Comment on Science and Society

(maintained by Rob Slade)

[Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet, posted the following on the sci.astro.amateur Usenet newsgroup. I think his comments are very apposite, and so have reposted them here - rms]

Date: 21 Mar 1997 19:13:35 GMT
From: Alan Hale
Subject: an open letter from Alan Hale
Organization: NMSU Astronomy

An open letter to the scientists of my generation:

I am Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp which, as I'm sure you're aware, is getting a tremendous amount of media attention at this time. Like I'm sure is true for many of you, I was inspired by the scientific discoveries and events taking place during my childhood to pursue a career in science only to find, after completing the rigors of undergraduate and graduate school, that the opportunities for us to have a career in science are limited at best and are which I usually describe as "abysmal." Based upon my own experiences, and those of you with whom I have discussed this issue, my personal feeling is that, unless there are some pretty drastic changes in the way that our society approaches science and treats those of us who have devoted our lives to making some of our own contributions, there is no way that I can, with a clear conscience, encourage present-day students to pursue a career in science. It really pains me a great deal to say something like that, but I feel so strongly about this that I have publicly made this statement at almost every opportunity I have been given.

I am trying to use the media attention that is currently being focused upon me to raise awareness of this state of affairs, and perhaps start to effect those changes that will allow me to convey a more positive message to the next generation. So far, I'm sensing a certain reluctance among the media to discuss this issue, as they seem far more interested in items which I consider to be irrelevant and unimportant. But I intend to keep hammering away at this, and I'd like to believe that eventually some are going to sit up and take notice. I am also attempting to schedule meetings with some of our government leaders, to see if I can at least get some acknowledgement from Washington that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

My reason for writing to you is to ask your help. I know that I'm not alone in being frustrated about the current prospects for pursuing any kind of decent career within science, and I'm quite sure that many of you have "horror stories" about your searches for decent employment that are quite similar to my own. I'd like to hear them. I'd especially like to hear from those of you who are on your second or third or fourth post-doc, or who have left the field as a result of the employment situation, or who have experienced severe personal difficulties (e.g., break-up of a marriage, etc.). I realize that some of these might be painful to discuss, but I'd like to show that we are not a bunch of impersonal statistics, but that we're human beings trying to make an honest living and perhaps make a contribution or two to society while we're at it. Speaking of statistics, though, if you received any information about the numbers of applicants to some of the positions you applied to -- which was often a 3-digit number in my case -- I'd like to hear that, too.

Please e-mail your stories to me at, with a subject line of "horror stories" or something like that. Please let me know if you would prefer to remain anonymous when I share these stories with the press and the government. Also, please pass this message on to any of your friends and colleagues who might be interested in sharing their stories with me, and keep in mind that I would like to receive stories from as many scientific disciplines as possible. (Because of the amount of e-mail traffic I'm receiving these days, along with everything else that's going on, I probably won't be able to acknowledge each message individually.)

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you. Perhaps, with the opportunity we have before us right now, we have the chance to make a difference.


Alan Hale