Archive for Diversity

Breakthrough Prize for Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

I awoke this morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the award of a special Breakthrough Prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. To quote the press release:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell receives the Prize “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.” Pulsars are a highly magnetized, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

For the full citation and background information, see here.

The prize is not only prestigious but also substantial in cash terms: $3M no less. Jocelyn has made it clear however that she intends to use the money to set up a fund to encourage greater diversity in physics, through the Institute of Physics. That is a wonderful gesture, but if you know Jocelyn at all then you will not be at all surprised by it, as she is a person of enormous integrity who has for many years demonstrated a huge commitment to the cause of increasing diversity. I look forward to hearing more about how this initiative works out.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jocelyn said “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.” I agree, and not just because an open and inclusive environment is a good thing in itself (which it is) but also because the fewer barriers there are to entry for a particular field, the broader the pool of talent from which it can recruit.

P.S. What would you do if you won a prize of $3M?

P. P. S. If I had $3M to spend, I think I’d spend it on whatever would most annoy all the miserable twerps complaining on Twitter about what Jocelyn Bell Burnell is doing with her Breakthrough Prize money.

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(Lack of) Diversity in STEM Subjects

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by telescoper

Among the things I learnt over the last few days was some interesting information about the diversity (or, rather, lack of diversity) of undergraduates taking undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects in the UK universities. For those of you not up on the lingo, `STEM’ is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Last year the Institute of Physics produced a report that contains a wealth of statistical information about the demographics of the undergraduate population, from which the following numbers are only a small component.

Physics

Maths

Chemistry

Engineering

Female

21%

41%

44%

12%

BME

11%

24%

20%

30%

Socio-Economic

37%

42%

43%

51%

Non-EU

5%

12%

7%

32%

For completeness I should point out that these numbers refer to first-year undergraduates in 2010-11; I have no particular reason to suppose there has been a qualitative change since then. “BME” stands for “Black and Minority Ethnic”, and “Socio-Economic” refers to students whose with parents not employed in managerial or professional positions.

Overall, the figures here at the University of Sussex are roughly in line with, but slightly better than, these national statistics; the proportion of female students in our Physics intake for 2010/11, for example, was 27%.

There are some interesting (and rather disappointing) things to remark. First is that the proportion of Physics students who are female remains low; Physics scores very badly on ethnic diversity too. Mathematics on the other hand seems a much more attractive subject for female students.  Notice also how Physics and Chemistry attract a very small proportion of overseas students compared to Engineering.

In summary, therefore, we can see that Physics is a subject largely studied by white  middle-class European males. What are we doing wrong?

Despite considerable efforts to promote Physics to a more diverse constituency,  the proportion of, e.g., female physics students seems to have been bumping along at around 20% for ages.  Interestingly, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that those women who do Physics at University do disproportionately well, in the sense that female students constitute a  much larger fraction of First-class graduates than 20%. This strongly suggests that the problem lies at school level; some additional IOP information and discussion on this can be found here.

I’m just passing these figures on for information, as I’m quite often asked about them during, e.g., admissions-related activities. I don’t have any really compelling suggestions, but I would like to invite the blogosphere to comment and/or make suggestions as to promote diversity in STEM disciplines.