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Response to EAS Council’s reply

27 June 2022

The vast majority of EAS sustainability advisory committee members have stepped down in protest against the inaction and obstruction by EAS Council with regards to developing the EAS Annual Meeting to an inclusive and sustainable meeting. After about 1.5 years of discussing “behind the scenes” – and not having reached a single tangible result of actual emission reductions for future meetings – we felt compelled to go public with our frustration at the Council’s inaction. The Council responded in the same issue of Nature Astronomy. Their response, however, contains a number of inaccuracies that we wish to address:

“we […] have engaged extensively with them on the matter”

While there has been some degree of communication, the Council has, on several occasions, failed to respond to our queries and concerns, or done so after a long delay. While they have stated that our input was appreciated, they have not actually engaged with us openly and proactively, by keeping us (and the membership at large) from participating in the design of the meeting or any preliminary discussions.

“When we consulted our membership there was an overwhelming preference for a face-to-face meeting this year, with just one in six people indicating that they would prefer virtual attendance if we were able to offer a hybrid EAS 2022.”

It is very problematic when survey results, which have not been published but are partly available to us, are reported in a distorted way. The question that EAS posed in the survey was “In the future beyond EAS2022, assuming the pandemic induced restrictions become unnecessary, would you prefer the EAS meetings to take place…” and offered the options “In person”, “Virtually”, and “Not sure”. The survey did not address the question whether people would like to participate remotely at a hybrid conference. It asked whether the meeting should take place fully online or fully in-person and it did not ask about hybrid options, nor did it explore the concept that different formats are suitable for different goals and purposes. Nevertheless, 20.8% of all respondents, which is significantly more than “one in six”, answered that they preferred virtual meetings and another 24.8% responded “Not sure”. Only slightly more than half (54.8%) responded “In person”. By claiming that there was an “overwhelming preference for a face-to-face meeting”, EAS Council wilfully distorts the results of the survey.

Assuming that the hybrid format is designed and executed effectively following contemporary best practice, we are convinced that the majority of our community would not be opposed to having a virtual attendance option at an in-person meeting. We also note that best practice for online and hybrid interaction is evolving rapidly, and that many experiences to date are commonly not reflective of best practice or of what is possible in these new formats. Despite the relevance of the EAS meeting format to future sustainable practices, the EAS sustainability committee was not allowed to contribute to the post-meeting and community survey design, as stated above. We also notice that the number of responses in this survey is very small, in comparison with the total number of EAS members, which recently exceeded 4500. The reliability of its results is therefore rather doubtful.

The relevant result of the EAS 2021 conference survey as shared on 27 Jan 2022 with the sustainability advisor committee, is shown below.

“After over two years of online-only meetings we wanted to provide the opportunity to students and early career researchers, the group most disadvantaged by the lack of in-person meetings, to network with others, to showcase their work, and to establish new connections. One third of the more than 1,600 registrants at the meeting are students, a cohort who are vital to the future of European astronomy.”

Early career researchers (ECR) often do not have the means to travel to a very expensive conference. They would be most helped with a state-of-the-art hybrid (or online) meeting at an affordable rate. The fact that the online version of the EAS meeting in 2020 and in 2021 had significantly more participants (1777 and 2464, respectively; numbers from our own research and the EAS newsletter #14, respectively) than the EWASS 2019 meeting in Lyon (1240) speaks for itself. The EAS 2022 annual meeting has seen a very large number of physical attendees, too (1700, according to the EAS newsletter #17); it is unclear, though, if this is a one-time effect due to it being the first physical meeting after three years. Also, the participation rate has still dropped by over 30% relative to 2021. We note that there are an additional 300 online watchers for the 2022 meeting, but we don’t count them as participants since they are not allowed to fully participate in the meeting.

Several works showed that people who are most keen to travel are in fact senior astronomers. Stevens et al. 2020 have shown that senior researchers travel about ten times as much as Ph.D. students. And a survey following the on-line meeting IR 2020 showed that it was mostly senior members of the community who had troubles with networking at the on-line meeting. On the other hand, according to the same survey, a surprisingly large number of junior researchers found that the networking possibilities on-line were even better than in legacy meetings. 

However, even without considering the above-mentioned results, we believe that offering a hybrid option would not damage young people – on the contrary, it would help them.

