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«Future Professional Communication in Astronomy (Eds. A. Heck & L. Houziaux, Mém. Acad. Royale Belgique, 2007) COMMUNICATING ASTRONOMY WITH THE ...»

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Future Professional Communication in Astronomy

(Eds. A. Heck & L. Houziaux, Mém. Acad. Royale Belgique, 2007)




Karl-Schwarzschild-Straße 2

D-85748 Garching, Germany




Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research

Max-Planck-Straße 2

D-37191 Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany

russo@mps.mpg.de Abstract. The communication of astronomy to the public is an important topic that will play an ever greater role in the coming years as a link between society and the scientific astronomical community, while supporting both formal and informal science education. The communication of achieved results is now seen frequently as a natural and obligatory activity to inform the public and attract both funding and science students.

A number of obstacles do exist to this communication work. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) Commission 55 “Communicating Astronomy with the Public” seeks to alleviate part of these problems and to establish and support effective ways to communicate astronomy with the public in the long term.

In this paper, we will present1 the initiatives and activities taking place under the auspices of the IAU Commission 55: Communicating Astronomy with the Public, especially the initial outcome from the “Communicating Astronomy with the Public” journal Working Group.

On behalf of the IAU Commission 55 Organising Committee and IAU Commission 55 Journal Working Group members.


1. IAU Commission 55 Astronomy has a very special place in the area of science communication, and, as a tool to communicate science, astronomy possesses almost magical powers. Astronomy touches on the largest philosophical questions facing the human race: Where do we come from? Where will we end? How did life arise? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? Space is one of the greatest adventures in the history of mankind: an all-action, violent arena with exotic phenomena that are counter-intuitive, spectacular, mystifying, intriguing and fascinating. The science of astronomy is extremely fast moving, and delivers new results on a daily basis. In many ways astronomy can lead the way for other natural sciences and be a frontrunner for the communication of science in general. After the very successful second Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) meeting in Washington DC in 2004 the IAU decided to support this important goal by forming a Working Group dedicated to the public communication of astronomy. The Working Group, “Communicating Astronomy with the Public”, was “promoted” to Commission 552 at the IAU General Assembly in Prague in 2006.

The vision of Commission 55 is:

“It is the responsibility of every practising astronomer to play some role in explaining the interest and value of science to our real employers, the taxpayers of the world.”

The mission is:

− To encourage and enable a much larger fraction of the astronomical community to take an active role in explaining what we do (and why) to our fellow citizens.

− To act as an international, impartial coordinating entity that furthers the recognition of outreach and public communication on all levels in astronomy.

− To encourage international collaborations on outreach and public communication.

− To endorse standards, best practices and requirements for public communication.

Currently the President is Ian E. Robson (UK), the Vice President Dennis Crabtree (Chile) and the Secretary Lars Lindberg Christensen (ESO/ESA).

The Organising Committee consists of:

– Richard T. Fienberg (USA) – Anne Green (Australia) – Ajit K. Kembhavi (India) http://www.communicatingastronomy.org/index.html


– Birgitta Nordstr¨m (Denmark) o – Augusto Damineli Neto (Brazil) – Oscar Alvarez-Pomares (Cuba) – Kazuhiro Sekiguchi (Japan) – Patricia A. Whitelock (South Africa) – Jin Zhu (China) The actual work of the Commission has been split into a number of working groups that are described here. Unfortunately the “best practices” and “new ways” Working Groups have not made as much progress as hoped as considerable effort has been focussed on organising the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (see below).

2. Washington Charter Working Group The task of the Washington Charter Working Group is to ensure the promulgation of the Washington Charter. The Washington Charter3 also has its origins in the “Communicating Astronomy with the Public” conference held at the US National Academy of Sciences in early October 2003. It was the most significant tangible outcome from this meeting. The Charter outlines “Principles of Action” for individuals and organisations that conduct astronomical research, stating that they “have a compelling obligation to communicate their results and efforts with the public for the benefit of all”.

The objective of the Commission 55 Washington Charter Working

Group is to:

“Endorse the Washington Charter and disseminate information about it: Drafting, circulating, and getting support for a letter to funding agencies, observatory directors, department heads and deans, and other employers of astronomers to encourage them to regard outreach and communication as an important part of our job and theirs.” The Washington Charter underwent a careful revision in 2005 led by Rick Fienberg from Sky & Telescope, USA. This revision was approved by CAP2005.

The promulgation of the Washington Charter continues to progress satisfactorily and there are now 30 organisations signed up.

3. VAMP Working Group Public astronomy communication has to develop apace with the other players in the mass market for electronic information (gaming and entertainment industries etc). The problem today is not so much the availability http://www.communicatingastronomy.org/washington charter


The logo for the VAMP project. Figure 1.

of excellent astronomy multimedia resources for use in education, outreach and the like, but rather access to these materials. The public needs better access to images, videos of stars, galaxies or other astronomical phenomena.

Even for an expert user, locating a particular image invariably requires going to a known resource or relying on the vagaries of, for this purpose not so efficient, existing multimedia search engines, such as Google images or YouTube.

