Astronomers push for a more diverse, inclusive community

In a move to bolster the astronomy community’s efforts to expand the representation and participation of underrepresented minorities in the field, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) last week endorsed the vision of an inclusive community that emerged from the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy meeting. In addition to the endorsed vision statement, that meeting led to specific suggestions for helping departments and institutions improve diversity and inclusion—including strategies to create an inclusive environment, remove obstacles that prevent some students from continuing on to graduate programs, and broaden involvement in making decisions that affect the community.

Lori Feaga, an associate research scientist in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, College Park, who was not involved in drafting the recommendations, is encouraged by AAS’s support. She is involved in promoting diversity at her institution, and the endorsement “means that somebody is listening,” she says. Because of the large presence AAS has in the astronomy community, astronomy departments working toward diversity can point to the endorsement and know that “we are not on our own here,” she says. Keivan Stassun, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who helped organize the Inclusive Astronomy meeting and write the recommendations, believes that AAS’s endorsement of the meeting’s vision “does more than affirm [and] legitimize,” he says. “It really brings the issues of diversity and inclusion out of the margins and into the center.”

The next step, Stassun says, is for the astronomy community at all levels, from the individual to institutions to funding agencies, to identify and implement the items from the recommendations that can add to their diversity efforts. Supporting diversity and inclusion are long-term projects, he acknowledges, and he’s not sure at what milestone the community can declare victory. But, the fact that diversity is in the conversation and that the community is willing to move forward to achieve it is a victory in itself, he says.

Diversity has long been on the minds of some in the astronomy community. In 1992, the first meeting in what became a series of Women in Astronomy meetings helped connect female astronomers, and it showed them that there were more women in the community than they thought, says Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and an organizer of that meeting. The number of white women in astronomy has increased since the first Women in Astronomy meeting, but, Urry says, that “doesn’t mean we made equal progress on other issues.” As the “Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Recommendations” vision statement notes, “[t]he demographics of [the United States] are changing, but professional Astronomy is not keeping pace.” In light of the persistent underrepresentation of certain groups, a number of astronomy professors active in diversity efforts drew inspiration from the success of the Women in Astronomy meetings, resulting in the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy meeting. Among the 160 attendees were members of the AAS leadership council, sociologists, policy makers, and community leaders. The meeting organizers plan to hold another Inclusive Astronomy meeting in a few years to check on progress and update the recommendations.

One recommendation that has already gained movement is the call for universities to reduce the importance of GRE scores, both for the general and physics subject exams, as application requirements. The meeting attendees recognized that GRE test scores were major barriers to diversity, Stassun says. Data discussed at the meeting showed that, in addition to being financially burdensome, GRE scores are strongly correlated with gender and race such that using a cutoff score to sort applicants lowers the number of women and minorities admitted. Moreover, studies reported that GRE scores are poor predictors of an applicant’s ultimate success in the field. In other words, relying on GRE scores to determine which students can proceed to graduate programs puts many underrepresented minority students at a disadvantage without offering any benefits to the field. 

As an alternative, presenters at the 2015 Inclusive Astronomy meeting offered suggestions for approaches to evaluate applicants holistically, including using interviews. After the meeting, Urry, who was the president of AAS at the time, wrote an open letter encouraging all astronomy Ph.D. programs to reduce the weight of GRE scores in their admissions evaluations or make the exams optional. “I’m really excited about getting to a place where everybody is welcomed in the profession,” she says.

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