Astronomers Say More Diversity Needed in Field as Men Greatly Outnumber Women: Survey

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report Thursday, calling for more diversity in the field among other goals for the next 10 years.

The survey of astronomers is done every 10 years and aims to draw various inputs from mostly U.S.-based scientists. The 614-page report stressed the importance and need for greater diversity in a field that is still predominantly male.

It urged NASA and the National Science Foundation And Energy Department to also treat harassment and discrimination "as forms of scientific misconduct," and to add more diversity to its upper levels. The report also calls on NASA to consider and prioritize a science team's diversity when doling out money for projects or research.

The report also pushed the priorities of searching for extraterrestrial life, habitable planets, exploring origins and evolutions of black holes and the universe, and capturing pictures of any Earth-like worlds that might be beyond our universe.

"The coming decades will set humanity down a path to determine whether we are alone," the report said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NASA Pushed for more diversity
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report Thursday, calling for more diversity in the field among other goals for the next 10 years. This image shows thousands of galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in observations from 2002-2009. NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University, and the HUDF09 Team/Associated Press

"Life on Earth may be the result of a common process, or it may require such an unusual set of circumstances that we are the only living beings within our part of the galaxy, or even in the universe. Either answer is profound," the report stated.

The latest report recommends that NASA create a new office to oversee space observatories and overlapping missions in the coming decades. First up should be a telescope that's significantly bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope that would be capable of spotting planets that are 10 billion times fainter than their stars, the report stated. Once the necessary technologies are ready, this telescope could be ready to launch in the 2040s for around $11 billion, followed by other mega observatories in the billions of dollars.

But the report emphasized the need for smaller, more modest missions as well. Launching one spacecraft per decade with a cost cap of $1.5 billion, it stated, balances science with timeliness.

The report noted the threat in years past of cost overruns and delays in major projects. Due to finally blast off next month, the NASA-led James Webb Space Telescope—designed to scan the early universe and explore the atmospheres of other worlds—is a prime example of that. Yet its launch promises to be "a momentous occasion that will shape the course of astronomy and astrophysics in the coming decades," the report noted.

The report—sponsored by NASA, National Science Foundation, Energy Department and Air Force—noted that the survey was conducted during a health crisis. While the pandemic has underscored the importance of science, "the ultimate economic and social impacts of the pandemic remain unclear, adding to the uncertainty of the future landscape."