RAS statement on Hiranya Peiris and Maggie Aderin-Pocock
The Council and President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) have offered unequivocal support to astronomers Dr Hiranya Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. An article in the Daily Mail suggested that they were selected to appear on an episode of the BBC Newsnight programme on the basis of their ethnic background, nationality and gender.
The two astronomers discussed results from the BICEP-2 experiment announced earlier this week, which offered evidence of gravitational waves in the early universe and for a rapid expansion of the cosmos (known as inflation) shortly after the Big Bang. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance and was rightly covered by news media all over the world.
Dr Peiris is a world-leading cosmologist now based at University College London (UCL), with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton. In 2012 she received the RAS Fowler Award in recognition of her immense contribution to her field at an early stage of her research career.
Dr Aderin-Pocock has a background in space engineering and science communication and is now co-presenter of the BBC's The Sky at Night, a role which demands the ability to convey complex ideas to the public at large.
Both scientists are thus exceptionally well qualified to discuss the BICEP-2 results and were natural choices for the Newsnight piece.
In the Daily Mail article, columnist 'Ephraim Hardcastle' (the nom de plume of Peter Mackay) not only ignored their expertise entirely but incorrectly suggested that the BICEP-2 team consisted only of white, male, American astronomers.
Astronomy world-wide has long ceased to be a closed male world and the backgrounds of astronomers have long been culturally diverse. Specifically in Britain, women now make up 27% of UK university lecturers in astronomy [see e.g. the RAS Demographic Survey (2011)] and lead space- and ground-based research projects alike.
RAS President Prof. David Southwood commented: "Astronomy did not begin in Western Europe and has always been an international science. Today researchers from many nations and many cultures routinely work together to achieve shared goals. In the UK, our field is enriched by some of the most talented people from all over the world who choose to join teams in this country.
"It is deeply regrettable that the Daily Mail column chose to overlook the scientific achievements of the BICEP-2 team and the expertise of Hiranya and Maggie and instead concentrate on their skin colour and gender. The implied and deplorable message – that astronomy is the exclusive business of people who are white and male – completely ignores the successful efforts made by the RAS and other scientific bodies to create an environment where science can be done by those best suited to do it, irrespective of background culture, nationality or gender."