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President's Column: Alphas & Omegas

Monday, August 12, 2013 - 15:22

This time of year encompasses endings and beginnings. For those in academia, the end of summer — that summer in which so much research was going to get done — looms; the hecticity (if I may be allowed one neologism) of the new term is about to flood in. For some observatories, summer shutdown tasks are being completed, and for all those tied to the federal fiscal year, budget juggling is under way. Unfortunately, the Congress, which is supposed to have all the budget appropriations bills for the new fiscal year completed by October 1, decided not to bother and went on vacation. The lack of seriousness with which they treat this solemn responsibility leaves all of us in unproductive uncertainty. It’s clearly going to be another “interesting” year.

Our Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, is at a beginning — of his well-deserved sabbatical leave during which he will be doing research in Finland for his book on Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander, the Prussian astronomer who published the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) catalog of a third of a million stars more than 150 years ago — the early dawn of “big data”. Kevin will also be teaching a science policy course at the University of Arizona and a non-profit management course at New Mexico State. We will welcome Kevin back in time for the January meeting in Washington, DC, which promises to be one of the largest AAS meetings ever. The Vice Presidents are putting the final touches on a packed program for which the abstract deadline — be forewarned — is only a scant seven weeks away.

The AAS Washington office is also at a beginning — having just moved into their new, far-less-cramped and purpose-built quarters one floor down in the AGU building just north of Dupont Circle. The space became available when the AGU outsourced their journal operations, and we jumped at the opportunity to solve our long-term space problems on favorable financial terms and with minimum disruption. If you find yourself in the nation’s capital, drop in for a visit.

Another exciting Washington beginning is the nomination of astrophysicist France Cordova to be the next director of the National Science Foundation. Let’s hope her confirmation is less contentious than many the Senate has been dealing with this term.

Speaking of journals, I’d like to thank those of you who took the time to write in response to my last column concerning the AAS publications and how we might make them even more useful by linking data to articles. I was encouraged by the amount of support this notion received, particularly among the younger members of our Society. In that vein, I would like to highlight here a relevant upcoming workshop on archival data that will be held during the Washington meeting, sponsored by the AAS Employment Committee.

We are also at the beginning of a new initiative I reported on earlier — an AAS Agents program designed to enhance both the Society’s service to its members and its effectiveness in support of our discipline. Consider volunteering to be the AAS Agent for your institution by registering at But you’ll have to hurry if you want a shot at the coveted title Agent 007, as it’s the next one up.

Returning to the depressing topic of Washington politics, it is easy to get inured to the dysfunctionality. However, I am encouraged by the ideas and energy our members and fellow scientists are willing to invest in continuing to fight for rational science policy. Our Communicating With Washington effort received expressions of interest from 60 volunteers in the most recent sign-up period. This program, started under the leadership of our highly energetic Bahcall Fellow Bethany Johns, will be carried forward by our brand new Bahcall Fellow Josh Shiode (congratulations, Josh, and welcome aboard). In addition, we have recently joined an effort led by the APS and involving many other scientific societies to set up a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, “Science Counts”, which will work toward educating voters directly about the invaluable role federally funded science plays in the future of the nation. As Carl Sagan once noted in a different context (comparing science and science fiction), the story describing the payoff on our federal research investment is spectacular and has the added advantage that it’s true!

In hopes this month brings you satisfying endings and exciting beginnings,


David J. Helfand
Columbia University