Jun 16, 2020 - Science
What Matters 2020

Astronomers and physicists fight systemic racism in their own fields

Illustration of glowing fist constellation
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As society at large confronts how racism has shaped our world, astronomers and physicists say it's long past time for their field to experience its own reckoning.

What's happening: From strikes to reports to calls for action, astronomers and physicists are calling for an end to the systemic racism that has shaped their fields and the sciences at large.

The big picture: People of color accounted for about 9% of STEM faculty members as of 2017.

  • Only 66 black women earned doctorates in physics in the U.S. between 1973 and 2012, according to Quartz. In that same time period, more than 22,000 white men received the same degree.
  • Between the lines: "I hope people take seriously that this isn’t just about racism in academia," cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire told Axios via email. "This is about racism in the world. On the streets. Black scientists aren’t safe until Black people, in general, are safe."

Thousands of scientists participated in a strike last week to call attention to the barriers that keep black people out of the sciences. Space-focused organizations, like arXiv.org and the American Astronomical Society, and individual astronomers took part in the strike.

  • "I feel so hopeful because now there's this collective accountability," astrophysicist Brittany Kamai told Axios.

A report released earlier this year from the American Institute of Physics underscores the systemic barriers black students face, calling for a $50 million fund to help double the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to black students in the U.S. by 2030.

"The persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is due to the lack of a supportive environment for African American students in many departments, and to the enormous financial challenges facing these students in general."
— AIP report

Where it stands: Some organizations and departments are aiming to bring more people of color into astronomy and physics.

  • The Fisk-Vanderbilt University Masters-to-Ph.D. bridge program, for example, has trained 35 students — 32 from underrepresented groups — since 2004, with 32 of them transitioning into a Ph.D. program either at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.
  • The Harvard astronomy department currently has nine black Ph.D. students among its 50 after hiring John Asher Johnson, the department's first black tenured professor in 2013 and dropping the general GRE as an admissions requirement.

Yes, but: There is still a long way to go before black astronomers, physicists and students have the same access to opportunities as their white peers.

  • "I don’t think departments are making big strides. Some are taking some baby steps," Prescod-Weinstein said. "The way to overcome racism is to admit you have a problem with it and that you might be benefiting from it. A lot of people aren’t ready to be honest because they benefit from the lie that academia is currently meritocratic."

Go deeper: Coronavirus pandemic could impact diversity in astronomy

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