Friday, July 17, 2020

The Fallout from COVID-19 on Astronomy’s Most Vulnerable Groups

Aparna Venkatesan (U. of San Francisco), Ed Bertschinger (MIT), Dara Norman (NOIRLab), Sarah Tuttle (U. of Washington, Seattle), Kelsie Krafton (AAS Bahcall Public Policy Fellow) 

Reaching to the stars
by Ares Nguyen via flickr
This has not been the year any of us envisioned. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is still raging in many countries, including the U.S. For many of us in academe or higher education, the challenges of an unprecedented spring look likely to continue through most, if not all, of the next academic year. We attempt here to begin a discussion of the enormous and still-increasing fallout from COVID-19 and other national/global crises on astronomy as well as STEM. We began to write this post in mid-May but have had to continuously update it as numerous crises spanning many arenas have emerged.

A Storm of Crises

From the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, its fallout on the most vulnerable populations in our world, and our field, has been visible, well documented, and steadily gaining in scope (see e.g. COVID Black), the newly released AIP report on COVID-19’s impact on the physical sciences, the impact of COVID-19 on gender equity in academe (Malisch+2020), and the fallout on working parents. Women, people of color, minoritized populations, immigrants, and especially women among minoritized populations have already suffered large setbacks to tenuous gains made recently that will be challenging to recover in the near term. This fallout gains in potency and breadth when combined with the significantly higher likelihood of food/housing insecurity, deeply entrenched structural racism, caregiving responsibilities, COVID-19 mortality rate, repercussions from rapid changes to immigration policies, and lack of accessibility that our field’s most minoritized members face, whether students, faculty, staff, researchers or otherwise. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We may all have come on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.” In present circumstances, he might have reframed this as “we may all be in the same storm today, but we are not in the same boat.”

Communities of color are especially hard hit by COVID-19. This pandemic has revealed and achieved painful resonance with other crises impacting health, such as the longstanding pandemics of structural racism, homelessness, and immigration vulnerabilities. These other crises are endemic and will continue long after COVID-19 has declined unless we take strong measures. The mass protests against police brutality and white supremacy that swept communities across the U.S. and the world following the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have shown us the power of spontaneous grassroots activism. They have also revealed that those with the most privilege must shoulder the most responsibility for restorative justice. Astronomy community members have shown especially strong leadership in calling for an end to oppression, including many of the leaders of Particles for Justice, ShutDownSTEM, and Vanguard STEM. The American Astronomical Society (AAS), the American Physical Society (APS), and the AAS Committee for the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA) have issued statements condemning racism and calling for targeted actions to support black scientists and black people in the U.S.

A Watershed Moment for Higher Education

Higher education and academe have always aimed at recruiting and retaining young talent from around the world, with a foundation of in-person learning and research. As a result, the closure of campuses from COVID-19 this spring combined with a rapid acceleration of immigration policy changes over the summer are poised to deliver a knockout blow to our universities and institutions. Recent policies stalled many J-1/H-1B visas and green card applications since the spring, and on July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a new policy that would have required international students whose U.S. university curricula are entirely online to leave the U.S., impacting more than 360,000 international students. Universities were essentially being asked to choose between their communities’ health and jeopardizing their international students’ ability to enter or remain in the U.S. This ICE directive was immediately challenged in the courts by many states and institutions, starting with Harvard and MIT. ICE eventually rescinded this plan on July 14, as this blog post was being submitted. However, international student enrollment is still projected to be at its lowest levels in decades for the upcoming academic year, owing to pervasive anti-immigrant policies, ongoing travel bans from many countries to the U.S., and a worldwide suspension of routine services like student visa processing at U.S. embassies and consulates during the pandemic. Furthermore, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is considering furloughing over 13,400 - roughly 70% - of its employees for 30 to 90 days starting in August, pending a Congressional bailout through a bipartisan bill introduced in the House on July 13 to fund USCIS through 2020. The sum total of these immigration policies and cutbacks implies that we can expect even more delays in an already hopelessly backlogged immigration system, with the true impact on higher education and on our nation’s employers becoming more clear over the coming months and years. The AAS and APS have issued statements on these policies expressing their outrage and condemnation; we encourage readers to sign up for action alerts and advocacy avenues through these professional societies.