In addition, it is the voice of the ECR community that must be central in discussions about what is best for them, and it is already clear that prioritising inclusivity and sustainability is a key motivating factor for ECRs when they look to the future (e.g. Kohler et al 2022). 

“Providing a fully hybrid meeting would add more than €70,000 to the cost of the meeting for equipment rental and technical support, which we judged to be more than we could afford.”

The EAS Council have historically used the conference organising company KUONI, whose quotes are exorbitant compared with the services or technology provided. There are alternative state-of-the-art solutions that could have been used for a hybrid meeting of this magnitude, at a fraction of the quoted price. The Council would have been aware of these solutions, had they chosen to engage with us for the organisation of the meeting. 

The Council has not been transparent about the costs of the EAS2021 meeting, even in their annual report at the General Assembly or when actively asked by members. The costs can be reconstructed, however: At the EAS 2021 meeting, a total of 2464 people participated. Assuming, conservatively, that 464 people did not pay at all, and that all the rest paid only the member fee of 150 €, means that the conference had a budget of about 300 k€. The entire scientific organisation of the meeting as well as the local hosting were given “in kind”, i.e. for free, by the conference and session SOCs and Leiden Observatory, respectively. A small profit (35k€) was reported (“expected”) in the (still in draft) minutes of the 2021 General Assembly. This means that the lion’s share of the conference budget for the 2021 online conference must have gone to KUONI, a conservative estimate would be 250 k€ for running this conference (including software licenses, which are typically only a few k€ for state-of-the-art solutions). Again, this is only an estimate as the actual numbers are not public. We advocate that as part of planning for the future of academic conferences, the budgets of large-scale high-cost gatherings should be made transparent and open, in order for the community to be best-placed to judge whether the investment is of best value to them as community members funding it. 

Nevertheless, this estimate is important as it puts the quoted 70 k€ for adding a hybrid component in a very different light: It would only be a small fraction of the entire budget (which presumably is considerably larger for a legacy-style meeting than the online-only costs for 2020 and 2021). However, both the budget for running the (online) conference itself as well as the budget for the hybrid component are extremely excessive by all technical standards and could easily be brought down if Council were willing to openly discuss their conference model with members or their advisory committees and consider alternative options than the traditional, high-cost model.

For example, a decent hybrid setup could be provided by providing the following components per room at very low cost or technical complexity:

  • camera showing presenter + slides (free — presenter simply shows their slides via Zoom on their own laptop)
  • second camera showing audience (use one of the organisers’ laptops — free or alternatively invest a suitable camera technology that becomes a reusable asset)
  • microphone(s) to be able to hear everyone (e.g. a throwable microphone from Catchbox.com, ca. 500 € for a single one or ca. 1000€ with added extra microphones for speaker/moderator)
  • Technical setup: to be done by session organisers with help from LOC / hosting committee (as standard in most conferences); we know from several organisers who would have been happy to help with this had Council just allowed it…
  • video hosting and Zoom licenses: e.g. ca. 1000 € for professional video hosting at Vimeo for one year (free with YouTube), 100 € for one month of Zoom Pro.
  • Professional messaging system, e.g. free versions of Slack or Discord are sufficient
  • stable (not necessarily very fast) WiFi: must be part of a modern conference centre (if not, choose a different conference centre!), alternatively use a wired connection; again this is standard in business facilities these days. Portable low-cost high-speed dongles are also widely available and can be used in the absence of reliable venue internet.

All in all, a decent hybrid setup could have been provided for probably not much more than 15 k€ even for 13 parallel sessions. And these are actually not costs, but investments that can and should of course be re-used in the following months and years. Obviously this is only an indicative and low-complexity attempt that can and needs to be improved in the following years. But we have really no time to lose and must start this now.

“We are at a loss to understand why the signatories to the letter believe that we “did not offer a hybrid option for EAS 2022 — despite our protests — in order to ensure that the meeting attracted sufficient in-person attendees”. This is completely false. Our motivation was to provide the in-person experience requested by members without incurring the unaffordable cost of a fully hybrid mode for 13 parallel sessions.”

It is a strong statement to say that something is false that the EWASS board chair has verbally stated exactly in this way. Also in e-mail messages EWASS board members wrote “we definitely want the participants to come to Valencia” as the Council can easily verify themselves. It was apparently a Council decision to force people to come physically to Valencia if they want to take part in the meeting. In addition, as noted above, the justification of in-person being driven by the request of members is a weak argument, given the lack of support in the community for this and the fact that the survey question was not posed in a way that allowed the community to express their preferences effectively.

