A Non-Talk on Giving Talks

The following is a collection of almost entirely subjective advice about giving talks. Mostly this advice is based on what has worked well for me, but it’s also based on what I have learned in the course of sitting through terrible talks. The only good thing about terrible talks is that they afford one the chance to contemplate the sources of one’s suffering, whereas good talks are engaging and keep one focused on the subject matter. This advice is mostly geared towards scientific talks for a variety of audiences, but hopefully these guidelines are generic enough to be useful outside of science communication. 

First, a bit of motivation.

Why Does Public Speaking Matter?

At the most basic level, giving talks is one of the primary ways of disseminating the results of your work to others. Academic publishing is where your results become part of the permanent record of research of course, and for better or worse, your publications are one of the primary metrics by which your success will be judged. Public speaking is more versatile than publishing, however, as public speaking is often how your work reaches those who would otherwise never know about it– be they others in your field, or those completely outside of science (“the public”). Your academic papers are likely to reach your immediate colleagues, those within your subfield– but through talks, you can reach both scientists outside of your immediate subfield, and the public at large.

And why does reaching a larger audience matter? Because the health of both your career and the field depend on it! 

If you are invited to give a professional (academic) talk somewhere, chances are that the people who know something about your work had a hand in inviting you in the first place. If they know about your work, and they invited you, they are already “on your side”– they think what you will say is interesting enough that they’re willing to hear you give that talk. So, in some sense, your talk isn’t really for them– it’s for the people in the audience who are outside your subfield. Your goal for the talk should be that they come away with a sense of how your work fits within the context of the field, and why it is interesting. If you are early in your career and hoping to get a job, people in unrelated subfields are the faculty swing vote– you need them to be pulling for you when the department is deciding who gets the job offer. 

Public speaking also helps your field as a whole: most of our work is funded, to some extent, by taxpayer dollars. Those taxpayers have immediate needs that likely supersede their interest in space and/or science in general. Therefore, if you are giving a talk to the broader public (generally speaking, anyone outside of your field), your ability to convey what you are learning represents a return on their investment. Personally, I love being an astronomer, and I feel that it’s a privilege to work on something that takes me so outside of myself on a regular basis. When you speak to people outside your field, they’re giving you some of their time in the hopes of sharing in that experience– respect that by giving a good talk.

And now, on to my utterly subjective guidelines for doing so.

Consider Your Audience

In my view, the number one contributing factor in giving a good talk is empathy. Empathy plays out in a number of ways in a talk, the most fundamental of which is the realization that the talk is not for YOU, the speaker, but for THE AUDIENCE. Before you create a single slide, the first thing you should do is consider who makes up your audience. Are they experts in your subfield, scientists from a completely different discipline, non-scientists..? If they aren’t scientists, who are they? “The public” is not a uniform bloc of people, so consider why they are attending your talk to begin with. In some sense, every audience consists of both novices and experts, and the trick is to create a talk that will reach them both. 

Missing ingredient.

Missing ingredient.

Above all, remember that no one in the room is more interested in your work than you are– if they were as interested as you are, they’d probably be doing it themselves! As the speaker, your job is to convince them that what you do is interesting and worthwhile. 

Start At The End

Whether your talk is a few minutes or an hour, you need to decide what you want the audience to know when they leave. This should not be a laundry list– it should be a single sentence that summarizes the main point you want people to walk away with. If you have lots of time to speak, you can nest a couple of subpoints under this main message, but the main message should be clear in your mind. 

Choose Your Content Wisely

The message you want your audience to take away should guide all your subsequent choices about content. What are the main pieces of information you need to include to bring your message to the audience? If it’s a short talk, you may include only a bit of background and few examples of your work (say, a plot or two), whereas if you have a lot of time you can include more detail, or spend longer on the examples you do include. The main point here is again to exercise EMPATHY: the talk is not for you, it’s for the audience. When you see people speeding through information, or there’s a bunch of plots in the talk that they don’t really explain (or worse have to click past), it means that they didn’t consciously think about what information to include and, as a result, have included too much that’s only tangentially relevant and probably uninteresting to the audience. 

