CATAC Update on the Thirty Meter Telescope

By Michael Balogh, CATAC Chair
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2018)

The Wide Field Optical Spectrograph (WFOS) first-light instrument on TMT is expected to be a workhorse instrument that will appeal broadly to many in the Canadian community. This has proven to be a challenging instrument to design to requirements, and in the coming few weeks three different designs will be undergoing a technical and cost review process. CATAC has been working to understand these designs and gather input so we can present advice that reflects the needs of Canadian astronomers.

There are currently three compelling designs being considered:

  1. Fiber-WFOS: A fiber spectrograph that achieves a multiplicity of ~700 targets with R=5000 and full wavelength coverage, over a 79 square arcminute field of view. The challenge here is in achieving the necessary precision in sky subtraction and calibration, especially for faint objects at wavelengths redward of ~0.7 microns. There is no direct imaging mode, and the spectral resolution and angular sampling of each fiber is fixed. However, fibers can be bundled together to form multiple deployable IFUs. System throughput may be compromised in the near-UV and at wavelengths longward of ~0.9 microns.
  2. Slicer-WFOS: This design is an imaging spectrograph that uses image slicers to reduce the physical slit width to achieve R=5000, maintaining full spectral coverage from 310nm to 1000nm, but with a lower multiplicity of 33 over a 25 square arcminute field of view. The notional design for this option does not include imaging, although it likely could be added. The deployment of the slicer modules has been identified as a challenging operational issue.
  3. Xchange-WFOS: This is an imaging spectrograph with an object multiplicity of about 100 at resolution of R=5000, again over a 25 square arcminute field of view. Simultaneous coverage of the full wavelength range is not possible, but there is flexibility in using multiple gratings to achieve different resolutions. In terms of operational use, this design is most similar to multi-object spectrographs such as GMOS. Objects are placed on slits, using masks that are designed and cut for individual fields. Xchange-WFOS has an imaging capability. Like GMOS, there is also the option of adding an IFU.

All three designs have strong advantages and are exciting concepts; there are also technical and scientific trade-offs to be considered. The technical risks associated with all designs are being assessed by a committee that will advise the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) over the next couple of weeks. The SAC itself will meet April 9-10, 2018, and one of their tasks at that meeting will likely be to recommend proceeding with one or more of these three designs.

Scientifically, at a high level we might consider fiber-WFOS as best suited for “survey science”, where large samples of targets with a high density on the sky are gathered over large areas. On the other hand, the slicer- and Xchange-WFOS designs may be better suited for diagnostic spectroscopy: smaller samples of precision spectroscopy. But even this is an overly reductive description of capabilities.

CATAC needs to hear from you to provide appropriate advice. Some specific questions are:

  • How do you imagine you (or your immediate descendants!) using WFOS in 2028? Are the sample sizes, target densities, and S/N or resolution requirements better achievable with one design or another? Are there science programs where you feel that MOS with slits would be advantageous compared to fibers?
  • What spectral resolution or resolutions do you need for your science? If you could choose only one resolution, what would it be? Would it be acceptable to trade resolution against spectral coverage if the former were user-selectable?
  • What wavelength coverage is most important for your science? Is there a need for coverage with maximum throughput between 0.3 – 0.4 microns, or at wavelengths longer than 0.9 microns? Is there an advantage of simultaneous coverage, or is it sufficient to use multiple settings?
  • Is there a scientific need for seeing-limited (perhaps GLAO-assisted) imaging at visible – near-infrared wavelengths?

To help answer these questions we will be holding a public Webex meeting in advance of the April SAC meeting. Additional documentation describing the three instrument concepts will be made available, as possible, in the coming days via our website. We hope many of you will be able to attend, and/or send us your comments by email.

In other news, we await decision of the site selection. Disappointingly, the site permit for the ORM site in the Canary Islands has not yet been approved. There does not appear to be any fundamental obstacle to this permit, it is just taking longer than expected. In Hawai’i the political situation continues to change in a direction that is favourable to TMT construction. There are still two appeals in front of the Hawaii Supreme Court. One of them is being heard right now, and decisions on both are expected later this year. The good news is that the project continues to move forward in construction and design, with about 15 percent of the construction of components complete.