“Remote attendance has always been available for the plenary sessions, which are the heart of our annual meetings, to allow those who could not (or prefer not) to travel to Valencia. In addition, this includes access to e-posters and interaction through Slack and the online platform. This comes at a substantially reduced registration fee of €80.“

The on-line attendance that EAS offers to their annual meeting this year is a half-hearted attempt that will not convince anyone of on-line participation as an effective format. Perhaps that is partly the point, and the low participation in this pseudo-hybrid format will later be used as an excuse that there wasn’t enough interest anyway? State-of-the art digital meetings are designed with a “digital first” principle in mind, otherwise remote attendees will only be second class watchers. Effective hybrid interaction is only possible when effort is dedicated to ensuring a good experience for all audiences, rather than focusing solely on the in-person and seeing the online as an afterthought add-on.

The bulk of the scientific discussions at EAS meetings happen in the sessions, as the EAS Council must know. Not granting remote access there means that especially early-career researchers, people with caring duties, disabilities, or people who are actually aware of the climate emergency and refuse to fly, are deprived of the option to take part effectively in this year’s meeting – in contradiction to the self-stated goals of the EAS to foster inclusivity and sustainability.

“We are pleased to confirm that we have found a way for EAS members who are not able to attend the conference in person to have virtual access to our General Assembly.”

It is only through repeated pressure from us and the broader community that the EAS Council have, at long last, conceded on this point, something they fail to acknowledge in their statement.

“This year the Society signed the UN Climate Neutral Now Initiative, making a commitment to substantially reduce our carbon footprint by the end of this decade.”

Again, this signature was only made because of the suggestion and subsequent pressure from the sustainability working group. Again, there is no acknowledgment of our involvement in this crucial decision. However, the signature alone is not sufficient, but must now be followed by active climate action, which the EAS Council has been unfortunately unwilling or unable to take in our interactions with them to date. If there was the need for another example beyond EAS2022, holding a council meeting in Crete (23 May 2022) shows that beyond the scene the Council wants to keep running business as usual and get back to the “old normal” rather than look for ways to adapt in the future..

All in all, if it is not clear to the community today, it will become obvious soon that the current EAS leadership is not able or willing to guide European astronomy to a sustainable and inclusive future. A fundamental shift in either strategy, leadership, or both, is urgently needed to future-proof and improve European astronomy, as well as contributing to the evolution of academic practice on a global scale.

“The Society remains committed to exploring sustainable solutions for future annual meetings in pursuit of that goal.”

The time for exploring was one or two decades ago. Now is the time for urgent action.

Despite many words, what we are missing in EAS Council’s response is an acknowledgement of the crisis we are in and of an ambition to lead our field via tangible impactful actions into a sustainable future!

Leo Burtscher, Lola Balaguer-Núñez, Valentina D’Orazi, Didier Barret, Tobias Beuchert, Emre Dil, Agnieszka Janiuk, Beatriz Mingo, Eloisa Poggio – and with input from Vanessa Moss of “The Future Of Meetings” community of practice

Competing interests

Our key interest is to preserve our planet, both for our community and humanity at large.

Re-formatting tables with astropy

The fact that astropy is a very powerful tool is certainly well known these days, but I would like to briefly express my admiration especially for the Table package. This package allows, among many other things, to quickly convert tables between various formats (ASCII, CSV, LaTeX, many others) and it also allows to re-format individual columns. For example, if you would like to change the number of significant digits for a specific column (“seeing”), you simply open the table and assign the usual format specifier to this column like this:

from astropy.io import ascii




The situation of researchers

Apart from research itself, I am also interested in the situation of researchers. Actually this has caught my interest since realizing sometime in the middle of the first year of my Ph.D. that competition for scientific positions is extremely high and that it is therefore crucial for science workers to join forces if we want to ensure some minimum standards.

PhDnet survey 2009During that time I actively started to participate in the Max Planck PhDnet, the association of Ph.D. candidates in the Max Planck Society, and in 2009 became their spokesperson. One of the largest projects we performed during that time was to conduct a survey among all Ph.D. candidates about their working conditions. With a ca. 50% participation rate, this was the first large and representative Ph.D. candidate survey in the Max Planck Society.


