Making room for equity, diversity, and inclusion in astronomy

01 May 2022
Alysha Shugart and Alison Peck

Two high-level reports recently documented the state of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the astronomy community. Taken together, the reports provide clear guidance and recommendations for the prioritization of EDI efforts in institutions, organizations, and projects.

The National Academies recently released the Astro2020 Decadal Survey, “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s,” and their recommendations are not limited to the technical needs of the community. For the first time, the decadal survey provided specific recommendations that, the authors write, were “strongly influenced by the urgent need to advance diversity, equality, and inclusion in all aspects of society.” They advocate undertaking the advancement of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the astronomy community in a systematic and structural way: “Changing the defaults under which astronomy is practiced will only happen with energetic engagement and a diversity-, equity-, and inclusion-focused lens.”

Another report was issued in 2020 by the American Institute of Physics National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM UP). Entitled “The Time is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy,” the study shows that the primary challenges facing students of color are the results of unsupportive and inequitable structures.

“The persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is due to (1) the lack of a supportive environment for these students in many departments, and (2) to the enormous financial challenges facing them and the programs that have consistently demonstrated the best practices in supporting their success,” the TEAM UP authors write. “Solving these problems requires addressing systemic and cultural issues, and creating a large-scale change management framework.”

How does the astronomy community create supportive environments? How do we address racialized financial inequality and disproportionate access to resources? In short, we must organize, share data and resources, collaborate, and follow best practices based on what we know works.

To make progress in diversity and inclusion, it’s important to enable data collection and analysis to understand the demographics of the community and set target areas for improvement. This is common practice for many institutions, but others have yet to adopt the task, and it is further complicated by the fact that the data must be provided voluntarily, while many members of the community are reluctant to provide this information for a variety of reasons. The Astro2020 Decadal Survey report notes that “At the core of a diversity-, equity-, and inclusivity-focused approach is the need for data to evaluate equitable outcomes of proposal competitions; such data was sorely lacking in the preparation of this report, and a recommendation to collect, evaluate, and publicly report such data would enable future assessments.”

Organizations should be developing systems to accurately gather and measure demographic information to increase diversity, and individuals can aid in this effort by self-reporting demographic information when requested.

Any EDI effort should include special attention to cultivating spaces that are inclusive, equitable, and supportive of a diverse population. Universities, institutions, and professional societies have the capacity to effect positive change by adopting practices and policies that create equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace environments.

The decadal survey report states it best: “The ugly realization of continued discrimination in the form of racism, bias, and harassment hampers progress towards building a fully diverse and inclusive workforce, and a recommendation of the report in this area suggests adoption of scientific integrity policies that address discrimination and harassment as forms of research or scientific misconduct.” The report further suggests that “professional societies should pursue coalition-building efforts that seek to address and eliminate identity-based harassment including microaggressions and acts motivated by bias and racism.”

One of the major challenges for members of marginalized communities is financial. The combined stresses of unsupportive spaces and inequitable financial pressure put an undue burden on marginalized students. According to the TEAM UP report, to address this inequity, “A consortium of physical science societies should be formed to raise a $50M endowment to support minoritized students in physics and astronomy who have unmet financial needs…. As an interim step, physics and astronomy societies should raise $1.2M per year to relieve the debt burden of African American bachelor’s degree students. The latter figure corresponds to the typical unmet need of $8K/year for 150 students, which is the number of additional African American students who should be earning physics bachelor’s degrees at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in order to achieve parity with the growth in physics degrees at Predominantly White Institutions since 1995.”

In her 2000 book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks writes, “Whenever domination is present love is lacking. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.” This work must begin in our personal lives so that we can bring the spirit of equality into our professional environments. We are all unwitting recipients of undeserved privilege and have the capacity to use pre-existing systems of domination to marginalize others. It’s critical that we educate ourselves, as individuals, about the experiences of our peers and colleagues, and renew this work from the inside out.

At this year’s SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation meeting, we are hosting an EDI resource room with volunteer leaders from the astronomy EDI community, as well as an educational “Lunch and Learn” workshop series to explore topics like social privilege, unconscious bias, and systemic change.

According to Lyndele von Schill, National Radio Astronomy Observatory Director of Diversity and Inclusion, “We know the challenges, we have clear paths and programs to address those challenges, and now  we need institutions to step up and make the changes that they need to make.”

We encourage everyone to follow and support organizations like the Society for the Advancement of  Chicano/Hispanic and Native Americans in Science and National Society of Black Physicists, to explore the reports and resources that are available on the SPIE EDI Resource page, and to join the effort to advance EDI through personal, professional, and organizational activities. Identify areas of improvement in your organization, and maintain pressure on your professional societies to keep EDI in the forefront of their planning.

We can make positive changes for the betterment of our global society, but history has shown that it will not happen without a concerted effort. We need to coordinate and move in this direction together.

Alysha Shugart is Observing Specialist at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

Alison Peck is a member of the organizing team, SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation resource room, and a past AT+I symposium chair.

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