CATAC Update on the Thirty Meter Telescope

By Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2017)

The TMT Science Forum was held in Mysore, India on November 7-10. This is the first time one of these meetings took place in India, and it again proved a very effective venue for helping the partner communities become engaged with the project. The focus this year was on TMT instrumentation beyond first light. As announced in the last issue of e-Cass, TMT has issued a call for White Papers due March 21, 2018. These will be reviewed by the SAC, who will make recommendations for the next instrument(s) after first light. The Science Forum provided an opportunity to kick off some of the discussion. Talks are available here. There were also supporting workshops, held on November 6, for discussing three capabilities: a Planetary Science Imager, high resolution spectroscopy, and the first-light instrument WFOS.

At the last SAC meeting, some important updates were provided on both first light instruments for TMT: the infrared imaging spectrograph (IRIS) and the wide-field optical spectrograph (WFOS). In both cases there are decisions being made now, described below, that should be important to the Canadian community. CATAC is therefore following these developments closely.

IRIS successfully completed the second part of its Preliminary Design Review in September; reviews were very positive. The review focused on IRIS observing modes, its interaction with the AO system (NFIRAOS) and the data reduction system. As a result of the review, the IRIS science team is now discussing details of how observations will be taken, and how data will be reduced. NIRIS coupled with NFIRAOS is a very powerful, but complex, instrument that we expect to be of great interest to the Canadian community. If you are interested in knowing more, or would like to get involved, you are strongly encouraged to get in touch with one of the Canadian science team members: Tim Davidge, Pat Coté, or Christian Marois.

WFOS remains a very exciting and challenging instrument. Having earlier abandoned the original concept (MOBIE), the project is now currently considering two very different designs. One would use image slicers, robotically mounted onto masks, to enable multiobject spectroscopy up to high resolution (R~10,000) with narrow slits. The other is a fibre-based design that would allow patrol of the full field, but also bundling to make integral field units. Both designs have advantages and limitations. CATAC will be meeting with the PI of WFOS, Kevin Bundy, on Dec 19 to learn more about the risks and advantages offered by each approach, and the science input driving the specifications. We anticipate that early in 2018 we will be engaging you, the community, to ensure our Science team and SAC members are best able to represent Canadian interests at the time of this important decision.

In addition to these exciting developments, TMT has recently contracted a design study for a secondary adaptive mirror. Studies are underway to predict the improvement in performance as a function of wavelength, natural seeing and field of view. New simulation results will be presented at the next SAC meeting, in Feb 2018. Though this is unlikely to be a first light capability, it could be a priority for an upgrade not long after commissioning.

The political and legal situation in Hawai’i remains generally positive. Legal challenges remain. These are out of our hands and are being dealt with in the courts. The critical issue now is the time it takes to resolve these cases, but the Project remains optimistic that a site decision will be made in April 2018.

To help inform the community on the funding situation facing TMT, on Sept 26 CATAC hosted a public Webex with Ed Stone (Executive Director) and Gary Sanders (Project Manager). Over thirty CASCA members attended. We were presented with a frank and open description of the TMT budget and construction plans. One important takeaway from that meeting was how much impressive work is currently being done, by all partners, despite the delays. About 70% of the items are under contract right now, and roughly 10% of the project is complete. We also got a detailed description of how the project is costed, and how those costs are being revised. There is of course a significant funding gap, that is understood, and the plan submitted to the NSF included a set of options for staging the project. Further discussions with NSF, however, await a site decision.

CATAC Update on the Thirty Meter Telescope

By Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/l’automne 2017)

In July, the hearing officer considering the contested case hearing regarding TMT’s site permit on Mauna Kea issued her decision, that the permit should be granted under a number of conditions. The full report is available at This was welcome news. The next step is for the Board of Land and Natural Resources to receive written and oral responses to these recommendations, and finally issue a decision on whether or not to approve the permit. This decision is expected in October. The decision may be appealed directly to the Hawaii Supreme Court within a 30-day window; if the Court decides to hear the case, they must give the matter priority and issue a decision within one year.