The survey report (direct link to PDF download) has been distributed (by the Max Planck Society) to all directors and we have received quite some press coverage during that time. One of the spicy findings was that there was no difference in working conditions of contract holders and stipend holders, thereby questioning the different payment modalities. It took several more years (and some dirty fights), but eventually in 2015, the Max Planck Society decided to get rid of stipends. For the full story, see the Science Careers article “Junior Max Planck researchers win reforms“.

For most researchers it comes without asking that you want to shape your own working environment towards the better. However, sometimes junior researchers have to face strict opposition when being concerned about their careers, their contracts or such. Often it is then said that (junior) researchers should “focus on their research” and not “waste their time” with political actions. This is, with all due respect, nonsense. If it’s not for us — the junior researchers — to ask for better employment contracts, career perspectives and fair treatment in applications, then who is going to lobby for us? Ah, and sometimes it is also at least indirectly suggested that only dimwits are concerned about their careers and contracts. The really excellent scientists don’t need to worry, it goes. Let me ask my friend Albert to answer this: “I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.” (A. Einstein, 1950. Out of my later years. New York, NY: Philosophical Library.) — a quote that I read in an excellent article about why junior researchers need to unionize.

15 April 2020 – This text used to be a part of my main website, but I will make space in my navigation bar for another topic that I deem more relevant these days: the climate crisis.

METIS in 500 words

METIS is the “Mid-Infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph” and I will explain it by dissecting the complicated name:

Mid-infrared” refers to wavelengths between 3-20 micrometers. This range is also referred to as thermal radiation because things that are at room temperature emit the most light in these wavelengths. By looking at this wavelength range we can see objects in space that are at this temperature, about 300 degrees above absolute zero. These are, for example, planets that resemble the Earth, so not those hot Jupiter-like planets (that we have known for thirty years or so), but planets that may have an earth-like atmosphere and perhaps, yes… maybe even have a form of life. There is good hope that we’ll find an Earth-like planet in orbit around our closest star: Alpha Centauri. It is so bright that we have to be very careful when we observe it with METIS, otherwise our sensitive camera will be damaged. And that is exactly the challenge: block as much light as possible from the bright star until we can find the small planet nearby.

That is certainly the most spectacular use of METIS, but it is also the most risky one. Fortunately, there are many other things we can study with METIS. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, we will also make observations of the disks around young stars and the atmospheres of old stars. And in certain other galaxies we can also make observations in the mid-infrared light. In almost every galaxy there is a super-massive black hole in the center. And when that actively accretes matter, the surrounding swirl of gas and dust gets hot and at certain places it reaches room temperature so that we can easily see it in the middle infrared.

ELT” stands for “European Extremely Large Telescope” and that is the name of the largest telescope in the world that is now under construction. It is being built by a European organisation (the European Southern Observatory or ESO) on a mountain in the Atacama desert in Chile and will be ready in the mid 2020s. With its diameter of almost 40m, the area of that telescope will be larger than the areas of all current large telescopes combined! There is no company in the world that can produce such a large mirror and so the main mirror (the one that will be almost 40m in size) consists of 798 segments, each with a diameter of about 1.45m. And they all have to be placed in such a way that the whole mirror then becomes a parabola. Almost impossible, right?

Finally, “Imager and Spectrograph” refers to what the instrument will be able to do: record pictures and spectra. With the “Imager” we can for example take a real picture of an earth-like planet and with the “Spectrograph” we can analyze the light of that planet and compare it with models of atmospheres to discover what happens on that planet.

METIS — uitgelegd in het Nederlands



METIS is de “Mid-Infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph” en we zullen deze ingewikkelde naam even uitleggen.


“Mid-infrared” betekent een bereik van golflengten (3-20 micrometer) die we ook thermische straling noemen omdat spullen die op kamertemperatuur zijn het meeste licht in deze golflengten uitstralen. Dus kunnen we op deze manier ook in de ruimte voorwerpen zien die op deze temperatuur, zo’n 300 graden boven het absolute nulpunt, zijn. Dat zijn bijvoorbeeld planeten die op de aarde lijken, dus niet die hete Jupiter-achtige planeten (die we nu al sinds dertig jaar of zo kennen), maar planeten die mogelijk een aard-achtige atmosfeer hebben en misschien, ja… misschien zelfs een vorm van leven kunnen hebben. Er is goed hoop dat we een aard-achtige planeet in orbit rondom onze nabijste ster zullen vinden: Alpha Centauri. Die is zo helder dat we erg voorzichtig moeten zijn als we die met METIS zullen waarnemen, want anders raakt onze gevoelige camera beschadigd. En dat is dan ook precies de uitdaging: zo veel mogelijk licht van de heldere ster blokkeren totdat we de kleine planeet in zijn buurt kunnen vinden.


