门外天文谈

Last updated 2020-06-15 00:02:35 SGT

An Outsider's Perspective on US Astronomy: Thoughts on Systemic Racism

As many of my friends know, I personally opposed (and continue to oppose) the complete elimination of the GRE (and in particular Physics GRE) as an admissions criterion for our astronomy department. I am completely fine with permitting it as a strictly optional input; however, I am deeply uncomfortable with getting rid of it altogether. I am well aware of the demonstrable historical correlation between GRE scores and socioeconomic/racial background (the two being essentially inseparable in the US, for many reasons). My stance here is not that the PGRE isn't ipso facto bad — it is, both morally and functionally. I hold rather that it is simply less bad than existing alternatives.

As far as I know the usual objections to the Physics GRE are that, insofar as it is not astronomy-specific, success on the PGRE a priori does not translate to success as astronomer. Conversely, the specific structure of the PGRE (taken under strict, high-stakes exam conditions, requiring deliberate preparation especially for a non-physicist audience) makes it a regressive burden on traditionally underrepresented minorities, on top of the already regressive resource barrier required to even take it in the first place, or potential second-order effects (psychological aversion to exam conditions etc). I completely agree that in these respects the PGRE is terrible. Any criterion used by a graduate admissions committee should as a matter of principle be free (in both senses) and open to attempts by all who are willing. Even were it to present any costs of participation, the costs should scale (in the sense of means-testing), rather than be fixed (and thus regressive). The PGRE is none of these things.

This being said, I think that as matters currently stand the other admissions criteria that have been proposed, or which are in active use, are by these standards at least as problematic, if not more so. Let's explicitly denumerate a few failure modes:

• Admissions interviews, which our department introduced this year. Leaving aside implicit biases that colour any kind of interpersonal interactions, the other unavoidable issue here is that succeeding at academic interviews is a barriered skill in the same way as is succeeding at the PGRE. But at least you can learn physics out of a book! Learning to speak the language of the academy, by contrast, is a cultural rather than technical affair. Acculturation in turn requires the kind of idiosyncratic personal mentorship that many first-generation students, of whom BIPOC constitute the disproportionate majority, will not have been trained to seek out. Even were they to do so, we require also that they not be then rebuffed by further racism from potential mentors, overt or covert.
• Letters of recommendation — subverted by the hire-your-friends culture (or in this case admit-your-friends'-undergrads culture) that astronomy suffers from (in particular at "elite" institutions), with its small and tight-knit research communities. Moreover, this places applicants at the mercy of being in the good graces of potential letter-writers, with the same possible cascading systemic failures as above, except more directly. At least the PGRE, however imperfect, is a measure of individual competence at something, rather than of access to social capital.
• Research experience — this is even more access-gated than the PGRE! No matter how ideal the undergraduate admissions policies of top-tier universities are, this raw diversity is meaningless without the institutional know-how required to navigate the academy, or at least to random-walk one's way into the (typically obscure) astronomy programme. Even discounting this, drawing candidates solely from these well-funded institutions would in itself be deeply problematic, and in any case, that these universities are well-funded at all — enough to support undergrad-level astronomy research programmes at least — is inseparable from the non-ideal properties of their undergraduate admissions process. Compared to admission to these universities, the marginal cost of the PGRE is trivial. On the other side of the coin, how many historically-black colleges have the resources to make any substantial investment in astronomy, let alone a full astronomy department?

All this is to say: my specific beef with removing the PGRE is that under the present operating environment, its removal ceteris paribus seems to me to do more harm than good, to the extent that existing alternative criteria appear categorically worse. Calling for its unconditional removal, given this context, smells a lot to me like the perfect solution fallacy. I don't think you can cook up any combination of holistic admissions criteria that can withstand being gamed immediately by the wealthy and committed — but there is only so much you can do to buy yourself a good PGRE score.

I also want to point out that all of these concerns extend beyond systemic racism in a domestic American context. Unfamiliarity with cultural norms in the (foreign) academy, unequal social capital among the (foreign) academic in-group, and lack of access to salient undergraduate research, are all problems that more generically also afflict international applicants to astronomy programmes in the global North (in a likewise inhomogenous but affluence-correlated fashion). It is precisely because of this that I haven't previously made my views on this matter very public: as an interested party I, and others like me, stand to gain personally from the views I propound here, were they acted upon. I only posted this because of recent discussions about systemic racism that have been happening at Yale recently, and I cannot help but observe the structural similarities. I have no interest in co-opting a movement to my own ends, however.