The only other pending legal issue is an appeal related to the vacating of consent for the UH-TIO sublease. A ruling on the appeal could come before the end of the year.

There is a generally optimistic sense that the prospects for construction in Hawai’i have greatly improved. There are still remaining issues, but the climate for resolving them has become much more constructive. The election of Harry Kim as mayor of Hawai’i County has changed the political dynamic. His vision of Maunakea as a “World Peace Park” is providing an opportunity for all interested parties to come together.

With the Project expected to obtain all necessary approvals for construction on ORM, as a backup site in the case Maunakea construction proves impossible, the site selection seems likely to be settled by early 2018. It remains true that the Project does not yet have sufficient committed funds to complete construction, a situation that has not been helped by the delay in the start of construction. At the CASCA meeting in May 2017, several people expressed a desire to learn more about the Project’s plans for managing this shortfall, and what the implications are for completion of construction. In response to this, we have invited Ed Stone (TIO Executive Director) and Gary Sanders (Project Manager) to address the CASCA community directly, via a 2 hour Webex session. This will take place at 3:30- 5:30pm, EDT, on September 26. All CASCA members are invited to participate. If you have previously participated in a CATAC Webex session, you will automatically receive an invitation to this discussion. If you would like to be added to the list of participants, please email Slides will be made available to registered participants prior to the meeting; the presentation itself will be limited to ~30 minutes to leave plenty of time for your questions.

CATAC would like to remind you of the TMT Science Forum happening in Mysore, India Nov 7-9, 2017. The main purpose of this meeting is to discuss concepts for the next instrument to be built for TMT, after the first light instruments. The International Science Development Teams (ISDTs) will be leading these discussions, and we would like to thank ACURA for making funds available to help offset travel costs for Canadian University-based ISDT members and invited speakers. This activity is expected to continue after the Forum, culminating in a series of white papers that will be presented to the SAC, who will make a recommendation for funding studies of the next TMT instrument. The white papers will focus on the science aspects of possible capabilities, and will be due in March of next year. CATAC hopes to play a role here in consulting with the community to present our SAC members with a Canadian perspective. This is a critical activity for Canada and we welcome community engagement. Please contact CATAC (, your SAC representatives (Tim Davidge, Bob Abraham, Stan Metchev, Doug Welch) or any of the ISDT members for more information.

Finally, CATAC member Christine Wilson (McMaster) has resigned from CATAC to make best use of the research time afforded by her recent Killam fellowship. We are grateful for her dedicated service and advice during her term on CATAC. We expect to appoint a replacement in short order.

Michael Balogh
Chair, CATAC

Report from the CASCA/ACURA TMT Advisory Committee

By Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2017)

CATAC’s first report to ACURA and CASCA has been made publicly available, at This report is the result of broad consultation with the community, members of the TMT project office, experts in adaptive optics, site testing and computational fluid dynamics, and Directors and users of telescopes on the Canary Islands. The report includes a quantitative comparison of the capabilities of TMT on its preferred site on Maunakea (MK13N), relative to the alternative site (Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, ORM) and the other 30-m class facilities under development: ELT and GMT. In summary we find that TMT is most capable and competitive if it can be constructed as planned on MK13N. However, if it proves necessary to move to ORM, TMT will still deliver transformative science that will meet the needs of the majority of the Canadian community. We made the following specific recommendations, which are worth repeating here:

  1. Given that ELT will be located at a better site, with a substantial aperture advantage, competitiveness now and in the future for TMT will require extracting the maximum from instrumentation and operations. Innovation will be of fundamental importance. A robust development budget with stable funding commitments is also essential. Operations must include an adaptive queue, and should allow observing flexibility. Canadian participation in a VLOT that fails to meet these basic national facility requirements should not be considered.

