Astronomer Uses $3 Million Prize To Start Scholarship For Women, Ethnic Minorities, And Refugees

The first recording of a pulsar was made by Burnell in 1967, a truly groundbreaking astronomical discovery. Breakthrough Prize Foundation

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars, was quite rightly awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Physics Prize earlier this month. Famously having been denied the Nobel Prize at the time – which instead went to her supervisor Antony Hewish and the astronomer Martin Ryle back in 1974 – she told IFLScience that, ultimately, this worked out well for her.

“I did extremely well out of not getting the Nobel Prize,” she said. “Because if you get a big prize like that nobody gives you anything else, because they feel they can’t match it. Whereas if you don’t get it, you get just about everything else that moves. So most years there’s been a party around some award or other.”

In what amounts to no small gesture, she’s also decided to give the entirety of her award money to help set up a scholarship fund. This will help all kinds of underrepresented groups in society, from women and ethnic minorities to refugee students, to fund an education into becoming researchers in physics.

“I don't want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,” Burnell told BBC News. The specific details of the scholarship have yet to be nailed down.

It’s unequivocally clear that enormous inequality exists in STEM fields. Although it’s often said, it’s completely wrong to suggest that women and minorities need to be encouraged to take on the sciences more often. The enthusiasm is already there; instead, it’s the systemic and unconscious discrimination, double-standards, and skewed expectations that prevent minorities from getting into or staying in STEM fields.

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A recent Pew Research Center study, just as an example, found that half of women in all STEM jobs have experienced discrimination in the work place, compared to 19 percent of men. Earning less than their male counterparts, and being treated as if they were incompetent, were the most cited forms of discrimination. In environments where men outnumber women, such incidences are more commonly observed.

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The same study found that black STEM workers are far more likely to say that their employer doesn’t pay enough attention to increasing racial and ethnic diversity. At the same time, 62 percent of black STEM workers, 42 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of Asians said they experienced some form of discrimination at work, compared to 13 percent of white STEM workers.

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It’s grim facts like this that make Burnell’s donation all the more pertinent. It’s an unquestionably fantastic use of the funds, but it’s certainly worth remembering that systemic change is required before everyone, no matter who they are and where they come from, can be seen as equals in the field of science.

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