Don’t Go Over Time

Seriously people: DON’T GO OVER YOUR FUCKING TIME. It’s disrespectful and makes you look unprepared. We all make mistakes, and sometimes perhaps you’ve misjudged slightly– but if the session chair tells you you have 30 more seconds and you go on for another five minutes (or another half hour, as I have seen in colloquia), you are being an all-caps ASSHAT. Once again, not everything you have done is relevant and interesting, so pick the part that is. 

Consider Making Your Talk Modular

If you’re giving a longer talk, part of choosing your content is thinking about how to make it digestible. Human beings have attention spans of roughly 10 minutes or so, which means that it can be helpful to remind people of your main points repeatedly during the talk. If possible, break results and subtopics into subsections in the talk, so that you have mini-conclusions throughout the talk. When you finish, you can revisit these mini-conclusions all together to provide a succinct snapshot of your main points.

Making your talk modular is also really helpful for adjusting the amount of content you present in real time. Different departments have different audience styles– for example, the style in my department at Princeton is to ask questions throughout the talk, rather than waiting until the end. That can be great, as it shows you the audience is engaged and curious, but it can also derail a talk that would have been the perfect amount of content if there wasn’t time out for discussion midway through. To account for the range of styles out there, I often try to keep some of my content in reserve and include an extra optional mini-section at the end. Then, if I get through the primary part of my talk and still have time, I can click on and present some bonus material, a work in progress, or even go into further detail about something I presented in broad strokes earlier. 

If It Doesn’t Convey Meaning, It Doesn’t Belong On Your Slide

You can include pictures to provide a bit of visual interest, but detailed plots, equations, and even schematics are information-rich graphics and do not belong on your slides unless you are going to discuss them. If I see one more person put up a plot and say “I’m not going to talk about this here…” UGGGGGGHHHHH WHY IS IT ON YOUR SLIDE YOU’RE HURTING AMERICA.

Do You Want Me To Listen Or Read?

Humans love the idea that they are good at multitasking, but the truth is that there is no evidence that multitasking actually exists. What DOES exist is rapid serial tasking, where you switch attention between multiple tasks. If your slide is full of words, your audience is forced to choose between listening to you and reading the slide. Chances are, though, that they will try to do both, and your message will be lost in that conflict of attention. 

Once again, wordy slides are often an indication that the speaker lacks empathy: the words are there because THEY want to be able to read them, so they don’t forget. Listen up: slides aren’t your notes. There is a notes section in the speaker tools, so use that if you need to, but really you should just suck it up and…

PRACTICE YOUR TALK

The gold standard is to have done a dry run of every talk you give, so that you know it by heart. For long talks this can be pretty time-consuming, however, so usually you can get away just going over your talk slide by slide and recalling your main point. For each slide, you should have a clear single point in your mind– the point of practicing is not to memorize every word, but rather to create an association in your mind between that main point and the visual of the slide itself. When you look at the slide, you should be able to recall your point. If you can’t, you either haven’t practiced enough, or maybe it’s just not a very illuminating slide. 

Practicing in front of an audience can be hugely helpful– if you can enlist a few friends and/or colleagues and ask them to give you honest, constructive criticism, it will greatly improve your talk. It will also help you to absorb this criticism if you listen carefully to feedback without defending your choices! When responding to critiques, challenge yourself to phrase your responses as questions. 

One other very helpful tool is to make a video of yourself practicing. This is hands-down my least favorite thing to do– I hate watching myself on camera, and invariably I discover that I have some weird physical tic that I didn’t know about, e.g. “Why am I looking at the ceiling so much? Wow, I gesture a LOT. What is that dumb thing I’m doing with my mouth while I’m thinking?!” Of course, the reason this is helpful is that being aware of these behaviors is the best way of getting rid of them. If they distract you watching yourself, they’ll be distracting to the audience too!