  2. TMT@MK13N offers significant competitive advantages relative to ELT. In particular it is expected to outperform ELT in the UV and MIR, while remaining competitive for visible and NIR observations. Therefore the site on MK should not be given up prematurely. The decision to move to ORM should only be made once it is clear that construction on MK will delay the project significantly relative to ELT, or fail to attract the necessary funding. As both the realistic timeline for ELT and the funding opportunities for TMT remain uncertain, we should proceed with caution.

  3. The broader Canadian community should be engaged in a project to which we are dedicating so many resources. We should aim to have ~5 Canadians on each science team. They should be representative in terms of geography, institution, gender, and career stage. While all Canadian researchers are encouraged to apply, CATAC (or LRPIC) should also develop a list of specific individuals to approach to apply for ISDT membership well before the next call (January 2018). LRPIC should investigate whether there exist mechanisms within the Canadian funding ecosystem to support ISDT activities, or whether a new allocation should be sought, perhaps by ACURA.

We presented a summary of our findings at this year’s CASCA meeting in Edmonton. From the ensuing discussions (during both the CATAC lunch meeting and the LRPIC/CATAC meeting the following morning) we took away the following:

  • The community remains strongly supportive of TMT on Maunakea. A move to ORM would generally be disappointing. However, when asked directly, no one stated that they would be unable to achieve significant scientific progress with TMT if it were located on ORM. This is strong affirmation that the alternative site will be acceptable to the Canadian community.
  • The community is dissatisfied with the TMT project’s transparency regarding its financial planning and overall viability. Little or no information about how the Board is dealing with the financial shortfall is available, and this lack of communication has resulted in some skepticism in the community regarding the project’s ability to complete construction.
  • The Canadian astronomical community is aware of the conflicting interests on Maunakea, and respects the legal process that is being undertaken in Hawai’i. There is an understandable desire to act ethically.

CATAC agrees that the TMT project office and Board need to be more forthright in their communications with the community. To encourage this, we would like to hold our next public Webex meeting on the financial status of the project, and we will invite one or more representatives of the project to lead with a presentation and be available for following discussion.

Finally, we would like to thank and congratulate those of you who answered our call to participate in the International Science Development Teams. As of this writing, 18 individuals have responded to fill 23 positions (with five individuals serving on more than one ISDT). Including those already participating, we anticipate at least 35 ISDT positions filled by 28 Canadians. This is a great improvement and a better reflection of what this telescope means to our community.

The TMT Science Forum is being held in Mysore, India on November 7-9, 2017. We would like to encourage especially those participating in the ISDTs to consider attending. We are still working on identifying sources of partial financial support, but now recognize that may not be possible before this meeting. We hope many of you will still be able to attend.

As always, CATAC is happy to hear from you at any time. Please email if you have questions for us, opinions or advice relevant to our mandate, or indeed information that you think might be useful to CATAC. Our website is now hosted on the CASCA site and we will keep this updated with upcoming meetings, events and documents.

CATAC Members:

  • Michael Balogh (University of Waterloo) Chair
  • Sarah Gallagher (Western University), Vice-Chair
  • Stefi Baum (University of Manitoba)
  • Chris Wilson (McMaster University)
  • David Lafrenière (Université de Montréal)
  • Harvey Richer (UBC)


  • Greg Fahlman (General Manager of NRC-HAA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Don Brooks (Executive Director of ACURA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Bob Abraham (CASCA President, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Doug Welch, (Science Governor for Canada on TIO Governing Board, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Tim Davidge (NRC)
  • Luc Simard (NRC)

The CASCA/ACURA TMT Advisory Committee (CATAC) Is Up and Running

From/de Michael Balogh (CATAC Chair)
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2017)

In early 2017, the CASCA/ACURA TMT Advisory Committee (CATAC) was formed to provide advice and a forum for communication regarding the TMT project. Specifically, the ACURA/CASCA mandate to the committee is to:

  • Provide advice to CASCA and ACURA on the current state of the TMT project.
  • Act as a conduit for consulting with and informing the Canadian Astronomical community about the state of the TMT project;
  • Advocate and advance Canadian participation in the TMT project;
  • Encourage Canadian scientific participation and leadership in the TMT;
  • Advise on strategic development of technology for the TMT in Canadian Industry;
  • Provide technical assistance to the 2020 (and subsequent) CASCA Long-range Plan Committees.

