Friday afternoon I attended the “Dark Energy Smackdown” colloquium at University of Toronto. I found it entertaining, interesting, and quite a refreshing conversation to be party to.
The “smackdown” was not regarding any of the science behind the study of dark energy, but rather the changing social context of astronomical research. As astronomy becomes more and more closely allied with high-energy physics, so the environments and research traditions interact and merge. Astronomy has traditionally been a field remarkably welcoming to students and new researchers, and remarkably open to openness and sharing of data; high energy physics considerably less so. So it becomes a concern that as research interests coincide, the discipline of astronomy may lose some of that which makes it special.
What was so refreshing was seeing these serious issues in the sociology of science being discussed by the scientists themselves. The problem I have with so much of the “science studies” stuff coming out of the 1990s is how “science” is treated as an utterly foreign culture, something weird for anthropologists to look in on. Results in a lot of “blah blah citations as reward system blah.” And the primary reaction of someone who works within the system is “yeah, that’s how things are, sure.” And that reaction tends to lead to a lot of defensiveness: “yeah, that’s how things are, and if you have a problem with it, you must not understand it properly.”
Thus, it’s good to see a bit of frank discussion along these lines, to see people who understand the system as well as possible talk about the things that they’d want to change. Culture, particularly one so consciously constructed, can and should be a bit fluid. And one can hope that if discussions like this are constructive in astronomy, they can also be held in other disciplines. After all, we do control what it is we do.