Astronomy for all – all for astronomy
2020 December 4
Claudia (top right) has a PhD in astronomy and is an expert in public engagement with the subject. Osnat (top left) is an amateur astronomer, science writer and space historian, pursuing a PhD degree at UCL. Helen has been an amateur astronomer for 35 years, is a PhD student at the Open University and is a STEM ambassador.
Investigating diversity & acceptance in amateur astronomy
Sitting under the night sky is an awe-inspiring experience that fuels our curiosity and sense of wonder. We think it is something that everyone should be able to enjoy. But, when it comes to sharing that experience with a group of people, attending astronomy meetings and events, or joining societies and online communities, it soon becomes apparent that the typical demographics of those involved do not match those of wider society. Is this because only some people are interested in astronomy, or are there other reasons why involvement is not more widespread among different demographics? Are there people who are interested, but are reluctant to get or stay involved in the community, and if so, why is this?
We asked ourselves these questions because we are all passionate about astronomy and making it inclusive and welcoming to all. Our literature review,1 covering both astronomy and science in general, suggests that different levels of interest could not account for different levels of involvement.
Recently there have been a few studies looking at attitudes and experiences in professional astronomy and in the space sector,2,3 but nothing specifically targeting amateur astronomy. When we realised that we could not find enough evidence to answer these questions, we decided to do some research to gather data on the make-up of the community, and understand the reasons for getting involved or choosing not to. We distributed a survey to the amateur community, and more widely, to gauge involvement, attitudes, experiences and barriers to involvement. We hope the results from this study will contribute towards broader participation by a diverse astronomy community.
We have been very pleased that so many groups, national associations (including the BAA) and societies, both physical and online, have been supportive of the aims of our research and willing to help us disseminate the survey to their members – and have also signalled their interest in being involved in future phases of the study. The survey will be open until spring 2021 and we are keen to hear from as many members of the community as possible.
In our preliminary analysis,4 we found the make-up of the community to be predominantly male (78%) and white (90%), with 10% having a disability and 6.5% identifying as LGBTQIA+. The age data shows people aged over 55 as the largest group (54%), followed by those aged 35–54 (36%).
When asked how welcoming people felt astronomy was for a number of traditionally under-represented demographic groups, the community responded in a particularly interesting way. There appears to be a dissonance between feelings from the dominant and non-dominant groups – in essence, white members of the community feel that astronomy is on average more welcoming for BAME people than BAME respondents themselves feel. Our preliminary results point to similar evidence when considering gender, with those respondents that identify as male assessing the environment to be on average more welcoming for women than respondents that do not identify as male did. This is one of the areas where our research is giving real food for thought, and scope for follow-up discussions and actions.
One in eight people reported witnessing and/or experiencing episodes of harassment. This is particularly worrying, as it is also an issue reported in the professional astronomy community. We want to lead a follow-up survey and understand better the nature of what the respondents have experienced, and from that consider ways in which these behaviours can most effectively be addressed.
The response to the study so far encourages us to believe that, working together with organisations of all sizes across the country, we can start to address the issues and barriers highlighted in the survey results. But we recognise this may not always be easy or comfortable. We hope the survey data can be used as a benchmark for monitoring improvements over time. We envision a future in which everyone who shares the curiosity and wonder of astronomy can feel welcome in our community, and is supported in their journey.
If you would like to know more, or help with the study (we would particularly welcome input from under-represented groups), then please contact us via email@example.com.
1 Literature review: bit.ly/3pfISqV
2 RAS harassment & bullying survey: bit.ly/3kieWqq
4 EPSC 2020 presentation: bit.ly/2IqJ0mT
The survey, which takes about 15 minutes to participate in, is open until spring 2021 and can be accessed here.