Science needs true diversity to succeed – and Australian astronomy shows how we can get it

Australian astronomy punches well above its weight, in terms of the research it leads and the facilities it houses.

Our scientists have recently narrowed down the time frame for the first light in the universe, and established that the black hole in the Milky Way had a massive explosion just 3.5 million years ago. Our facilities – from the Murchison Widefield Array in WA to the Anglo Australian Telescope in New South Wales – are important components in the global astronomical ecosystem.

Very soon, however, even more impressive star-gazing hardware are due to start operating – the Australian segment of the Square Kilometre Array, and the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile – giving rise to the very real concern that we may not, as a discipline, be well enough prepared to extract maximum benefit from these new super-toys.

The new generation of “mega-telescopes” will soon be upon us. They will be capable of revealing the universe in unprecedented detail, and gathering data in unprecedented bulk. Extracting maximum signal from this fresh collection of noise, however, will not simply require more astronomical hands on deck. Crucially, it will require different types of hands, and different ways of seeing.

There is ample evidence from other fields – particularly business – to show that diversity within organisations, at all levels, results in higher productivity, more profits, and more robust outcomes. In evidence-based, number-crunching science, just as much as in social work or education, personal history and lived experience influence courses of action, how questions are framed, and how networks are built.

In recent years, Australian astronomy has made striking progress towards gender equity, in large part because of a system known as the Pleiades Awards operated by the Astronomical Society of Australia.

There are about 500 working astronomers in this country. The 2016-2025 Australian Astronomy Decadal Plan, commissioned by the Australian Academy of Science, sets a target of 33% of positions at all levels to be filled by women within the next six years.

The Pleiades provide a structured approach to improving equity. Given the enthusiastic participation of almost all the 14 universities, two Centres of Excellence and three organisations that house the astronomical communities, I have little doubt that this marker will be achieved.

However, we need to broaden our thinking, and our ideas of what constitutes a fair and empathetic workplace, beyond simple questions of binary gender.

The next generation of telescopes will be huge international collaborations with intense competition between partner countries.  To extract the maximum benefit from the extraordinary power of the new generation of telescopes around the world, we need to look beyond traditionally conservative hiring practices.

We need to be drawing on every possible background, experience, and maximizing our new ideas.  We need to draw from the academic talent and insight to be found among LGBTIQA+ astronomers, indigenous astronomers, disabled astronomers, chronically ill astronomers and astronomers who hail from non-Western cultures.

There are skilled and highly gifted scientists who fall within these categories, yet for some, if not many, the prospect of a well-supported, well-funded long-term career seems faint.  Science research organisations and institutions are as guilty as any other field of not putting into place proper structures around understanding, inclusion and empathy.

As female astronomers not too many years ago would often testify, sometimes welcome and support inside the Australian faculties and organisations could have been a bit warmer.

Thanks to the schemes such as the Pleiades, women in my field can reasonably expect to be recognised for their skills, and to be promoted according to their merits.

The same cannot yet be said for people in other, more heterogenous categories, and that must now start to change. Fairness demands it, yes, but just as importantly, the science requires it.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.