95% Of Your Presentation Software’s Features Do Not Exist

You know all those templates that are options in your favorite presentation software? Delete them. OK, you can keep the simplest one. Now go into the slide masters section and get rid of everything that isn’t a blank slide or a slide with a single text box for a title. Bullet points? You don’t need those. Columns? No. Prefab spots to put an image with bullets next to it? No, no no no. These things are dead to you from now on. 

Look at that font menu! Now stop looking at the font menu! Pick a single font and use only one font in a given presentation. Don’t make it Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curlz or anything that resembles these fonts (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, CERN). You probably also don’t need to put anything in bold or italics either. Emphasis can often be conveyed effectively (and more subtly) by using differences in font size or slight differences in color saturation (as in a pale blue versus a slightly darker blue).

Slide transitions: these also do not exist*. They are distracting and unreliable, being one of the top things that often gets screwed up when transferring a talk between laptops. I once gave a talk that I’d written with a relatively mild fade between slides– but when deployed on the presentation laptop, that fade had been transformed into a horrifying pixel dissolve. Finally, the all-transitions-all-the-time software Prezi 100% doesn’t exist at all. If you want to be seasick, go on a boat ride.

* One caveat here: Dan Foreman-Mackey convinced me that there is, in fact, one acceptable slide transition… anvil. Anvil may ONLY be used to deliver the punchline of a joke, and that joke had better be funny. Also, you can only use anvil once a year. 

Anvil in action.

Anvil in action.

Give The Audience A Guided Tour Of Your Plots

Many times, plots that may be acceptable for publication don’t display well in a talk– but a little bit of extra attention can really help your audience out. Use the text boxes in your presentation software to relabel axes, provide arrows to features you want to point out, and use shapes to selectively block out potentially distracting features (e.g. complex plot legends) until you’re ready to walk the audience through them. 

It can also be helpful to use the slide title to state the point of the slide. No one needs you to title your results slide “Results 1”– that’s perfectly good real estate you could be using for “No Trend Seen With Stellar Color” (or something relevant to your work). 

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Always include attribution where appropriate, whether to your colleagues or yourself. If you use a figure or cite a result from someone else’s work, include a short reference (e.g. Batygin et al. 2012) nearby on the slide. To keep the visual noise low, make it in a lighter, smaller font– but don’t leave it out! Proper citations indicate that the speaker is not only collegial, but well-versed in the literature. Similarly, if you use images off the internet, try to find public domain work and include attribution wherever possible. 

Don’t forget to give yourself credit, too– especially in job talks, it’s important that your audience (which includes the hiring committee) have a clear picture of what part of your work YOU are actually responsible for. Of course, be gracious and acknowledge your co-investigators and their contributions, and don’t represent yourself as having done work you didn’t directly do… but you can still alternate between using “my colleagues/team/co-investigators” and “I”. 

On Answering Questions

Audience members ask questions for one of two reasons:

  1. They have something to say
  2. They have something to ask

Unfortunately I sometimes think #1 is more common than #2, even when #1 is couched in a sentence that ends in a question mark. If you are relatively new to presenting your research, questions can be harrowing– it can feel like you are being tested and that makes many people anxious. The top thing to remember is to stay calm! You did the work, and that makes you an expert on the piece of it that you did. You may not know everything about the topic, but that’s OK– give the best answer you can, and if you need to think about it a bit offline, just say so. You can also offer to discuss it further after the talk is over. Remember that questions (even if persistent or aggressive) are a sign that the audience is paying attention, and are vastly preferable to a room full of silence and ennui.

Relax & Have Fun

Inhale, exhale, repeat! It’s a privilege to have the attention of your audience, so try to enjoy the moment as much as you can. The people whose talks I like are typically relaxed and conversational, where I can see that they like their work and are looking forward to telling me about it– it’s really hard to watch someone who is really uncomfortable speaking. I personally get very nervous right before talks, but I try to remember that the unpleasantness of pre-talk jitters will go away shortly after I start talking.

