Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Canary Islands, Observing Runs, and Children

Greetings from La Palma in the Canary Islands, where I am observing at the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo with the new HARPS-N spectrograph, hunting for exoplanets.

Ahhh, how my view of observing runs has changed in the past 8 years!

My reaction to the news that a proposal for telescope time has been accepted has changed dramatically since my wife and I had children.  My first thought used to be "What is my observing plan?"  Now, it is  "What is my childcare plan?"

I used to worry about travel arrangements for myself to get to the observatory, but instead I now worry about travel arrangements for my mother-in-law, or my parents, to get to Boston (or other arrangements for long term childcare, such as a nanny who might be able to stay over at our home).

The majority of my research program is based on automated observatories and the use of space telescopes such as the Hubble and Spitzer, and these (as well as opportunities for remote observing) have been enormous allies with respect to work-life balance.  But there is no getting around the fact that I, like most observational astronomers, do occasionally need to travel to distant locales -- Chile, Hawaii, the Canary Islands -- and these trips are going to have a minimum of a 1 week turnaround. And, of course, even if you are a theorist who has never observed at a telescope (really? the shame!), sharing your ideas (and career advancement) demand that you decamp for conferences (admittedly these are often in somewhat less dramatic locales).

So, this gets me to the point I want to make here: I would like to make the case that childcare is a research-enabling expense, and thus we should as a community think about ways to treat is as such and allow parents, particularly those not yet in permanent positions, to be reimbursed for these costs.

I remind you of the excellent data from a longitudinal study by M. A. Mason and colleagues showing that the decision to form a family accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline between the receipt of the PhD and the acquisition of tenure for women in the sciences. (Of course I am not suggesting here that everyone pursuing the PhD should have this as her goal. But this study focused on precisely those individuals who had stated that this was their goal at an earlier point.  Ah, the power of longitudinal data!) The message here is NOT that one need choose between having a family and staying on the tenure track: The study showed that men with children were not at a significantly higher risk of departure than their peers without children. Instead, the point is in most households women carry out the disproportionate amount of childcare, and there are only so many hours in a day.

Let me spell this out clearly in case you missed it: Many institutions (i.e. your employer) and many agencies, notably the NSF, have a stated goal to address through their activities (i.e. funding) the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. What this study does is make the connection between that goal and childcare.

This idea has already been embraced here and there in our community:

For example, at Harvard we have a fund to provide financial assistance to faculty who would like to travel to an event to advance their academic careers, and who have child care or adult dependent care obligations. Importantly, the funds can be used to pay for a myriad of expenses, including the cost of airfare for a child to join you on a trip and/or the costs for a relative or childcare provider to travel on that same trip, or for this individual to stay at your home while you are away. I think (or hope?) that there are similar programs at other institutions, and it would be great to hear about them in the comments below.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is particularly notable in that awardees of their Fellowships in Science and Engineering may use up to $10,000 per year for each of the 5 years for child-care expenses. Most notably, the Foundation received an Internal Revenue Service ruling to this effect. (When I first requested a reimbursement of such expenses from my fellowship, my employer was skeptical. The Foundation is used to this, and quickly provided a copy of the IRS decision.)

So, the case that childcare expenses are research-enabling has been recognized in different forums. I hope the number of organizations will continue to grow, and grow quickly!