The full terms of reference can be found on the CATAC website.

The committee is in complete agreement with earlier advice that TMT will be most competitive and desirable if it is constructed on Maunakea as planned. Every effort should be made to make this happen. However, should this prove impossible, the TIO Board has decided that TMT would move to an alternative site, at Observatorio Roque de los Muchachos (ORM, La Palma). This decision is currently expected in October of 2017. The immediate and urgent objective of CATAC is to obtain a deep understanding of the implications, should TMT need to relocate to ORM. To this end, we have been holding weekly meetings via telecon or webex, many of which are open to CASCA members. The schedule of meetings is given on our website, and meetings open to the public are announced on the CASCA email exploder. Any CASCA member wishing to attend these meetings should send email to Luc Simard ( to be added to the list. Minutes and other documentation are also made available on the CATAC website.

One of CATAC’s most important roles is to keep the community informed as the project progresses, and to ensure that your voice is heard. We are consulting widely and inviting experts to our meetings to advise on technical issues. As well as attending meetings, you are encouraged to contact the Chair at at any time.

CATAC is using information from these meetings to prepare a report that will be delivered to CASCA and ACURA. This report will consist of a factual narrative, with Findings and Recommendations. We will present a draft of this report at the CASCA meeting in Edmonton, May 30-June 1. Together with the LRPIC we are planning an extended discussion session which will, among other things, consider the implications of these recommendations in the broader context. We look forward to working with and for you to secure a bright future for the Canadian astronomical community.

CATAC Members:

  • Michael Balogh (University of Waterloo) Chair
  • Sarah Gallagher (Western University), Vice-Chair
  • Stefi Baum (University of Manitoba)
  • Chris Wilson (McMaster University)
  • Ray Carlberg (University of Toronto)
  • David Lafrenière (Université de Montréal)
  • Harvey Richer (UBC)


  • Greg Fahlman (General Manager of NRC-HAA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Don Brooks (Executive Director of ACURA, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Bob Abraham (CASCA President, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Doug Welch, (Science Governor for Canada on TIO Governing Board, non-voting, ex-officio)
  • Tim Davidge (NRC, observer)
  • Luc Simard (NRC, observer)

EPO Reporting Tool

By/par Phil Langill
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)

The CASCA-EPO committee would like to remind everyone to please submit via the new reporting tool some simple data about your outreach efforts in 2016. The form is here:

and is very simple to use. Of course the more detailed your info the better, but if your time is short please just enter the total number of people you reached this year and a line or two describing what you did.

Thank you very much for your assistance, and for your time and energy engaging Canadians in astronomy and science in 2016!


EPO Update from Department of Physics and Astronomy, York University

By/par Michael De Robertis and Richard Bloch1
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)

Astronomers at York University occupy the north hallway of the third floor of the Petrie Science and Engineering Building (named, like the CASCA Prize Lecture, after the noted Canadian astronomer, Robert M. Petrie). Not only does our floor include classrooms used by students from a variety of science and non-science courses, but it also contains the main entrance to the York Observatory that houses 40 cm and 60 cm telescopes in two separate domes, and which regularly hosts public viewing sessions throughout the year, serving thousands of people.

It is in this setting that astronomers have recently established two education and public outreach (EPO) initiatives that are the subject of this update; a series of posters down the main astronomy hallway, and video content for our new Astronomy Education Station (AES) situated in the NW corner of our hallway.


Though the Department of Physics and Astronomy has seven astronomers (though only six at the time these initiatives took shape), our research interests span the four major areas of modern astronomy: Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology.

