Government shutdown undermines America's largest astronomy conference


The SOFIA telescope, in the photo, should be taken to the conference. This will not happen due to the government's disengagement.
Photo: NASA / Jim Ross

As the US government's stall drags on, scientists begin to see the effects of closure firsthand.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) estimated that 300 to 450 people, or 10 to 15 percent of those enrolled, could not attend their astronomy conference in Seattle this week, although that number may be a low estimate. Scientists have reported standing at the last minute for conversations that should be given by colleagues off duty and noted the cancellation of important sessions led by NASA.

"There is a sense of sadness at not having so many of our colleagues here to talk about things," said John O 'Meara, chief scientist at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, who is currently at the conference, told Gizmodo. "We are all struggling to give lectures to them, which diminishes the quality of the event."

The government has been partially closed since December 22, when President Trump refused to sign any bill for money without funds for a border wall. Non-essential staff in agencies whose funding has expired have been waived. This means that NASA officials, for example, can not meet their professional obligations, including attending the AAS conference.

Gizmodo has heard stories of non-NASA scientists attending presentations on behalf of several absent speakers; field trips canceled for NASA experiments, such as the SOFIA telescope, a retired Boeing 747 that functions as an aerial observatory; and a general cloud over the conference. The meeting would have been the first chance for the team behind the TESS exoplanet hunting mission to announce its latest findings to the broader scientific community, but many of its scientists are off duty.

O & # 39; Meara should cover two of his fellow NASA lecturers on the concept of the LUVOIR telescope. He was able to deliver one of the sessions to another collaborator, but said he felt a strange cover for the project's chief engineer, Matt Bolcar, of NASA.

"I am not the chief engineer of LUVOIR," said O & # 39; Meara. "It's kind of weird to give me your lecture, but we need to get them there."

Sources noted that ASAs and astronomers have struggled to ensure that the conference runs smoothly and that the shuffling remains beneath the surface. The AAS made efforts to broadcast its plenary sessions and raised a policy prohibiting co-authors from submitting research so that the co-authors could replace the first potentially liberal authors. It allows subscribers to create posters online and find ways to hold some sessions virtually at a later date. This includes NASA's prefecture, one of the conference's most-attended talks, which was canceled.

"At first glance, everything will be fine," Jessie Christiansen, the science vice president of NASA Exoplanet at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute and the California Institute of Technology, told Gizmodo. "It is a pity. The timing is really disappointing for the people who were working hard at it. "Conferences are an important time for astronomers to meet face to face, to plan and share results, something that can not happen completely this year.

AAS Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, issued a statement on behalf of the organization:

It is a real disappointment that scientists who work hard and who seek to explore and understand the universe on behalf of the American public and share their results with their colleagues and actually carry our knowledge forward are basically being prevented from doing so by a political impasse. In the same week that the Chinese government lands a jeep on Mars and the US sends a probe to the furthest object ever visited by mankind, dozens of scientists at all levels of the race are being prevented from attending our meeting. On a practical level, our community depends on everyone appearing and sharing and supporting each other in our shared research. Now we have to juggle schedules, figure out how to cover sessions with missing speakers, and even lose session chairs, how to fill in the gaps in our poster room, and what to do with exposures that can not be set up and will remain stored for our session. meeting. This disconnection is disturbing to us as an organization, harmful to the science of astronomy and will have unknown impacts on the progress of discovery in astronomy. Let's hope the problems that led to the shutdown are resolved quickly.

The shutdown also affected science beyond astronomy. Earther said last week that the shutdown prevented scientists from attending the world's largest climate conference.

Researchers are impacted professionally by not being able to attend conferences, and personally impacted by not receiving their paychecks. Then there are the expenses of researchers who have spent the time and money to prepare and attend the conference, efforts that have now been wasted.

Meanwhile, it seems that little progress has been made to end the partial standstill.


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