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Working Papers: Astronomy and Astrophysics Panel Reports
NASA's focus on large projects that take 10 to 20 years to complete has eliminated many more modest efforts that span the career of graduate students or postdoctoral fellows.
This chapter raises a number of issues without recommending any solutions, for this is the purview of the report of the Policy Panel. Topics discussed below include the demographics of the profession, the impact of the previous survey report, trends in the funding of research by NASA and the NSF, the access to major research facilities, a snapshot of the employment record of astronomers, the productivity of research astronomers, and the status of women and minorities in the field.
THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF ASTRONOMY
How Many Astronomers Are There?
The number of astronomers is important when we consider whether there will be enough astronomers available in the next decade to replace the number of expected retirements from astronomical faculties and to analyze the data from new instruments. A significant number of scientists trained in other fields; particularly physics, are attracted to the science of astronomy. Therefore our definition of who is an astronomer must include people who have migrated into the field and are doing astronomy as well as those who have been specifically trained as astronomers. To maintain consistency with the Field Committee Report, we use an operational definition of an astronomer as a scientist with a PhD, or equivalent, who is either teaching or performing research in astronomy. Although a broad definition, this set represents the pool of qualified astronomers in the U.S. capable of using astronomical data.
One of the best ways of estimating the number of astronomers, and of establishing the characteristics of the astronomical community, is to use the membership of the American Astronomical Society. The American Institute of Physics periodically surveys a sample of the AAS Membership, so their characteristics as to age, employer, primary work activity, etc., are known.
Before examining the results of those surveys, we must first confirm that the AAS membership fairly represents the astronomical community. At the time of the Field Committee report, it was found that about 80 percent of working astronomers were AAS members. Recent estimates by AIP and a spot check in the Washington, DC area indicate this number is the same today. We assume that the AAS membership is representative of the community and that information about the AAS membership is valid for the community as a whole.
Figure 1 shows that the membership of the AAS has grown steadily over the last decade. The size of the pool of astronomers can be estimated from the AAS membership by applying various correction factors to account, for example, for the number of foreign members, incompleteness of the AAS membership etc. An estimate of these factors by the Field committee led to an estimate of the nation's pool of astronomers to be 0.82 times the membership of the AAS. Now, ten years later, a similar factor still seems to be appropriate, and we estimate that the U.S. has a pool of nearly 4200 astronomers, up by 42 percent since 1980.
The pool of astronomers is not, however, the same as the number of active research astronomers. If the latter is defined as someone who at least co-authors one paper year, then a survey by Abt (1990a) indicates there are about 2800 active researchers. However, research activity is limited both by available funding and time, particularly for faculty who work at institutions which are oriented primarily toward teaching. Given modest support, astronomers at smaller institutions oriented toward teaching can, and do, make significant contributions to astronomical research. These astronomers can readily involve students in their work and thus make even greater contributions to the educational process. With additional resources the pool of research astronomers could increase significantly.
The Solar and Planetary divisions of the AAS provide an initial indication of the numbers of solar system astronomers. The Solar Physics division numbers about 350 U.S. members, or approximately 6 percent of the AAS membership. This value is considerably lower than similar ratios reported for other countries, e.g. France with 15 percent, West Germany with 8 percent and Japan with 12 percent. The Division of Planetary Sciences has 700 members, about 13 percent of the total AAS membership.
How Active Are the Astronomers?
The number of papers published in astronomy is a measure of research activity. Abt (1989a,b) has