The first of our EPO initiatives involved the creation of posters concentrated on these areas. (In fact, we divided each of the first three areas in two because of the richness of these topics.) Individual posters focused on the following areas (facilitated by York faculty members):

  1. Solar System (John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)
  2. Extra-solar Systems (Paul Delaney)
  3. Star Life (birth and mid-life) (Michael De Robertis)
  4. Star Death (Norbert Bartel)
  5. Galaxies and Clusters (Marshall McCall)
  6. Active Galactic Nuclei (Patrick Hall)
  7. Cosmology (Matthew Johnson)

The faculty coordinator Michael De Robertis, and senior undergraduate Richard Bloch, solicited feedback from each faculty member as to the most important information (with supporting graphics) that might appear in each poster. While most of the graphics used in the posters are non-proprietary, Richard produced the remaining graphics using Adobe Photoshop. After extensive vetting of the text and design by faculty involved, seven posters were produced along with an index poster. Each poster was printed in 0.9 m x 1.2 m format and mounted sequentially along the hallway covered by a thin sheet of Plexiglas. The title of each poster was given its own colour. Key words in one poster that are more fully described in another were printed with the colour of the other poster’s title for easier reference. An image of each of the seven posters is included at the end of this article. Departments and institutions are free to use any of the text. Reproduction of the images themselves can be used with attribution.

Since their mounting in 2015, the posters have drawn the attention of visitors and students in the hallway.

Posters, while interesting, are a passive medium. We therefore initiated a plan to supplement more active and engaging astronomical content to students and visitors of our hallway. This led to the introduction of the Astronomy Education Station.

The AES consists of a 60-inch Sharp SmartTV driven by a modest PC. The PC is housed in a small locked closet near the TV, a holdover from the days when overhead and slide projectors used in nearby classrooms necessitated such storage space. To prevent theft of the TV, we purchased an inexpensive locking system. Potential damage to the screen was also a concern, given that the facility operates continuously without monitoring (in addition to being in proximity to two student pubs!). We were able to get a local vendor to produce an inexpensive, thin, durable plastic cover that slid onto the TV screen and that could be secured in place. The protective screen is unfortunately slightly more reflective than the TV screen itself.

We originally had the idea of using a secure, tablet-like device mounted on the wall or on a modest pedestal so that viewers could interactively select content. While this may be an option for the future, we decided to loop existing short non-proprietary (e.g., NASA) videos as well as videos produced “in house.”

Since the AES is within earshot of not only classrooms but faculty offices, it became immediately apparent that we had to forego sound in favour of captioning. (There is still a sound option that can be used during Observatory tours after hours, but the facility is normally muted.) Some of the NASA videos we chose were already captioned. Those which weren’t captioned, as well as content created in-house, had to be captioned. Captioning does not present a serious challenge; free captioning like that provided by YouTube, while not very efficient, can be edited to produce a perfect script without much effort, particularly since experts suggest videos of this sort should not be more than 2-3 minutes or so in duration, in order to better retain audience attention.

The first generation of videos for our AES involved short NASA videos on subjects from the International Space Station, to the Moon, Planetary formation, Galaxy formation, and the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. These were supplemented by student-produced videos on the general themes of our posters, as well as highlights of astronomy; i.e., a tour of the universe from planets through to large-scale structure using images from the HST.

We are currently producing second generation videos, including answers to the “top ten questions” undergraduate students have about astronomy. The ten most frequently asked questions by undergraduates were compiled based on surveys of the York University Astronomy Club and students working at the York Observatoy. Answers to the questions were suggested by faculty members based on their area(s) of expertise. Videos 1-2 minutes in length of faculty members answering these questions, supplemented by relevant background images, are being recorded and captioned for display on the AES. It is important that the production quality of such content appear as professional as possible, since students are particularly discerning when it comes to video content at this time. (While the videos are recorded with sound, they are muted for obvious reasons and are captioned for the AES.)

As with our posters, we would be willing to share our in-house content with other institutions. Moreover, we would be interested in learning of such content produced by other groups across Canada and the USA.

1Richard is currently a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario.