A Few Additional Links

For additional reading, here are a couple of other good guides to giving talks:

http://bit.ly/scipres1

http://bit.ly/scipres2 

Lastly, if you find color choice challenging, this site can help you choose an appealing color palette for your talk:

http://www.colourlovers.com

The one caveat to the above, though, is that you should limit the number of colors in your talk to about three at most– many of those palettes are really bright and busy, and will be tiring to the eyes for most viewers. 

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Career Palanca

Yesterday, I asked my academic friends on Facebook what they thought of giving a copies of letters of recommendation to the students they’d written them for, as a way of giving those students encouragement they could reread when the going gets tough. Most people who responded thought it was a good idea, and many in fact already do this regularly. However, a few pointed out that in some cases, jobs require the letters of recommendation to be strictly confidential (you can tell if this is the case, as you will likely be required to certify that the student has not seen the letter as part of the submission process), so it’s not universally OK to pass along letters of recommendation even if well-intended.

Today, I was talking about encouragement with my friend Nina Tandon, and we had what I think is a pretty good idea. For context, Nina and I have known each other since high school, and are both now scientists (she is a tissue engineer at Columbia and founder a new company, Epibone). The high school we went to is Catholic, and has a tradition of writing palancas.

You: “WTF is a palanca?”

Palancas are letters, written to a particular person and collected on their behalf by someone else, who then delivers the collected letters to them in one batch. In Catholicism (and perhaps religion generally– I’m not sure how widespread palancas are but I’m not sure if they are specific to Catholicism), these letters are usually supposed to be about god. Now, I’m an atheist, and if memory serves, there was some stuff about god in the palanca I received… but mostly what was great about it was that it was an envelope full of letters from my friends saying nice things to me. Who wouldn’t want that?

 So here’s an idea that I think would work not only for students, but for anyone going through a difficult time or transition in their career (grad school, postdocs, tenure process, etc), which circumvents any issues with letter confidentiality: write them a career palanca. Here’s how it might work:

1. Pick someone to write to. We already have to write letters for our colleagues, so chances are you’ve already even written some of what you’d write to them anyway. You just need to ask a few other people (say other members of your research group, other colleagues, whoever seems appropriate) if they would write to that person. Shoot for 5-10 letter writers. 

2. Collect letters on their behalf. This can be via email or actual physical letters, whatever works.

3. Pick a time to give the recipient their letters. You can use this as a way of commemorating some occasion (e.g. defending your thesis, or getting a new job), but I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to tell someone you think they’re good at what they do.

4. Give the recipient their letters… and then let them read them whenever they want. I recall the experience being pretty moving, so they might want to read it in private because FEELINGS.

What do you think? Is this something you can see yourself doing for a friend or colleague?

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That Time We All Talked About Peer Review Together

Yesterday morning, I was pretty sure my greatest accomplishment for the day was going to be braving the blizzard (or PolarBearSharkNadoVortex or whatever we’re calling it now) to see the Pixies in Newark with some friends. I went to work, where every morning we spend about a half hour talking about all the papers that have come out that day on astro-ph (if you’re not an astronomer, this is what I’m talking about). Astro-ph Coffee is one of my favorite things about Princeton– it’s short, informal, has a lot of participation by the faculty, and since it happens every day, it’s a great way of keeping up on what’s happening in the field (outside of one’s own subfield in particular). It also occasionally dips into entertainment, as a number of people in our department are possessed of the deadly combo of extensive knowledge and rapier wits. The discussion is largely about science, but once in a while, someone throws a mic-dropping gem of devastating commentary into the mix.

When that happened in yesterday’s discussion, I was reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Hemingway being challenged to write a story in only six words– so I left the following sitting out on the internet:

and went about science-ing for a bit. When I looked again, well… I was going to Storify it, but there are literally hundreds of tweets.

