inclusive astronomy 2: postmortem

willb/ October 18, 2019/ Research Blog/ 0 comments

The inclusive astronomy conference was originally held in 2015, at a time when tensions were boiling over in the field. it was attended by a variety of astronomy-lovers who sought change in a field that (to this day) hides the ugliness of colonialism, racism, misogyny, and LGBTQ-phobia behind a veneer of impartial, apolitical scientific inquiry. My personal hero, Frank Tavares, was one such astronomer. Frank described the first conference as a “genuine flailing towards… a better community” in personal correspondence.

The product of the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy conference was the Nashville Recommendations, a document containing four broad goals for the field:

  1. Removing barriers to access
  2. Creating inclusive climates
  3. Improving inclusion and access to power, policy, and leadership
  4. Establishing a community of inclusive practice

Later that year, the astronomy community was rattled with a series of previously unrevealed sexual harassment cases (beginning at UC Berkley) pertaining to high status astronomers.

“…it was clear some people had never really grappled with social justice issues before, while a lot of folks had been dealing with these things their whole careers… So I think there was some frustration born out of seeing that play out. But the biggest sentiment… was that this was something long, long overdue that was finally airing out some really serious issues”

— Frank Tavares, on the first inclusive astronomy conference

With calls for another meeting in 2017 largely left unanswered, and the 2020 Decadal survey looming, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) announced plans to host the second Inclusive Astronomy conference (IA2) in October 2019. Due to a limited venue size and scholarship pool, the conference organizers decided to use the entrofy algorithm to accept a cohort of attendees whose demographics reflected the pre-registrant pool. This backfired, in part due to the vagueness of the demographic questions posed at pre-registration which many felt replicated the same biases the conference sought to address, and resulted in numerous astronomers publicly foregoing attendance.

“there was really little to no barrier to entry [into IA1]. I was able to have a poster on my summer research project despite being a first year in undergrad”

— ibid

Into this turmoil was I thrown, prompted to pre-register by my advisor and completely unaware of the broad context of the conference or the conflict surrounding the selection process. I received my invitation in isolation, confusedly read the IA2 Letter to the Community, and made travel plans to attend the conference with my labmate Karina and our advisor Kate. I’ve written previously about the stresses of aforementioned travel planning, so you’ll be happy to know I arrived at STScI in Baltimore safely on Sunday the 13th. From there, the next two days would entail two eight hour long marathons of presentations, punctuated by numerous coffee breaks.

Unlike the frustration Frank describes noticing at IA1, the tension at IA2 had reached a more evolved state. The attendees, largely graduate students and faculty were onboard. The multitude of presentations highlighted the problems facing underrepresented groups in astronomy and the need for improved data collection on their existence and experience. The frustration became apparent as the conversation, beginning with the Q&A sessions proceeding each talk, and the discussion sections following each day, pivoted immediately to the question “what, then, do we do about it?” The speakers, and the gathering as a whole, did not have the answers (not that they should be expected to). The question became all consuming for Karina and I, who at many points through the conference shared exasperated “what can we even do?” We saw the problems we’ve faced projected onto the splash of all astronomy, but there was no consensus on how to turn off the projector. This didn’t feel like the place for two marginalized undergrads with no institutional power.

It wasn’t, really, and that’s alright. I think that the grads and faculty, however faulty the selection process, were put in a collective space where they were open to hearing the issues and allowed to be frustrated at the lack of definite solutions. How they, and those who couldn’t attend, direct that frustration is up to them. Personally, the event was draining, confusing, and disheartening. I felt genuinely powerless, both to address the conflict inherent in my selection and decision to attend and my ability to work towards building a more inclusive field. I met some awesome astronomers, visited Baltimore (and the famous Red Emma’s) for the first time, and learned a lot about the state of my profession and what issues are beginning to be addressed. In the next few weeks I hope to collect my fellows in the astronomy major here at Amherst and compile our grievances in the hope of directing them towards actionable goals we – together – can achieve.

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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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