Collectively, these profound crises in health, racism, immigration, and housing/food insecurity have come together at present to uniquely impact the landscape of higher education. Universities and academic institutions have historically relied on and drew strength from international students (graduate and undergraduate), and rich learning/campus experiences not easily reproduced online. Strong austerity measures are being put into place this summer with relative rapidity including furloughs, salary reductions, and not renewing adjunct, term faculty, and in more extreme cases, tenure track faculty positions. The first to be impacted by such measures are those already made more vulnerable by pandemic work/life conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a series of articles on this potential extinction year for universities and tracks furloughs and layoffs.

Impact on Astronomy and STEM

Owing to all these factors, we are already seeing a significant impact on the professional development and career trajectories of astronomers. These include canceled job interviews, hiring freezes, positions left unfilled, loss of professional opportunities (conferences, invited talks), finding a compromise between the health-mandated move to online learning versus the retention of our campuses’ international and domestic students, keeping our RAs and TAs paid, furloughs/layoffs leading to higher teaching loads for those who remain, and the loss of planned research (sabbaticals, visits to observatories or facilities to take data - this is potentially a permanent loss of the work and of the data itself as there is no guarantee of rescheduling when these facilities reopen). Many of us have already experienced this directly or seen this happen to those we supervise, collaborate with, or know. Collectively, these changes greatly affect who will survive career funnels, and be retained, tenured, or promoted in our field in the coming year or two.

Beyond economic factors, broader societal and home life issues have serious effects on at-risk scientists across career stages. Racist incidents and xenophobic language tend to rise during times of economic and broader crises, and COVID-19 is no exception. Many of our students and colleagues are already experiencing more hostility, racism, and harassment in the world and their workplace, leading to documented negative effects for their health and ability to continue in the field. Sheltering in place and working from home exacerbate environmental and accessibility differences for many vulnerable populations - differences that are not easily transcended and that translate to a large loss of research productivity and learning that will be very hard to make up. This Shelter-in-Place productivity gap worsens when we factor in the increased violence experienced by some women from their partner during extended periods at home, and the disproportionate burden of childcare on women trying to work from home while managing caregiving and remote learning environments for their child(ren). Childcare, or the lack of it, is especially emerging as a key factor for many working parents and the economy as plans to reopen schools remain frustratingly uncertain at present, only a few weeks ahead of the next school year. Many parents feel it is essentially impossible to imagine a return to normal work/life conditions until a plan for a semi-regular return to school routine is established. Some or all of these factors are behind an already documented drop in journal articles led by women, and by mothers facing the “maternal wall.” These factors are also behind why the brunt of this particular pandemic and the associated economic recession is being borne by women, compared with the “mancession” of 2008 where most of the lost jobs were in construction and manufacturing. We must acknowledge that extended shelter-in-place orders have increased the productivity of only a segment of our profession; many astronomers and students across career stages and living conditions need to leave home to have a stable research/teaching/learning environment in which they can be their productive best. Leaving home to be in a classroom or research lab could also provide a relatively level playing field with greater ease of peer engagement and ability to focus outside of the highly individual limitations/hazards of one’s home environment.

All these issues, and potential solutions, were raised in a recent survey by the AAS’s Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP) asking respondents how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their ability to work. There were 561 respondents who were overwhelmingly white, mostly male, and mostly without dependents or caregiving responsibilities (women were however over-represented in the response rate and comments boxes). Despite this overall potentially unrepresentative sample, child care emerged as one of the top issues people were facing, almost tying with the sum of all financial or funding requests. Many respondents felt the return to “normal” was far away or never. The goal of the survey was to hear from the respondents what they felt they personally needed to get back on track as a professional in the astronomical sciences, but many of the responses spoke to what we needed as a country or as humans. This survey was conducted relatively early (in late May and early June) and the AAS hopes to have at least one more survey in August, probably followed by a third survey in the fall.