Here’s a live feed of the hashtag, filtered for spam:

So, wow… do we all need a cup of tea and a sit down or what? It’s not like I was unaware of the ongoing debate/discussion about improving academic publishing and peer review, but I have to admit I’m surprised by just how much steam everyone needed to blow off. The common themes are not surprising, and many tweets fall into a few big bins (where some are more disturbing that others), e.g. “This paper didn’t cite me enough”, “You’re grammer its bad”, “Your institution isn’t fancy enough”, “My unpublished data refutes your result”, “I am only pretending to be qualified to review this paper”, etc. Amidst the hilarity, I think the following two tweets nicely encapsulate my thoughts at the end of the day:

I particularly like Alice Bell‘s call to action, because I think a fair amount about how we could make reviews better for everyone, and also what the role of anonymity is in the review process. Certainly this week, we saw a pretty clear example of how anonymity plays differently depending on privilege, where pseudonymous science blogger Dr. Isis was “outed” by Nature editor Henry Gee as a means of dismissing and intimidating her (here is a post by Dr. Isis on what happened, and here is further commentary by Michael Eisen). While in principle I like the idea of reviews being completely open, in many cases it is “safer” for early career researchers to critique the work of their more senior colleagues from behind the veil of anonymity, particularly if the review is negative in any way. Double blind reviews are another great idea and have wide support within the scientific community: Nature GeoSci went double-blind last summer, with somewhat mixed-but-evolving results. Practically speaking, though, I think that blindness is likely to be imperfect– if you are qualified to review one of my papers, you are likely to recognize my research (I also have a fairly distinctive writing style– seriously, I so overuse em dashes my emails are like really boring Emily Dickinson poems).

One idea for peer review I’ve been tossing around comes not from science, but from creative writing: face-to-face group reviews, usually known just as “critiques”. I first encountered critiques in college, where many of my electives were in fiction writing. Here’s how it works: your writing gets distributed to the class, and one of your peers serves as a primary reviewer who kicks off the discussion (sound a bit like proposal reviews, scientists?). Horrifyingly, you have to sit there with your mouth shut (completely shut, no talking, no rebuttal, nothing) while your peers then dissect and discuss your work in front of you– much like they might do if you were not in the room. The reasoning behind this is, of course, that you are essentially never going to be in the room with your reader to correct them on how they should be interpreting your work. The professor was present (though usually hands-off), so people made an effort to be constructive, and the conversation could be steered if it went too far off course. Only after the class had thoroughly discussed the work was the author allowed to speak, to either comment on what they had been trying to do, and/or to ask questions on how to improve the piece. It was a pretty mortifying experience as a young writer, but I think it also improved my work– and what’s more, it taught me how to critique other people’s writing while simultaneously helping me with my own.

So how might this work in academic publishing? Imagine first that having multiple reviewers was a standard practice for all journals (in astronomy, most journals have only a single referee)– let’s say three. Rather than soliciting written reviews from all reviewers up front,  imagine instead that you committed to spending an hour or so discussing the paper via Skype/Google Hangout/phone. When I’ve floated this idea to people in the past, the idea of having an actual discussion is sometimes met with groans– but I suspect that actually devoting that time to discussion rather than silo’d reading of a paper on your own being the only form of review might actually result in a more efficient process. For one thing, multiple reviewers would be able to bring the totality of their backgrounds to bear, sidestepping holes in the knowledge of one reviewer or another (holes that remain when multiple reviews proceed in parallel without discussion). Discussions could be on the record, and editors could even moderate if needed. If one were to really keep to the analogy with creative writing critiques, the lead author could also listen in on the discussion (and/or ask questions afterwards). Via voice alone (no video), I think this could actually be almost blind, though of course certain things like gender might be obvious. Another possibility would be analogous to proposal reviews, where one of the reviewers serves as a primary, collect the other reviewers’ comments and generating a written report of revisions to be distributed to the authors.

Like most of the suggested changes to the peer review process, implementing something like the above would take a cultural shift in our respective fields, and certainly a community demand for change. But given how many people had something to say about peer review today, it does seem to me that the momentum is at least a good part of the way there. The question is, what do we want to do about it?

That’ll take more than six words.

Worst. Superpower. Ever.

Worst. Superpower. Ever.