What now

I suspect that the Woke Twitterati would be incensed at any suggestion to bring back the PGRE, given that they fought so hard for its removal in the first place. However, I think there is some value in examining the typical counterarguments they provide. In particular, whereas some in favour of the PGRE claim that it serves as a standardised check of the general competence of applicants, the usual counterargument made here is that research experience is simultaneously more specific to astronomy, and more predictive of future success (since clearly people who are already successful can more easily continue to be successful?), and should be preferred instead. Therefore, the argument goes, dropping the PGRE can be compensated by other measures without necessarily compromising the quality of the candidate pool.

Leaving aside the objections I've already put forward above, I would like to question the obsession with quality and success in the first place. These counterarguments only make sense under a conception of graduate school as a place where the already successful go to become even more successful. The PhD is then but the membership card to the guild of astronomers, earned through a structured ritual that may or may not actually involve education (for as we all know, geniuses don't need to be taught). But what a terrible thing that would be, for a mere mortal like myself! I think that, to the extent that the advertised purpose of any graduate programme is to educate rather than merely certify education, this line of reasoning is not helpful, except maybe to illuminate the incentives of those falling back on it — these students would be successful wherever they go, so they may as well be successful here. And if the quality of your applicant pool should drop, so what? It's not what goes into the school that should matter in principle, as a sign of quality of education, but what comes out.

Moreover, my objections above are especially relevant because of the systemic racism underpinning access to research opportunities (indirectly modulated by inhomogenous funding and access to education), for astronomy in particular. If you will permit a tortured analogy: astronomy as an institution already stands in moral debt to BIPOC, as manifested in their terrible underrepresentation in the astronomical research community, past and present. As with any other kind of debt, this debt generates interest, insofar as inaction perpetuates the injustice — for instance, in the form of platitudes such as "there simply aren't as many qualified/interested applicants from these demographics" playing down and so exacerbating this underrepresentation over time. Tinkering around with graduate admissions to skew this way or that, PGRE or no, achieves little but to alter the moral interest rate, potentially in the wrong direction; it also misses the point entirely. Astronomy as a whole must instead begin actively paying down this debt — to me, this means explicit affirmative action. Anything less is but performative woke-signalling, effortless and empty.

At the same time, it seems to me that there exists some ideological objection to any kind of affirmative action insofar as it is ipso facto discriminatory, albeit punching up rather than down; nonetheless, nominally unjust to the individuals under consideration (who cannot be blamed for the sins of their forebears, except as they elect to be). However, to the extent that the issue here is systemic racism, rather than racism as commited by individuals, I don't think individuals should have a choice in this matter. In my opinion the root cause of this, as usual1, is the cult of the fetishisation of the individual. This is a cultural issue, for which I don't think any technical solution I can propose will suffice.

I don't think I can ever adequately express how uncomfortable I am at how much of US astronomy is funded by donations from private individuals, compared to outside the US, or even to the other natural/physical sciences (which actually have industries to speak of). So much has been said, these few weeks, of how institutions of the global North creak under the weight of their existing social and moral debt. But much less has been said, I think, of the accumulation of actual wealth, and the lack of any viable redistributive mechanisms currently in place. Given that BIPOC remain economically disadvantaged as a matter of historical violence, this is a true, fiscal, debt owed to them at large, generating interest in its own right. To the extent that astronomy subsists more on private donations in the US than in other (primarily tax-funded) regimes, the inescapable conclusion one arrives at is that the entire institutional edifice of modern US astronomy could not exist but for this interest, and therefore this debt.

At the same time, there is always the by now ancient problem that one understands something less the more one's livelihood depends on not understanding it. I suspect this is how we arrive at the frankly absurd situation where the default branch of a Git repository being named master is of more public concern to some astronomers than is the fact that the only black permanent staff at their swanky NYC institution are administrative — literally "the help" to the core scientific enterprise.

Knowing that these factors nonetheless determine my future job prospects in astronomy — even ignoring the institutional barriers to entry that were, the pandemic that is, and the climate change/world war/fascist dictatorship that are yet to come — has been absolutely wonderful for my mental health lately. Compared to these, grad school itself has almost been an escapist fantasy. Can you believe I still can get paid to do science and ignore the outside world? My one regret is that I have to graduate sometime. If anyone's still wondering why I've become so increasingly bleak over the course of the last four years in the USA as an astronomy graduate student, or why I sometimes exclaim inappropriate things about the US at parties2, I guess you have your answer now.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are owed to Malena Rice for giving feedback on a preliminary draft of this article.