Dat is zeker de spectaculairste bedoeling van METIS, maar ook de riskantste. Gelukkig zijn er nog heel wat andere dingen die we met METIS kunnen bestuderen. In ons sterrenstelsel, de Melkweg, zullen we ook waarnemingen doen van de schijven rondom jonge sterren en de atmosferen van oude sterren. En ook in bepaalde andere sterrenstelsels kunnen we in het midden-infrarode licht waarnemingen doen. In bijna ieder sterrenstelsel zit er namelijk een super-massaal zwart gat in het midden. En als dat actief materie aanzuigt, wordt die heet en komt op bepaalde plekken juist op kamertemperatuur zodat we ze dan makkelijk kunnen zien in het midden infrarood.


“ELT” staat voor “European Extremely Large Telescope” en dat is de naam van de nu in aanbouw zijnde grootste telescoop der wereld. Die wordt door een Europese organisatie (de European Southern Observatory of ESO) op een berg in de Atacama woestijn in Chili gebouwd en zal in 2024 klaar zijn. Met z’n doorsnee van bijna 40m wordt de oppervlakte van die telescoop groter dan de oppervlakten van alle huidige grote telescopen gecombineerd! Er is geen bedrijf in de wereld dat een zo grote spiegel kan produceren en dus bestaat de hoofdspiegel (degene die bijna 40m groot zal zijn) uit 798 segmenten, ieder met z’n 1,45m doorsnee. En die moeten allemaal precies zo geplaatst worden dat de hele spiegel dan een parabola wordt. Bijna onmogelijk, toch?


“Imager and Spectrograph” betekent wat we met de camera (METIS) zullen doen: plaatjes en spectra opnemen. Met de “Imager” kunnen we bijvoorbeeld een echt plaatje van een aardachtige planeet opnemen en met de “Spectrograph” kunnen we het licht van die planeet dan analyseren en vergelijken met modellen van atmosferen om te ontdekken wat er op die planeet gebeurt.

How to set up your Mac as a shared drive for TimeMachine on macOS High Sierra

I used to use my late 2014 Mac mini at home with an external hard drive connected as a shared drive to backup several Macs using TimeMachine. This has worked well for years now, but recently the clients stopped to recognise the Mac mini as TimeMachine server. I followed these two instructions and now it works:

  1. The official Apple support post to set up your Mac as a TimeMachine server (essentially: right click on the shared drive in the Sharing preference pane and select it to serve as a TimeMachine disk). This made the disk appear again in the client’s TimeMachine preference pane, but it wouldn’t allow me to connect saying (translating from German) “You don’t have the required permissions to use this disk”. Only after following the next step, did it work.
  2. This user-contributed instruction on the Apple discussions forum (essentially: create a folder on the shared disk and share the folder rather than the whole disk)

Don’t bother with all the old tips on the web saying that you need to download the ca. 30 € Apple server software. It doesn’t support TimeMachine anymore for newer macOS versions and it is not required anyway, as you can also just make it work using the built-in sharing feature.

The open science workshop at the Stifterverband

This is a follow-up to my post 2 days ago about open-ness in astronomy, with some observations and comments from the corresponding workshop yesterday in Berlin, organized by the Stifterverband. The workshop was visited by about 30 people from all parts of society — researchers, library managers, civil servants from national and foreign science ministries, as well as people from industry (software, automotive, airport services, among others). In the spirit of open-ness the workshop adopted the “Chatham House rule” which essentially says that you may report freely about what has been said, but only if individual participants cannot be identified.

The workshop was organised in discussions within the respective sectors science, administration and industry and round-the-table discussions with everyone. As always in a workshop with such a diverse audience and broad aim (“to explore potentials and challenges from open research and innovation processes”), it is hard to give a one paragraph summary of the many topics discussed, but I will try nevertheless.

