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President's Column

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 14:53

As I noted in my opening remarks at the 221st meeting of the Society in Long Beach, the state of the AAS — unlike that of the nation — is strong. We ended the year with a small positive balance in the Society's account for the fourth year in a row. Our collection of journals — the highest impact journals in the world in our field — is in even stronger financial shape. Our semi-annual conferences exceed expected attendance levels every time we meet, and we are exploiting the Executive Office's outstanding meeting organization resources to support more of our Division Meetings and to launch the Topical Conference Series with three smaller, focused meetings this summer. We will have an expanded public policy presence with the recruitment of Joel Parriott to the full-time role of Director of Public Policy, and our education and public outreach activities continue to grow in size and impact.

This enviable position of strength affords us the opportunity to examine many of the things we do for our members to see if we can do them even better. It also allows us to work on some of the issues in our discipline where we face notable challenges in the research funding trajectory, in facilities access, and with employment/demographic issues. In the months ahead, you will see initiatives in several of these areas. The Employment Committee, chaired by Kelle Cruz, has a new Strategic Plan which promises future benefits for our members. As another example, many of you who publish in our journals will receive shortly a survey designed to gather input for the upcoming AAS Journals Workshop in April. Please respond!  As we step into a future of open access claims, purely digital publishing, grant funding challenges, and a rapidly changing global landscape, it is important that we have a broad cross-section of views when charting our journals' future.  And our efforts to educate Congress on the importance of our nation's research investment will remain at the top of the agenda.

Those of you who attended the Public Policy session on Wednesday evening in Long Beach may well have a heightened appreciation of the importance of such education efforts. We were pleased to welcome two members of the California delegation, Representatives Judy Chu and Dana Rohrbacher, to spend time with our members. Rep. Chu's district includes Pasadena (meaning Caltech and part of JPL), while Rep. Rohrbacher is Vice Chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the House. The exchange of views with the audience was, diplomatically speaking, lively. One of the ancillary issues raised by Rep. Rohrbacher was climate change. In fact, at its meeting a few days earlier, the Council had voted to endorse the American Geophysical Union's Statement on this subject which, again, put diplomatically, is somewhat at odds with the Congressman's views. I provide here the rationale that led to this Council action.

In 2004, the AAS Council endorsed the American Geophysical Union's position statement on Climate Change ( This endorsement was not without controversy; a significant number of AAS members felt this subject was not wholly within our field of expertise, and thus we had no place as a Society speaking publicly on the matter. A few members even threatened to resign in protest. The following year, the Society issued a statement supporting the teaching of evolution and the removal of "intelligent design" from the nation's classrooms; arguably, this issue is even further from our field of expertise, but fewer objections were raised (

Since their initial statement in December 2003, the AGU has twice updated and re-issued their Climate statement, most recently in February 2012, based on the 2007 IPCC report and subsequent developments; a copy of the current version can be found here:  It was my strong belief that the time had come for us to re-affirm our Society's support for a scientific approach to the issue of global climate change.

Nearly 30 years ago, I became fascinated with paleoclimatology while doing research for a course I have offered at Columbia entitled "The Universal Timekeeper: Reconstructing History Atom by Atom" which explores the use of stable and radioactive isotopes to understand everything from art forgeries and archeology to the history of human diet and paleoclimate, as well as the obvious astronomical applications (age and formation of the solar system, stellar and galactic evolution, etc.). I have read a significant amount of the primary and secondary literature on the subject of climate change ever since, and have discussed it extensively with my Earth Science colleagues at Columbia. I have also given many lectures on the subject, both in classes and to the general public.

Despite not being a "climate scientist," I do not feel like a fraud. First of all, there are a number of aspects of this complex, multi-disciplinary problem that fall squarely within the realm of astronomy: solar variations, precession of the equinoxes, obliquity cycles and the changing ellipticity of the Earth's orbit. Second, much of the relevant physics is a part of the graduate education of most astronomers: radiative transfer, fluid dynamics, numerical modeling, etc. Most importantly, however, our fundamental approach to interacting with the world — collecting reproducible (often large) datasets using state-of-the-art detectors, employing sound statistical analysis, reconstructing unreachably remote (for us in space, for geologists in time) phenomena — and our approach to understanding the world through models based on the physics involved, are highly congruent with the modus operandi of earth scientists. (Even our sociology is similar — after some experimentation among the science departments at Columbia, it was clear that the astronomers and the geologists threw the best parties.)

We live in a media environment where pseudo-science and science get equal time (when science is lucky). The lack of basic quantitative reasoning skills among politicians, journalists, and the general public — and the deep anti-science undertone of much of our culture — are, in my view, a serious threat to our civilization. It is thus incumbent upon us to speak out in defense of science. We (at least most of us) are not economists, sociologists, or politicians, so while we may well have our individual views on what actions should be taken in response to the changing climate, it is not our role as a professional society to pontificate on such matters. But the AGU statement is carefully circumscribed — it sticks to the science and recognizes the uncertainties. In my view, it would be an abdication of our responsibility to the public that funds us and (all too occasionally) looks to us for expert advice if we declined to take a stance on this crucially important issue.

The text of our resolution appears elsewhere in this Newsletter. Last year, the Sustainability Committee put together an excellent session at the AAS meeting on teaching — and talking about — climate change. I hope that more such sessions will appear at upcoming meetings.

In closing, I will note one other remark from my opening address in Long Beach which highlights the only area in which our Society is doing worse than the nation: voter apathy. We have an excellent slate of candidates for AAS officers and councilors for 2013 who have agreed to lend their time and energy to the support of the Society and our profession. Please expend five minutes of your time and energy today and vote before the deadline of 31 January. Thank you.

With best wishes to all for a productive and enjoyable new year,


David J. Helfand
Columbia University
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