Posted in academia, academic publishing, open science, science, social media | 5 Comments

Second Ride of the #ScienceTrain

Two Saturdays ago, ScienceTrain took its second ride on the NYC subway! Our numbers expanded a bit this time, with Renee Hlozek (Princeton) and David “Doddy” Marsh (Perimeter Institute) joining Jeff Oishi (AMNH) and myself aboard the C train. We also had a few science communicators in tow– Mike Lemonick (who wrote a nice piece about the day for Time.com) Amelia Schonbeck (who previously covered the Intergalactic Travel Bureau), and Steve Mirsky (who creates podcasts for Scientific American)– and my partner Michael Rau, who created another great video for us!

With two pairs of scientists in two adjoining cars, we got a chance to experiment with tactics a little– and by “experiment with tactics”, I mean Renee and Doddy have a totally different engagement style than Jeff and I! You can see this a bit in the video above, but to state it simply, Jeff and I let people approach us on their own, while Renee and Doddy actively announced themselves and talked to people directly. I think both approaches have their merits– as an introvert and veteran subway rider, I personally dislike it when strangers approach me, but there’s no doubt that a lot of people find that approach really engaging (and it helps that Renee’s enthusiasm is ridiculously charming!).

Ridership was better this round, which took place on a Sunday afternoon (rather than Saturday), in somewhat less temperate weather, resulting in more people talking to us overall. Last ride, Jeff and I supposed that having statements rather than actual questions on our “Ask An Astronomer” sign was perhaps discouraging, as many people told us they’d been trying to think of a question to ask. This time, we made signs that had direct questions, and gave the previous ride’s signs to Renee and Doddy to use. Interestingly, we still got the same comments– even when presented with a list of questions from which to choose, people felt they needed to come up with one of their own. When people made that comment (or alternately seemed to be showing interest but hesitating to strike up a conversation), we asked if there was a particular topic they wanted to hear about (e.g. “planets? black holes? galaxies?”). That approach seemed to work pretty well– when presented with a few options, they were often willing to just pick one and the conversation went from there. Perhaps a better tack to take on the signs would be topical suggestions? Maybe worth a try next time!

The #ScienceTrain will ride again in the near future, and if you’re a scientist (of any discipline, in any city with public transport) we would love to have you along for the ride! I’ve created a permanent sign-up page where you can provide your email. Emails will only be used for querying about which upcoming dates work, and for notifying you of upcoming dates for coordinated #ScienceTrain days. You don’t have to wait, however– all it takes is a sign, a train, and the willingness to talk about science, so if you decide to try it in your city I’d love to hear about it!

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Open Call: Next #ScienceTrain, Oct 27

Are you a scientist who’s excited about your work, and interested in sharing that excitement with others? Do you want to help people have a serendipitous encounter with how cool the natural world is? Is there a public transportation system near you?

Then join us for #ScienceTrain, a day of mobile Ask-A-Scientist events! The first #ScienceTrain took place over the summer, comprised of three astronomers riding the C train on a Saturday afternoon in NYC. This time around, we would like to open it up to any scientists who want to join in, wherever they happen to be.

If you are in NYC, #ScienceTrain will take place the afternoon of this coming Sunday, October 27, and we will meet up at Die Stammkneipe/ Der Schwarze Kölner at 5pm for post-#ScienceTrain celebrating!

What you need:

  1. Yourself and a friend, preferably with a similar scientific background. ScienceTrain seems to go best with people working in pairs (one pair per car).
  2. A sign. We found that putting a few questions on the sign to draw people in is helpful, so pick some intriguing ones from your discipline (just putting open-ended statements or prompting people to make up their own question turned out to be intimidating, as people were concerned with coming up with a “good” question). Whether you can hang the sign or not depends on what the rules are for your transportation system, so use your best judgment.
  3. Patience and respect. Lots of people may want to talk to you, or no one might. Their questions might be interesting, or nuts. To participate, you just need to be willing to engage with others and talk to them about science, but you should also be mindful that they might not want to talk to you, and that’s fine too. Moreover, be considerate of the fact that the public transportation system is not actually a science museum, so if the car is getting crowded, or you are in people’s way either physically or metaphorically, hop off and ride a different train/bus/bike/whatever.
  4. Optional: writing implements and outreach materials (flyers, pictures, etc). Last time, we brought some mini whiteboards with us and dry erase markers, as well as some Zooniverse flyers. We ended up not using the whiteboards much (flailing hand gestures are much more fun!), but we did give away the flyers to anyone interested in learning more.