An “innovation culture” needs to admit errors

Most participants agreed that open-ness is a mindset that helps with innovative thinking, but it was also agreed that there are limits to open-ness, e.g. due to privacy (e.g. patient data in medical applications) or security (e.g. when in connection with critical infrastructure) concerns. To be able to openly discuss not just final results, but also your way there (e.g. your methods), requires some tolerance towards failure. If you cannot risk to fail, you can also not be open as you will only talk about your project after you have achieved some major success. And it also requires some trust or self-confidence that you will have another good idea in case the one you publish today is being picked up by someone else.

The measure becomes the target

In the discussion group on open-ness in science the discussion was focused on the question “how can we fix science?”. Science is becoming more and more an industrial machinery, optimised for maximum impact and citation numbers, opting for certain results (that are often boring) rather than trying out radical new experiments (that often fail). Science managers and politicians try to increase the “output” for a given level of (public) funding and need to be able to measure the output in order to report on changes. Generally the output is now seen as number of papers and number of citations each paper receives. However, focusing too intensively on these narrow indicators leads to the effect that many scientists now try to maximise their impact as measured by these numbers, rather than try to work on something bigger that does not (immediately) result in a large number of papers or citations. Think about the gravitational wave experiments which produced null-results for decades – before receiving the Nobel Prize this year. Other metrics, such as Altmetic which measures the impact of your research in society, may be helpful to get a wider view of the relevance of research projects.

Publication bias

Typically people only publish their studies if they find a result. If nothing could be measured or the result was deemed not of interest, it is not published. A participant called the so-accumulated knowledge “dark knowledge” and cited an Austrian funding agency which estimated (by looking at allocated budgets) that this “dark knowledge” grows 2-3 times as fast as published knowledge. It was agreed that also failures should be published, but it was also agreed that publishing null-results is not honoured in our current research system, or as one participant put it: “How many unsuccessful scientists do you know”?

Science as the stroke of a genius or regular work?

Underlying many discussions about how to measure success in scientists, how to evaluate scientific work (and scientists themselves!), is the question of how scientific progress is perceived. Unfortunately many people still believe science progress when some genius has a fantastic idea. This can occasionally be the case, but usually even the genius bases his or her insight on published literature which to the most part consists of hard work by hard working people, trying out new methods and slowly progressing in understanding some topic. It was felt that this work is often not properly appreciated. We concentrate too much on people who have done some fantastic new thing, rather than on the many “smaller” scientists who contributed to the success of the “genius”. This is also reflected in the current job situation, especially in Germany, where there is little room for normal working academics: You’re either a (perceived) genius and can then advance to become a professor or you’re continuously on short-term “postdoc” contracts without stability or job security.


There was some uncertainty as to how best open up the scientific process to the general public. Some believed that the next big step, after simple press releases and more interactive talks / blogs / social media is a full participation of the general public via citizen science projects. Others were more cautious and thought this is just a “hype” that is only applicable to a small set of projects. Indeed in astronomy, the GalaxyZoo project mentioned also in my previous post was highly successful, but it is unclear if citizens’ help in classifying galaxies will be needed in the future given recent advances in machine learning codes.

What can science contribute to society?

Finally the question was discussed what can science contribute to the wider society? Here I’d like to describe two of the most widely discussed points:

  • Science contributes skeptical thinking. Skepticism is one of the basic traits of a good scientist and encourages everyone not to take claims for granted, but to critically ponder whether they can be true, ask for references, proof and repetition. In times of “fake news”, “climate deniers” and vaccination hoaxers, the importance of this trait cannot be overestimated. It was also stated that science needs to be healthy to encourage skepticism. If we only try to reach the maximal numbers of papers or citations, this does not necessarily help to question existing paradigms and make real progress.
  • Science may also contribute tools and best practices for open-ness, such as the distributed version-control system github, open access publication platforms, and other tools to openly share information. Note that also the world-wide web was initiated from a research environment (the CERN) and it was created in an effort to make information accessible. Nowadays, this would perhaps also be called open science…

Update (16 March 2018): The Stifterverband has published a white paper on Open Science at their webpage describing their initiative for Open Science and Innovation (both are in German).

Astronomy as an example for an open science

When a former Max Planck colleague who now works at the Stifterverband, a public-private think-tank, called me in October and asked if I wanted to take part in a workshop about open science, I was unsure what astronomy could offer in this regard. However, when simply writing up the tools and processes many astronomers use (and take for granted), it quickly becomes clear that astronomy is very much an open science already.

In the spirit of open science, I would like to document here my preparation for the discussion section of the workshop tomorrow.

