What comes next in Astronomy — Part 1

I’m going to assume, that before you started reading this you know about the abuse that we create and endure in academia. It isn’t a parasite along for the ride, but deeply ingrained in our day to day work. We pretend that it horrifies us, but we have codified it. Academia has become the perfect shelter and breeding ground for predators, sociopaths, and malcontents. It poisons our endeavors and our community. It can no longer be the status quo. The bar for becoming a creator of scientific ideas should not be enduring harassment, outrageous demands (100 hour work week springs to mind), the marginalization of one’s community and family, and the destruction of health.

We really beat it out of people, the love of creation.

This abuse outs in a horrifyingly diverse set of ways. This week our focus is on sexual harassment, as two (more) deeply ugly accounts of harassers have hit the news. They aren’t the first, and they most certainly will not be the last. Sexual harassment and assault are perhaps one of the more common ways that this poisoned culture is exposed because of the demographics of our field. We skew towards having more men than women, and there is increasing balance as you move in the junior ranks. We live in a society steeped with the patriarchy, with the sexualization of women on all fronts, with the abuse of those less powerful than ourselves. The encounters frequently will be senior men in positions of power with more junior women.

This is not a generational problem. We see this behavior in the old and the young. And it is not a gender problem. It is a systemic and structural problem. I would suggest that we have not had this conversation yet about racial harassment because we have such a small number of senior scientists of color. The climate is still actively hostile to anyone who isn’t white in such a way that the conversation is not even close to occurring. Yet I have spoken with countless colleagues and students who experience racism daily, and hourly, in our hallowed halls of academia. The abuse is happening, it just hasn’t yet hit the front pages.

We ask why we don’t have Black, Latinx, or Indiginous colleagues but the answer is simple. We chase them out. Our trans colleagues, our disabled colleagues — We have found the vocabulary of “safe space” but we have not even started to comprehend why our current system can never create that.

This state affairs is unacceptable to me. I will share over the next several days a few ideas to start us moving forwards. I’m grateful for the conversations that have been enabled across our field by those sharing their stories of abuse. Now we, as a community, must honor that bravery by confronting the culture that creates this abusive environment. We have to make active change. It will be in our groups and labs, in our departments, and in our universities. A lot of it will be hard. Remember that people who move into positions of power are usually content with the current system because it has worked to their advantage.

Our current violently hierarchical system of scientific work is not a required part of scientific revolutionary thought. Please join with me in dismantling it and rebuilding an Astronomy (and academic) community where we all can thrive.

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