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Astronomy and geophysics bring women into science

Last Updated on Thursday, 06 October 2011 10:10
Published on Thursday, 06 October 2011 10:05

Women are better represented in astronomy and solid-Earth geophysics research than in other areas of physics, according to a major study by the Royal Astronomical Society, with a summary published in the October edition of the journal Astronomy and Geophysics. The RAS Demographic Survey of Astronomy and Geophysics collected data on more than 2000 research employees and students in astronomy and solid-Earth geophysics in the UK to establish the composition of this community and better understand its work. Less encouragingly, the survey results show how these research areas are poor at recruiting people from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and that addressing this deficit remains a significant challenge.

The last comparable exercise took place in 1998 and at that time covered a slightly smaller community. This time the RAS commissioned Sean McWhinnie of Oxford Research and Policy to carry out the work, gathering data using both online questionnaires and internet research of departmental websites. The survey was carried out in the autumn of 2010 and spring of 2011.

Back in 1998, just 7% of permanent appointments in astronomy (solid-Earth geophysics was not included on the same basis) and 22% of PhD students were women. According to the new survey, these proportions have shifted significantly. Women now make up around a third of PhD students, 27% of postdoctoral researchers in astronomy, 30% of postdocs in solar system science and 30% of the same in solid-Earth geophysics. 28% of lecturers in astronomy, 37% of those in solar system science and 34% of those in geophysics are women. At a more senior level the numbers are lower, with women making up 7% of astronomy professors, 11% of those in solar system science and 8% of those in solid-Earth geophysics.

For the first time, the Survey asked individuals for information on their ethnicity and nationality. 95% of all respondents and 97% of those from the UK indicated their ethnicity to be white, compared with the 92.1% of the UK population recorded as white in the 2001 census. The results therefore indicate that members of BME groups are significantly underrepresented in astronomy, solar system science and solid-Earth geophysics.

Other findings from the Demographic Survey include:

• Since 1998 there has been a shift in research effort from X-ray (the proportion of time spent on this fell from 20% to 10%) to infrared astronomy (up from 17% to 24% in the same period).
• UK astronomers and geophysicists use more than 200 facilities around the world, both where these are directly supported by the UK and where access is gained through involvement in international teams. These include ground- and space-based observatories of all kinds and geophysics research ships.
• There has been a significant increase in the number of professors of astronomy and geophysics compared with other disciplines. 47% of permanent academic staff in astronomy hold professorships, 39% in solar system science and 47% in solid-Earth geophysics, compared with 16% of permanent staff in university research as a whole.
• In the last 12 years the number of technical staff employed in astronomy and solar system science appears to have dropped precipitously, declining from a total of 456 in 1998 to 136 in 2010

RAS President Professor Roger Davies commented on the new results. "The results of the new RAS survey illustrate how astronomy and geophysics are increasingly effective in encouraging women to study and build careers in science. However, in common with other areas, we are less good at recruiting scientists from minority ethnic groups. Our community needs to think hard about how we can attract the best people into astronomy and geophysics irrespective of their origins."



The Demographics and Research Interests of the UK Astronomy and Geophysics Communities



Professor Roger Davies
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)1865 273305
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Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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