What does openness in astronomy mean?

  • Open data: access to raw data (e.g. through the ESO archive) as well as access to surveys (e.g. through VizieR) and meta-data (e.g. through Simbad). The access is available for everyone and in most cases either in near real-time or after a proprietary period of maximum 12 months (in most cases).
  • Open source: access to scripts, libraries, programming tools, codes, … that are used to analyse the raw data and derive scientific results. In the most open projects (such as astropy), even the development process is open and anyone can contribute via e.g. github. Platforms such the Astrophysics Source Code Library, on the other hand, publish the final code itself and make it searchable through standard literature search engines.
  • Open access means free and unimpeded access to consolidated scientific results as published in peer-reviewed journals. While many relevant astronomical journals, including the just recently launched Nature Astronomy, are not open access by themselves, most (all relevant?) journals now allow publishing the author’s copy on preprint servers such as on the arXiv. Most current research articles can be found on “astro-ph” (the astrophysics’ section of the arXiv). Still troublesome, however, are technical articles (e.g. about telescope or instrumentation projects), that are published in the SPIE proceedings. A google search for the fulltext of the article, including “filetype:pdf” as a further filter, often reveals the author’s copy, however. In some cases, authors can “rebel” against the copyright notice they typically have to sign in order to publish an article (see example below for one of the articles published during my Ph.D.).


Example of a modified copyright agreement granting only a non-exclusive license to the publisher and thus allowing to publish my own article on my homepage or on preprint servers.

  • Apart from open data, open source and open access, open science can also encompass outreach and communicating with the public. This can be in more traditional “teaching” ways through blogs (e.g. the German SciLogs platform on which I have blogged about my trips to Chile during my Ph.D. and later), talks, open house days etc., but in some cases it can also mean directly embedding citizens in your research project, such as demonstrated successfully by the GalaxyZoo project that involves citizens to classify galaxy morphologies, a task in which humans have so far been better than machines.
  • Open science should can also include transparent selection procedures. After all, the particular selection of proposals, job candidates, laureates etc. can shape the de-facto view of a field for a long time and therefore comes with big influence and power. This could, for example, mean to publish the criteria which will be used to select a candidate for a job and to democratically nominate committees that decide about proposals and prizes. This is partly the case in astronomy, e.g. the committees that help select proposals for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft are elected by the scientific staff themselves.
  • Last, but not least, I believe open science should also include democratic structures in universities and research institutes. Usually, in German universities, there are “Fachschaften” that have a say on the selection of professors, and the Max Planck society sponsors one of the largest Ph.D. networks in the country, the Max Planck PhDnet. On the more senior, but not yet tenured, level, however, the situation is less good. Attempts to form a postdoc network within the Max Planck Society have not been greeted with sympathy in several institutes as some directors fear to lose influence if juniors also have a say. This is, however, not specific to astronomy, but rather a general symptom of the research and higher education landscape in Germany.

Why do we promote open-ness in astronomy?

Astronomy is a highly competitive field (typically only one out of 20 astronomy Ph.D.s eventually gets a tenured research position). Open-ness in astronomy would not be supported if it weren’t also promoting competitiveness and productivity.

  • Regarding data, observatories, that run big telescopes, promote open science in order to increase the observers’ desire to quickly publish “their” data (lest others “steal” them). Top-nodge data are often publicly available from the start. The first observations with the next, biggest space telescope will be open access from day 1, as announced today. The first observations for instruments built for the European Southern Observatory ESO, are also usually publicly available from the start, e.g. these GRAVITY science verification data. Other data are usually openly accessible after a 12 month “proprietary period”. This can sometimes be in conflict with the “owners” (PIs) of the data.
  • Regarding open source, the motivation to publish tools and software code is manifold: the author(s) of the code publish it in order to promote their code (and collect citations to associated research papers), but also so that others can contribute in the development. Last but not least, publication is the best way to help others in finding bugs and errors and therefore make your own research more credible.
  • Open access is in the interest of everyone except scrupulous publishers who want to make a profit from publicly financed research. It helps to promote science and the scientific method, also in the wider society, if the basic results are openly accessible. And it helps researchers from poorer countries who cannot afford paying expensive subscription fees to Nature, Science et al.
  • Public outreach also helps everyone, but can be a burden for researchers who also have to teach / supervise students, manage projects, deal with bureaucracy and publish, publish, publish. Motivations to nevertheless indulge in public outreach reach from simple PR for your own research (in order to attract more research money or to boost one’s ego…), but can also include serious collaboration with the public (see GalaxyZoo). Often the motivation for being active in public outreach is also to promote the scientific method (e.g. the Science March initiatives) or a feeling of a moral obligation as publicly funded research should also be of benefit for the public.
  • Transparent selection procedures and democratic structures, finally, are also a win-win situation: researchers gain trust in the process and will therefore try harder to win prizes, fellowships and jobs. The academic institutions, on the other hand, win by becoming more attractive to a wider range of (international) applicants. The only downside is an increased effort of documentation / communication, but I believe the benefits well outweigh the costs.

