long term technical aspects of the research. In principle universities do, and should, hire people doing this, but it is a proportionately small niche within research universities, while it is a large part of the research effort.

This is not a new debate, nor are the solutions particularly novel, but the emergence of the discussion and the intensity of the focus on these particular career issues was very illuminating.

I don’t know the solution(s).
PS: [nor apparently how to finish a sentence while live-blogging...]
I do get the definite impression that all plausible solutions involve getting significantly more money, and that there is a real need to have a larger permanent pool of researchers who are more task oriented than your typical university research faculty with multiple other obligations (and a somehat different role in general) and there is a need for this to not be a constant jitter of soft-money year-to-year contract positions.
Some of this is served by places like CfA, STSCI and parts of some NASA centers, but not enough.


  1. #1 Eli Rabett
    July 16, 2013

    Astronomy has several advantages. First a large amateur community, second a slot (usually only one) in almost every non-research institution (which means the position is funded by the college) and third observation does not require that one be at the telescope or even at a research institution. Astronomy has socialized observation, the significant resources are held in common.


    The problem becomes keeping those at NRHUs (non research habituated universities) in the loop. For this technology is ready via MOOGMs (Massive Open Online Group Meetings), broadcasting of seminars, conversations on Skype and more.

    Does the field have the appetite?

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurðsson
    July 17, 2013

    I think so, a number of “Workshops Without Walls” have been held over the last couple of years, with some success, and several places have started providing webcasts of workshops and major colloquia/seminar series. Also seeing a number of invited and contributed talks done by webcast, with mixed success.

    I also know of a number of collaborations using webcons, some on moderately large scales.

    I think the hardest problem will be for isolated researchers to find the time flexibility to participate in live events, though archived broadcast providing for asynchrous passive attendance (with asynchrous web feedback in some cases) can help a lot.