Sociology Assistant Professor Sharla Alegria presented in a panel discussion at NASA’s recent workshop entitled, Precursors to Pathways: Science Enabling NASA Astrophysics Future Great Observatories. Alegria was one of two outside panelists who participated along with three NASA community members in a conversation to guide NASA’s thinking about inclusivity in the development of future observatories and the science leading up to them. Alegria drew attention to a common tendency to understand the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the sciences as the result of a deficit in skills or lack of interest rather than the history of institutional exclusion. She pointed to inconsistencies in the way underrepresentation is understood. For instance, math is often perceived as a barrier for women to participate in science but math, as an academic field, is more gender diverse than several other fields, including physics and computer science. This fact suggests a strategy that NASA and others wanting to increase diversity and inclusion could use to employ more underrepresented scientists. They could recruit scientists with similar or transferable skills from related disciplines that have more race and gender diversity. Alegria also commented on the additional challenges that women of colour navigate such as having less well-resourced networks and having to constantly struggle against doubts about their competence.
The NASA workshop was a three-day event aimed at soliciting interest in a new funding program from a broad scientific community, including early career researchers. The call for proposals, which will be released later in 2022, centres on the mission design of Future Great Observatories (FGOs) and seeks investigations in theoretical studies, laboratory astrophysics experiments, archival research, and observational investigations, among other possibilities. More information about the April workshop can be found here. A second NASA Precursor Science workshop is planned for July 2022.