Although the survey has not been analyzed for intersectionality yet, here are some key takeaways. On average, respondents felt a major impact by COVID-19 financially, in their ability to collaborate, their ability to publish, and especially their ability to access facilities. Those who had experienced a positive impact from COVID-19 on the amount of time they were able to spend on research were mostly not in teaching positions and were not caregivers. Some respondents were concerned that people in special circumstances, which allow them to be more productive currently, would be more recognized and praised in the long term for their efficiency. In addition to teaching and caregiving, many respondents had to deal with inadequate home office setups, being unable to collect the data they need, an increase in mental health problems, more time needed for advising students remotely (especially international students who are facing increasingly insurmountable problems with USCIS), and the deaths of their loved ones.

Solutions Needed Now

Given these complex and overlapping challenges, what can we all do in our individual roles and collectively? First, we will not fully grasp the slow-release erosion from COVID-19 on our field and its pipeline for years to come. Some agencies and institutions are taking first steps towards addressing this through the following steps: grant extensions, guaranteeing funding for graduate TAs and RAs, extending the tenure clock by a year (but see Malisch+2020 for some long-term drawbacks of this), special short-term funding programs for postdoc and new faculty fellowships, and proactively putting into place new evaluation metrics and policies that acknowledge the very real impact of COVID-19 on research/learning productivity and accessibility. Note that these simple short term steps will not be sufficient to address the individual and systemic conditions that have begun to force many of our colleagues and students out of our field; many of us can speak to this from personal experience or those we know. For example, a no-cost grant extension will not address many issues of paying for people/resources both now and over the extended timeframe. We should also realize that the steps needed for those employed (for now) but expecting pay cuts and furloughs will differ substantially from steps needed to protect those facing job terminations and imminent unemployment.

Further actions we should strongly consider at present include inviting those in our field experiencing the highest fallout to contribute to research collaborations, grant applications, and scientific papers, and targetedly helping those in danger of imminent unemployment find temporary work through letters or grants we write. Other steps include advocating for grant extensions with funding, special stopgap grants to keep students/postdocs employed who can't find jobs in this economic climate, and dedicated funding to support remote observing options and hiring of queue observing staff. Last, please consider nominating an excellent student or colleague who is a minoritized or at-risk member of our field for a prize or honor offered in your department, agency, or professional society.

In the AAS CAPP survey detailed earlier, the survey responses that requested direct financial relief mentioned many of these near-term measures to address the impact of COVID-19, as well as computing access extensions, and government assistance for agencies and universities. Other responses on what was needed immediately have indirect financial implications: childcare, virtual resources and office equipment for work from home, mental health care, processing of J1 and H1B visas, and delaying due dates for proposals and reports. We also refer to the recently released AIP report “Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences” for more potential solutions and post-pandemic recovery strategies.

Last, and certainly not least, we need targeted efforts to support the mental health of our profession from departmental/institutional to federal/national levels. In seeking to minimize the physical health impact of COVID-19, we must acknowledge the very real decline in mental health nationally and in our field, with increased isolation and decreased professional opportunities, networking, and employment prospects. Easier access to and funding for mental health care in person and online are critical now more than ever.

Emerging Together in a Post-Pandemic Astronomy

We are on the verge of erasing decades of tenuous gains with diversity/inclusion and at risk of returning to even more severely amplifying privilege (and lack of it). We need to move beyond representation alone and consider the broad swath of “pre-existing conditions” in our field and academe that have greatly increased the impact of COVID-19 on astronomy’s most vulnerable, making true equity even more of a distant goal than it was before the pandemic. We must also consider the reality of vastly differing levels of access to resources for individuals as well as institutions. Unless we move forward quickly on solutions as a field, we stand to lose the many bright minds and diverse voices that we have had the privilege of mentoring and collaborating with.

We have shared in this post some initial steps and considerations as we ask who we are most responsible for in a dramatically altered higher education and federal funding landscape, and who we wish to still count among us as we rebuild towards a post-pandemic astronomical science. Above all, as a field, we need to allow things to be slower and kinder and understand that the factors behind a privileged group’s unusual productivity when sheltering in place will cause CV gaps and delays for others, including many at-risk or minoritized students and colleagues. When we are able to safely return to our workplaces, it is important to practice compassion, and recognize that most of our time and energy have been directed towards surviving. Affirming kindness and community building (Estrada et al 2018) will be key to truly emerging together from COVID-19. We must be prepared to do the hard work of truly sharing burdens - this will be costly but ultimately the best way to ensure that the astronomical community emerges from this global crisis in a strong position.

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