Monday, March 05, 2007

Careers for young astrophysicists: The magic 8 ball says "Outlook not so good" discusses the grim outlook for young researchers in the astrophysical sciences in the US, given the budget crisis NASA has been experiencing for the last few years.

Although the article largely discusses post docs and grad students, the effects of reduced NASA funding also strongly affect researchers on soft money (i.e. those primarily support by NASA/NSF/DOE grants obtained by themselves, rather than teaching-related University pay). Indeed I would say that more than half of my contemporary astrophysicist colleagues I have known over during and after my PhD have now left research astronomy.

That there can never be enough funding to support all willing and capable researchers through a full career in science is a fact than no-one denies. Nor can we deny that the larger national and international political and economic environment will affect science funding in ways that can not be fully controlled and that do not necessarily make long-term sense.

But these "hard facts" do not mitigate the real negative effects on the individual human lives involved, nor the damage done to longer term scientific progress and the growing weakening of the US's once over-whelming scientific leadership. The article tries to end on a positive note - that...

"The saving grace for many young researchers is that they are good scroungers. Many fields that are under the gun at NASA are multidisciplinary, so a transition to another line of research is feasible, at least for young scientists with vision, initiative, and talent."

But to me this is wishful thinking. All aspects of NASA funded-science are facing cuts, so shifts within the subfields of astrophysical sciences (e.g. from X-ray astronomy to IR or even theory) are at best temporary stays of execution, should current trends continue. Leaving astronomy is almost always final, and most of my contemporaries who have left astronomy now do jobs very different from what could be considered academic scientific research.

Nor are there many in those who are forced to leave astronomy who do not have "vision, initiative, and talent" - they would not have made it this far without it.

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