Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How not to get tenure

Speaking of the Templeton Foundation, it is claimed that the TF(*) was one of the few sources of funding that Guillermo Gonzalez managed to obtain. Indeed, it seems he only managed to bring in $170,000 spread over 5 years, compared to the average of $1,300,000 other ISU physics and astronomy faculty had brought in while they were on tenure track!

GG's failure to bring in normal levels of funding, in addition to a dramatic drop in publication rate and lack of grad student/postdocs, were major factors in him being denied tenure. These are, along with undergraduate teaching, major aspects of being a professional scientist in tenure-track although tenure is not based on a fixed set of rules.

Many good scientists do not get tenure (e.g. Rob Knob of the Galactic Interactions blog), and many good scientists never even get onto tenure-track in the first place. Given that GG appears to have failed to satisfy the requirements in many ways it is totally unsurprising that he was denied tenure at Iowa State University.

That he espoused an unscientific astronomical version of Intelligent Design and had close links to the Discovery Institute was also, quite rightly and quite fairly, another aspect of concern for the the faculty in the Physics department he was attempting to get tenure from. The Discovery Institutes's anti-secular and anti-scientific agenda, coupled with its manifest dishonesty is no secret. The recently revealed emails clearly show that GG's DI/ID links were known and were (entirely fairly) viewed negatively but were not used as a litmus test to "discriminate" against him. Of course, this will not stop Gonzalez and the DI is hijacking a routine and just decision in order to play politics.

After all, the faculty must have been aware of his views when they offered him tenure-track in the first place - they were no secret in the astronomical community - yet he did get a tenure track position. I have no doubt that while the faculty may have viewed GG's views with distaste they would have given him tenure had he satisfied the standard requirements of all tenure track faculty: bring in funding, mentor students and postdocs, be scientifically productive. Guillermo Gonzalez has only himself to blame for his current position.

Gonzalez could have used those tenure track years to engage in peer-reviewed research to develop the concept of galactic habitability and turn it from a poorly-constrained hypothesis into a robust theory. He could easily have applied for grants to pay for several grad students and postdocs to to work with him to expand our knowledge of the role galaxies play in habitable planet formation and evolution.

But Guillermo Gonzalez didn't attempt to further science. Instead he decided to present his speculative and religiously-distorted views of Galactic Habitability to the unsuspecting public as scientific fact through his book "The Privileged Planet", bypassing peer review altogether.

In the mean time real science, done by real scientists, went ahead and left Guillermo Gonzalez behind. The ADS abstract service records 440 astronomy-related abstracts with the word habitable in 2006-2007 alone. If we repeat the search requiring the surname Gonzalez be one of the authors we get 1 abstract, and its a M. Gonzalez, not Guillermo. I have to expand the search to 2000-2007 before the Guillermo Gonzalez(**) appears, and then only in three abstracts, two of which are reviews rather than new work. Again, by way of comparison 107 abstracts contained "Galactic" and "Habitable" in the abstract between 2000 and 2007 (1353 with the word Habitable alone).

If Guillermo Gonzalez really believed that astrophysics did indeed provide convincing evidence of a Designer (specifically a Christian God) why would he have abandoned actual research?

(*) I am informed that the TF fund many good studies the interaction between science and religion, and that the TF is opposed to the "culture war" spin presented by fundamentalists such as the DI. Some of the people they occasionally fund are less rational though.

(**) There is also another Guillermo Gonzalez in professional astronomy.

Anyway, all this politics is tiring. In my next post we'll be back to discussing really interesting stuff. Yup, more on galactic winds!

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