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Astronomy Expands Its Scope From the Heavens to Humans

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Maier’s post tapped a vein among some nonbinary scientists, who felt the sting of being overlooked. After all, if you’re a nonbinary person, it’s hard to read that line and not feel like you are not significant, yourself. “Part of me is like, ‘This is normal,” says Rasmussen, who is disappointed but not surprised by research language like this—they grew up on this planet, after all. “A newer part of me says, ‘This is not right. This is harmful. This is excluding me. This is excluding my friends.’”

Maier didn’t expect the tweet to attract so much notice. “I made the tweet, I fell asleep, and I woke up and had more notifications on Twitter than I had ever seen in my life,” says Maier. “It was a spotlight that I wasn’t really expecting.” The post garnered a couple dozen retweets, and more than 150 likes. Beck Strauss, an independent researcher who studies planetary geophysics, reached out to Maier about writing up a rebuttal.

“HELLO friends, it has been a wild couple of hours & I am marveling at the power of twitter,” Maier posted in response. “In any case, if anyone is interested in being added to a group DM to legitimately discuss the possibility of turning this into a white paper, please respond to this tweet or DM me!”

Soon, Maier was messaging with interested parties, including Rasmussen, and discussing a potential paper for the decadal survey panel. Maier’s post, Rasmussen says, “brought us out of the woodwork.”

The three and their other coauthors worked on writing up concrete ways the field could improve for nonbinary people. Among the changes they suggested in their paper: Asking people to volunteer their gender identity for demographic research (rather than, say, asking an ickily-named automated program called SexMachine to infer it), paying social scientists to help do research in astronomy, and anonymizing telescope proposals to minimize gender bias by putting all the applicants’ ideas on the same footing.

The authors are mostly graduate students (for many, this is their first published paper), but their early-career ideas and insights will reach astronomy’s highest echelons—thanks to the human panel. “There’s just so many more people out there caring about these issues than I thought,” says Maier.

The human panel will consider issues beyond gender, too. One of the papers is about how to create “realistic job training” for astronomy students, most of whom won’t become professors in the overcrowded field. Another group sent along ideas for combating unconscious bias in areas like recruitment, hiring, choosing guest speakers, and evaluating scientific proposals, based on methods the Space Telescope Science Institute has employed and tested. Other researchers presented a path and rationale for dropping the GRE, which they argued doesn’t accurately predict a student’s success in graduate school but does show “statistically significant score differentials across gender, race, and citizenship, with notably lower scores for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Nave Americans, and women of all races as compared to White and Asian American men.” The authors of one paper suggest that the field invest in hiring astronomy faculty at minority-serving institutions, while another recommends making astronomy careers more accessible to people with disabilities.

Several of the papers deal with the conflict over Maunakea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians where astronomers want to build a big instrument called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). For years, Native Hawaiian opponents, who see the scope as a colonialist intrusion, have clashed with scientists who want to move forward with construction anyway. In 2015, Hawaii’s state supreme court revoked TMT’s construction permit, and then restored it in 2018. Last year, protesters camped at the base of the site for months, blocking building access.

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