Solar System poster (facilitator: John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)

Solar System poster (facilitator: John Moores; Planetary Scientist with the Lassonde School of Engineering)

Extra-solar System poster (facilitator: Paul Delaney)

Extra-solar System poster (facilitator: Paul Delaney)

Star Life (birth and main sequence) (facilitator: Michael De Robertis)

Star Life (birth and main sequence) (facilitator: Michael De Robertis)

Star Death (facilitator: Norbert Bartel)

Star Death (facilitator: Norbert Bartel)

Galaxies and Clusters (facilitator: Marshall McCall)

Galaxies and Clusters (facilitator: Marshall McCall)

Active Galactic Nuclei (facilitator: Patrick Hall)

Active Galactic Nuclei (facilitator: Patrick Hall)

Cosmology (facilitator: Matthew Johnson)

Cosmology (facilitator: Matthew Johnson)

Report from the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC)

From/de Brenda Matthews
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2016)

The program of the 2016 CASCA annual meeting in Winnipeg included the society’s first session on Diversity & Inclusivity. The very well-attended session was hosted by the recently formed Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (DIC).

The committee is charged with the following:

  • Taking a critical look at CASCA’s ethics statement and making suggestions.
  • Preparing a section on the CASCA web page summarizing best practices for hiring and for inclusivity in the workplace.
  • Moderating an open discussion session on inclusivity at the CASCA Annual General Meeting.
  • Compiling national statistics on women and minorities in Astrophysics and making these publicly available on the CASCA website.
  • Acting as points of contact for people in the community who feel harassed or need advice on issues related to harassment.
  • Ensuring that CASCA meetings are welcoming for all members.

The ultimate goal of improved awareness of diversity and inclusivity is to foster a respectful workplace. To that end, the committee has adopted the following mission statement:

“The Diversity and Inclusivity Committee will undertake initiatives that will encourage members of CASCA (and their organizations) to foster diversity among participants in astronomical research. Our goal is for CASCA to serve as an example of inclusiveness to the broader scientific community.”

and provided a Code of Conduct for CASCA meetings that was adopted for the in Winnipeg meeting. The DIC welcomes comments on the Code of Conduct and suggestions for its improvement and can be contacted at

Why Should we Care about Diversity?

If we exclude minorities, we exclude the bright minds that could make a significant contribution to the field. Research suggests that in general, diversity is an important tool – many of the major discoveries in science (or even the advancement of society in general) often came from the intersection of unexpected roads, where people from different backgrounds offered new ideas. In other words, diversity stimulates new ideas.

Coming to Grips with Unconscious Bias

There have been many studies both inside and outside academia that establish that “implicit” or “unconscious” bias is real and at play in hiring, job performance evaluation and other aspects of advancement. We discussed several of these in our presentation (which will be made available to the community). In particular, we highlighted the findings of Neill Reid (2014), who has analyzed the results of 11 cycles of HST time allocations and has found that in every cycle, proposals with female PIs are less successful than those with male PIs. Sometimes, the difference is a very small number of proposals, but the fact that the trend is always the same suggests the effect is real. Furthermore, it is not mitigated by a higher ratio of female to male reviewers, substantiating the fact that unconscious bias is exhibited by men and women alike. Similar studies have been done for two early cycles of ALMA allocation where a deficit of allocations to female PIs has also been identified. The ALMA/NRAO report is not yet public.

After an initial presentation about the mandate of the committee, some results of relevant surveys on diversity and why we all should embrace increasing diversity in our community, the community then engaged in an interactive discussion about how to handle certain situations that can arise relating to issues of diversity and inclusivity. The fact is that these “fictitious” scenarios in fact are representative of experiences of many of those in our community. When we are confronted with the scenarios below, it can be difficult to decide how best to intercede. Many of us may feel that it is not our business to inject ourselves into discussions or situations, challenge the behaviour of others, or know how to follow up with either party.

Each time a scenario was posed, groups took time to discuss the scenario and come up with suggestions as to how each should be handled. What follows are the questions that were asked and the suggestions that were made.

Fictitious situation #1

You are interviewing for an academic position and the person asks, “The project is at a turning point and I want to hire a committed person. Do you think you will have a child during your graduate degree/postdoc/faculty appointment? ”

Similar questions that can be asked during an interview: “Are you married? What does your partner do? Do you think you will be fully committed considering your family responsibilities?”