The Virtual Astronomy Multimedia Project (VAMP) Commission 55 Working Group4 will enable access to, and vastly multiply the use of, astronomy multimedia resources – images, illustrations, animations, movies, podcasts, vodcasts, etc. VAMP will enable innovative exploitation of all kinds of outreach media in the future by systematically linking resource archives worldwide.

The primary deliverable of VAMP will be a digital library/repository system that stores, organises, and delivers standardised metadata for all Education and Public Outreach (EPO) media for astronomy and planetary sciences. By capitalising on value-added information that already exists – including descriptions from press releases, image captions, fact sheets – VAMP will provide unsurpassed access to refined EPO data products. Visual material will never again be separated from the descriptive context and users will have access to the rich content that astronomers and communication professionals have laboured hard to create.

4. Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) Meetings The CAP meetings are an initiative aiming at bringing together scientists, public information officers and journalists. Although other meetings have been held on the public communication of astronomy, the first “real” inihttp://www.communicatingastronomy.org/repository


Figure 2. A rough schematic indicating how VAMP will enable the user to find astronomical multimedia resources seamlessly by means of a communication structure and better metadata tagging of the resources.

tiative that belongs in the series of CAP meetings was Terry Mahoney’s conference, “Communicating Astronomy” in Tenerife in 2002.

The second, and somewhat more visible, meeting was the Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference, held in Washington DC in 2004, and arranged by Chuck Blue from NRAO.

The third meeting was at ESO Headquarters in Munich, Germany, in 2005.

A Working Group5 was created in 2006 to ensure formally that the line of CAP meetings would continue every second year. The fourth CAP meeting will be held in Athens, Greece, 20076. This meeting will play a central role in the planning of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (see below).

The WG is open to receive proposals for hosting CAP2009. As the past two CAPs have been held in Europe proposals from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas will be especially welcome.

http://www.communicatingastronomy.org/capconferences http://www.communicatingastronomy.org/cap2007


5. CAP Journal Working Group Looking to the future, a new Working Group was created in 2006, following a firm proposal to create a new journal on Communicating Astronomy with the Public. This has made excellent progress and now has widespread support, including that from the editors of Astronomy Education Review.

Further information can be found at the WG’s webpage7.

It is proposed that the IAU Commission 55 establishes a partly peerreviewed journal called Communicating Astronomy with the Public. Such a journal, published quarterly in full colour and printed on demand, is vital for an effective exchange of information within the community. The journal will enable communication professionals to present their information in a coherent and meaningful manner and to learn from colleagues with the same needs. A possible date for the first issue is 8 October 2007, coinciding with the first day of the Communicating Astronomy with the Public 2007 conference in Athens, Greece.

The public communication of astronomy provides an important link between the scientific astronomy community and society, giving visibility to scientific success stories and supporting both formal and informal science education. While the principal task of an astronomer is to discover new knowledge, disseminating new knowledge to a wider audience is becoming increasingly important. This is the main task of public astronomy communication: to bring astronomy to society.

The next few years will be extremely important for astronomy communication and education. The year 2009 will be the International Year of Astronomy, serving as a unique platform to inform the public about the latest discoveries in astronomy as well as emphasising the essential role of astronomy in science education.

Public communication of astronomy is a growing field of science communication, notably in Europe, but China and India may be the next emerging science communication “markets” as publishers are experiencing a flood of science coming from there. Latin America may also be a candidate.

Several agencies, research institutes, astronomy departments and observatories around the world have media officers and communication specialists; science centres and planetariums have an important role to play in informal astronomy education, often producing high quality educational materials. However, as the astronomy communication community expands globally it becomes increasingly important to establish a community of science communication experts. The three previous Communicating Astronomy with the Public conferences have had some success in raising the http://www.communicatingastronomy.org/journal/index.html


profile of astronomy, but a permanent forum where professional expertise and know-how can be presented and preserved for posterity is needed.


Academic publishing in a professional field is an important form of information exchange and discussion.

The publishing business is changing rapidly in response to market forces arising from intense globalisation and the overwhelming popularity of the Internet, bringing significant overall benefits despite some severe disadvantages to publishers. This changing landscape must be factored into the planning of a new journal. Changes in society drive new markets and as a consequence publishers need to devise new business models. The new environment is here to stay, and publishers who embrace the changes in technology and target group behaviour are the ones who will benefit the most.

There is pressure, especially from the scientific community, to allow broader access to scientific information in general. This is the main driver for the “open access” movement. However one time-honoured principle stands: Peer-review continues to provide the stamp of quality for scholarly articles.

Among the perceptible changes are:

− Globalisation means that publishing can be moved to larger scales with cost-savings as a consequence. One example is the use of more outsourcing (typesetting, printing, services etc).

− Publishing houses are merging to form larger and larger companies that can embrace the globalisation and exploit the mobility of manpower and services. More mergers will happen over the next few years.

− Publishing customers, especially for e-publishing, are becoming larger as libraries form consortiums.

− Data management and workflow is – as in many other disciplines – a major issue. Providing access to the right publications at the right time is a must in today’s world.

− Scientists both write and read more articles (see studies quoted in Blom, 2007).

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