As science is becoming more of an explosive topic in the media, thanks to famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s new show Cosmos, the question of the future for America’s role in space exploration and discovery is pressing CUNY campuses to get more students on board with space exploration.
But therein lies an issue.
Only four percent of graduating physicists in New York are minorities. A stark contrast to the CUNY makeup of students which is primarily made up of minorities — specifically 48 percent black and Hispanic, according to CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research.
Dr. Tim Paglione, head of York’s astronomy program, said that number is “ridiculous,” and hurts America’s competitive edge for groundbreaking research. Paglione was recently featured in a National Public Radio segment that drew attention to the fact that in the United States only 2 percent of graduates earning Master’s degrees in Physics and Astronomy are Hispanic or African American.
“Minorities aren’t going into these fields, so it’s clear that these spots are being made up by foreign students filling the gaps,” Paglione said.
To address the problem, Paglione led a team from CUNY which landed a $1.74 million grant to fund AstroComNYC, a program which gives minority students the opportunity to work at the American Museum of Natural History by offering fully paid tuition, stipends for rent and a Metrocard.
“There’s no reason that minorities shouldn’t be going into these fields, and if they went into these fields in the same proportion that they’re represented, there would be no gap,” he said.
One of the major projects Paglione highlighted is a current research study done at Lehman College on gravitational lensing, which is when light bends around a massive object in space before it reaches us, similar to the distortion you get by putting your eyeglasses a foot in front of your face.
The program, funded by taxpayer dollars from the National Science Foundation, is key at a time when a number of talking heads are becoming more influential on audiences, eliminating the core premise of science: always ask questions.
“All scientists are skeptics,” said Paglione. “It’s not that we’re non-believers, it’s just that we need proof. If you don’t believe in general relativity, then fine, go out and prove it wrong.”
That lack of skepticism, Paglione said, proves problematic if the U.S. ever wants to rejuvenate the NASA program which is starting to see a number of its engineers age-out into retirement.
“The numbers are so small, especially within astronomy,” said Paglione. “If we just add a couple of minority students into grad school, we’re a wildly impactful program.”