If you’re planning to join in #ScienceTrain, either here or elsewhere, please feel free to let me know! I’m @shaka_lulu on Twitter, or you can be in touch using the form below.

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End note: the show (er, conference) goes on!

Previously, I’d written about the political barriers facing the Kepler Science Conference, with an update last week that only (only!) the government shutdown stood to derail the meeting. I’m happy to report that the end to the shutdown means that the meeting can proceed in its original location, and will be inclusive of our fellow Chinese researchers.

Below is the message sent to the meeting registrants from the Local Organizing Committee.

With the re-opening of the US government and the lifting of furloughs, we are happy to announce that the Second Kepler Science Conference will go on as planned November 4-8 with an opening reception on Nov 3, at NASA Ames.

We anticipate that foreign national registrants will be cleared for attendance prior to the conference start.  All foreign national registrants will receive notification as soon as clearance has been granted. 

We hope to see you in two weeks to celebrate the science enabled by the Kepler Mission!

Thanks once again to AMD for offering their campus as an alternate venue, and to everyone who responded with offers to help. Now, back to science!

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Circling the airport (or possibly, the drain)…

It’s been just over a week since I originally posted about the Kepler Science Conference, so I thought I’d post a quick update.

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who has been in contact about alternate venue options for the meeting. I am really heartened at the sheer number of responses offering either actual physical space, introductions to venues, creative solutions, or just words of encouragement. It speaks strongly to how supportive people are of science, and in particular of international collaboration. It seems many people out there are willing to dig in and find solutions to a daunting problem… would any of you like to run for Congress? Seriously.

Towards the end of last week, AMD stepped forward and generously offered to host the conference (thank you in particular to John Fritz of AMD, who first got in touch with me and has been the primary point of contact in making this happen). However, flaring tension over the barring of Chinese foreign nationals between Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Charlie Bolden (the NASA administrator) have turned the meeting into something of a political football. At the end of last week, NASA moved to reopen the applications of the potential Chinese attendees and approve their attendance, but as the government is still shut down (with 97% of NASA employees furloughed), there is no one to process the approvals.

Chair of the scientific organizing committee, Alan Boss, was quoted as saying:

“The efforts of NASA’s Ames Research Center to ensure that our Chinese astronomer colleagues will be able to attend the Second Kepler Science Conference have been halted by the fact these approvals must be entered into a computer system at NASA HQ in Washington DC,” Boss told FoxNews.com.

“Because of the ongoing federal government shutdown, there is no one at NASA HQ who can complete the approval process.”

“The ability of scientists to attend an open scientific meeting about the spectacular results produced by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is another likely fatality of the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact a federal budget for FY2014,” Boss added.

The bottom line: if the shutdown ends soon, the meeting will proceed as planned, at NASA Ames, and will be open to those Chinese researchers whose applications are scheduled to be approved. However, if the government continues to be shut down for much longer, the meeting will not proceed at all, unless it is moved. In the meantime, given that the meeting was convened by NASA, and the vast majority of the organizing committee are NASA employees, we are stuck circling in the same wait-and-see holding pattern as everyone else who depends on the US government.  

Again, I am so grateful to everyone who has tried to help make this meeting happen in spite of the current political quagmire. It truly is a testament to the fact that there are people out there thinking on a planetary scale, who are willing to help solve problems in trying times. Though I believe this meeting is important, what is more poignant to me than the troubles of 400 astrophysicists with uncertainty about a conference venue are the trouble of those for whom the government shutdown means uncertainty about basic human needs.

Get it together, Congress.

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