I am interested to see the discussion tomorrow and will try to report back with a view from the other participants / fields as well!

Update 15 Nov:

Een verhaal over mij, de sterren en ons, en mijn werk

Een verhaal over mij, de sterren en ons, en mijn werk

voor de Nacht van de Nacht, 28 oktober 2017, Panbos Katwijk

Hallo, ik ben Leo en kom origineel uit Oostenrijk maar heb lange tijd in Duitsland gewoont. Vier maanden geleden ben ik met mijn gezin, mijn vrouw en onze drie kinderen, naar Leiden verhuisd. Ik werk aan de Sterrwacht van de Universiteit Leiden en wil jullie vandaag graag wat vertellen over de sterren en ons..

Overdag, wanneer het helder is, zijn we bezig met ons werk, overleggen met collega’s, praten met vrienden en gezinsleden. We kunnen dan snel vergeten dat er nog veel meer om ons heen is! Indien de nacht helder was, zullen we vandaag de maan kunnen zien. Hij heeft een afstand van rond 380.000 km — tien keer de hele wereld rond! En toch is deze afstand klein in vergelijking met andere astronomische objecten. Dus gebruiken astronomen niet kilometers om de afstand te beschrijven maar de snelheid van licht. En die is heel snel! Het heeft maar rond één seconde nodig om van de maan naar ons te komen. Dus is het makkelijk om ook verdere afstanden te beschrijven. Bijvoorbeeld: onze zon is ongeveer acht licht minuten ver en de (kleine)planeet Pluto slechts vijf en half uur. [Kennen jullie die?] De andere planeten zijn niet zo ver en er zijn er acht in totaal: Mercurius, Venus, de aarde (onze wereld), Mars, Jupiter, Saturnus, Uranus en Neptunus.

En er is nog veel meer: We wonen maar op één planeet van miljarden in ons sterrenstelsel, de Melkweg! Er zijn rond 200 miljard sterren in de Melkweg (die we bij heldere hemel en indien het heel donker is, kunnen zien) en elke ster kan enkele planeten hebben! Tot vandaag zijn er rond 3700 planeten buiten ons zonnestelsel bekend, maar we weten al dat er nog veel meer planeten moeten zijn omdat we tegenwoordig alleen de grootste en bizarste planeten kunnen waarnemen!

In Leiden bouwen wij dus een camera voor de volgende, grootste telescoop van de wereld, de European Extremely Large Telescope. Hun spiegel is groter dan alle spiegels van de huidige telescopen samen! En met de camera die we bouwen (die heet METIS) kunnen we dan voor de eerste keer planeten die op de aarde lijken bestuderen en misschien een andere planeet vinden waar leven mogelijk is. Maar tot dit moment is de aarde de enige planeet in het zonnestelsel en ook in de hele Melkweg, die we kennen en waar leven mogelijk is. Dus moeten we haar goed beschermen!

What I did the last 2.5 years…

After working on GRAVITY for about three years, I continued my postdoc phase at MPE 2015/2016 with a self-funded (*) project. (*) “self-funded” is of course a very misleading term as I didn’t fund myself out of my pocket (but was rather funded by generous German tax money via the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG). This project is not completely finished, but my family and I moved to Leiden this year so that I could take on my current position as “calibration scientist” with E-ELT/METIS at the Sterrewacht of the University of Leiden. I hope to complete this project with the next year or two, however, with the help of a recently recruited Ph.D. student. In the meantime, the DFG has asked everyone who was funded in this “priority programme” on the interstellar medium to write a report about what they did. This was actually an interesting reflection on the last 2.5 years of research and I would like to share it here (PDF) with anyone who would like to read it.

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