Make no mistake. This question is wholly inappropriate and is often expressly illegal in some jurisdictions, but commonly justified as a way of assessing someone’s “seriousness” about their career. It also has at its base an unjustified assumption that if one has or will ever procreate (or has any family commitments outside their work), they are therefore less able to do scientific research.

Several respondents recommended a “vague” approach and either saying something like “not in the immediate future” or just ignoring the personal aspect of the question and talking up one’s sense of commitment. Another suggestion was to turn the question around, for example by asking “Is this question legal?” or “Do you ask this of all your candidates?” or by asking your own questions regarding the root of the questioner’s intent. Still another suggestion was not to answer at all, but to just sit and shuffle your papers until they move onto the next question. A final suggestion was to state that you would be willing to discuss this issue once an offer has been made.

The recommendation for those questioning job applicants is to have questions reviewed by HR before interviewing anyone. The job applicant is also interviewing YOU and these questions can very negatively impact the applicant’s perception of the interviewer/department.

Did you know?

NSERC now funds parental leave grants! NSERC offers family and medical leave grants for students that have scholarships AND students who are paid with an NSERC grant (i.e., not their own!) valid for up to 6 months. Check out the following link for more information.

Fictitious Question #2

You are at a conference poster session. You notice that someone is behaving in a way toward a colleague that you think he/she might later regret.


One of your friends exhibits inappropriate behaviour during the welcome reception at an international conference.

Many respondents emphasized the need to both immediately diffuse the situation for the benefit of the object of the potentially unwanted attention and also the need to deal with the person behaving in an inappropriate way. The best thing to do if you suspect someone is uneasy but aren’t sure is just to inject yourself into the situation. By adding a third party in the dynamic (and a potential witness), you may give the person on the receiving end of the attention a chance to leave or bolster their confidence. If you’ve misread the situation, there is no harm done. It was noted that afterward, you can offer yourself as a witness to both parties, noting what you saw and, depending on your degree of comfort with the “aggressor”, you can confront them about their behaviour. At the AAS, they now identify “Allies” who can be sought out if assistance is needed (for example if a junior person doesn’t feel able to insert themselves into a situation where they feel assistance is needed). At CASCA meetings, you should now report such incidents to the LOC or members of the CDI.

Fictitious Situation #3

A co-worker puts a calendar of provocative women/men on the wall of your common office. What do you do?


You notice that one of your colleagues has posted a cartoon of questionable taste on the door of your common office. What do you do?

Several people noted that provincial human rights guidelines are likely violated in the first case of this example, so the university (or a local departmental representative) should step in to remove such material. Several other people said that all departments should take care to inform ALL employees (including students) of the policies that are in place. In the US, harassment/sensitivity training is common for all faculty and staff; Ontario universities will likely have something similar soon. In the case of the calendar at one Canadian institution, female grad students made paper clothes and covered up the calendar until it was taken down.

Fictitious Situation #4

You have just been offered your dream job. Your colleague, who also applied for the position, says that you were probably offered the job simply because you are part of an underrepresented minority group. How do you respond?

One suggestion was to insult the person right back, or take an assertive position and state that “I got the job because I’m better”. It was also pointed out, however, it is not often possible to just throw back an insult since the person(s) involved may be junior and such language is most easily thrown around by those who are well established (for whom blowback will be minimal/non-existent). It was also suggested that you state the more reasonable version of “people get jobs for all kinds of reasons.” If this person is a friend, you could note that such statements make you uncomfortable, acknowledging that you realize they may be upset at the news that they did not get the offer.

Fictitious Situation #5

You are explaining at a social event that you are a physicist and that you study the Universe. The person next to you looks surprised and says “you don’t look like a physicist”. How do you respond?

Similar questions: “You are smart for an African-American. Aren’t all Asians good at math and physics?”

We ran out of time in the session, so this scenario is left for your own consideration.

We thank all the members of CASCA who attended the session and participated with such enthusiasm. The committee welcomes input from the community and will be undertaking a Climate Survey in the near future.

The DIC members are:
Pauline Barmby
Bryan Gaensler
Lauren Hetherington
Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo
Brenda Matthews (chair)