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From the Executive Office

Monday, August 8, 2016 - 15:19

Supporting Our Community by Convening

One of astronomy’s great strengths is that our community feels like a village. Villages are powerful social units: large enough to garner substantial resources through cooperation, yet small enough for everyone to feel connected. Villages are communities that protect, nurture, and support their members through shared effort and responsibility. I don’t want to take the analogy too far, but I’ve always found the AAS to be a village of sorts, with individuals contributing their efforts to make the whole of astronomy — all of the astronomical sciences — better. This engagement is made easier when the AAS itself demonstrates a commitment to our community. As we have grown and improved both our financial position and our ability to do more for the community, we can now support our “village” more effectively. We continue to actively improve our journals, meetings, and various other activities while figuring out new ways to help as well.

Late last year the National Radio Astronomy Observatory asked us to co-sponsor the next Women in Astronomy (WIA) conference. NRAO’s director, Tony Beasley, noticed that about six years had passed since the last one, and he felt the prior meetings — held in 1992, 2003, and 2009 — had significant positive impact. No individual, group, or institution is responsible for regularly organizing this conference. Our conversation led to the AAS partnering with NRAO to convene WIA IV next summer in Austin, Texas. The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) has formed a preliminary organizing committee on the Society’s behalf, and work is under way to develop the conference program, with intersectionality as a central theme. I’m looking forward to attending, as I’ve been to two of the three earlier WIA meetings and really valued them and the contacts I made there. Watch for an announcement soon.

Last year saw the first-ever Inclusive Astronomy conference, which our current Past President, Meg Urry; former Past President, David Helfand; AAS Deputy Executive Officer, Joel Parriott; and I attended. It was an invigorating and eye-opening conference, and it resulted in an important “vision statement,” which the AAS has endorsed, as well as draft recommendations to serve as a roadmap for equity and inclusion in astronomy. Through Meg’s leadership, the AAS subsequently convened a Diversity Summit to discuss specifics of what the AAS could do now and in the future to address both diversity and inclusion, and we hope to continue this dialog with our community on a regular basis.

Thinking through the importance of these two conferences made me wonder what similarly themed meetings were yet to be held or even formulated. I also wondered how the AAS, an organization in existence since 1899, might bring some degree of regularity — even security — to conferences like WIA and IA so that they could be convened every few years as long as they are needed. I think it is important to plan for these meetings for the future. They are too important and too impactful to leave to chance, and they support our mission, our members, and everyone else working in the astronomical sciences.

My vision for the AAS supporting conferences like these is not about dictating or even establishing the content of the meetings, but about eliminating the logistical and organizational hurdles that might otherwise prevent them from happening. With the Society providing the institutional resources and infrastructure, organizing such conferences would be less of a burden on the astronomical community.

Let me be more precise: if you, your colleagues, or your institution want to organize a meeting like WIA or IA — a meeting not about our science, but about our community — let me know, and let’s figure out how to move forward. Having co-sponsors or co-organizers, like our arrangement with NRAO for WIA IV, is highly beneficial. Involving relevant AAS committees and/or working groups, like we’re doing with our CSWA for WIA IV, is also good. Convening such meetings on a cadence that does not dilute their impact or limit attendance is important; with more than one such conference per year, all who might want to attend likely will not be able to do so. Except when there’s a real crisis that urgently needs addressing, having one similarly themed conference every 5 or 6 years seems about right — often enough to make recommendations, await their implementation and impact, gauge their effectiveness and the community’s response, and ultimately formulate new recommendations while trumpeting the successes of prior ones.

The AAS stands ready to help our community regularly discuss not only scientific topics of great importance, but also other topics of great importance to our community of scientists. Please contact me, our elected leaders, or dedicated volunteers on relevant committees and working groups with your ideas. I look forward to WIA IV next year, to another conference on diversity and inclusion like the inaugural IA meeting, and other such conferences that nobody has even formulated yet. The Society has an important role to play in galvanizing our community through its unique position in the discipline. We stand ready as an organization to do more to help our village — the village of the astronomical sciences — succeed in every way.

Kevin B. Marvel
Executive Officer
American Astronomical Society (AAS)
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