Episode 9 Supplement

Diversity and inclusivity are issues of the present as well as of the past for a scientific organization like the RASC; the topics of gender, cultural origins, and "race" are nothing new.* No Society which extends an open invitation to all to join its ranks, and purposes to make positive astronomical contributions to the local, regional, national, and international communities of which it is a part, can afford to ignore questions of who is in, and who is out, which cultures are represented, and which ignored, which matter, and which don't. Each generation must find its own approach to handling questions of institutional openness, and degrees of societal representation, but that does not mean we cannot critique the past, or that the future cannot critique us.

We will start with the present. In general the astronomical world, or rather the professional astronomical world, has awoken to the inadequate state of gender, "race", and cultural parity in its sphere.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has instituted the IAU Code of Conduct. It has established an Office of Astronomy for Development, and several Executive Committee Working Groups, such as the WG Astronomy for Equity and Inclusion, and the WG Women in Astronomy. As well, there are several Inter-Commission Working Groups whose work includes researching and developing solutions to various inequalities, as Inter-Commission B7-C1 WG Achieving Sustainable Development within a Quality Lighting Framework, Inter-Commission C1-C3-C4 WG Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture, and Inter-Commission C1-C3-C4 WG Ethnoastronomy and Intangible Astronomical Heritage. Some of the Commissions of Division C Education, Outreach and Heritage also deal with these issues. While there is always room for improvement, it is clear that the IAU considers striving for a more representative and equitable social world of astronomy will benefit the quality of science, and help societies to benefit more from that science. 

Similar efforts have been undertaken by some national professional bodies of astronomers. The American Astronomical Society could well be the leading example, with its very comprehensive Code of Ethics, and its Anti-Harassment Policy for AAS & Division Meetings & Activities, and its Code of Ethics Committee, Demographics Committee, Committee for Sexual-Orientation & Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA), Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, a limited term Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education, and a Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD). The number of these committees doubtless owes something to the size of the AAS, as well to the sustained commitment of the organization to societal improvement. The AAS' efforts in this regard go back to the late 1970s (the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy was established in 1979).

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) similarly has a code of conduct for members, and a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion policy. The RAS has a Community & Demographics resources page, with useful survey's and reports on diversity within the UK astronomy community, and among its "Education & Outreach" resources, is a webpage devoted to Diversity.

Closer to home, the Canadian Astronomical Society/Société canadienne d'astronomie (CASCA) offers an Ethics Statement, which states

All people encountered in one’s professional life must be treated with respect and dignity. Discrimination, harassment and abusive behaviours, be it against colleagues, students, or members of the media or the public, are never acceptable. Equal opportunities must be provided regardless of gender, “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for an offense for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered” (quoted from “The Canadian Human Rights Act[iii]).

And its Equity and Inclusivity Committee is active. (The CASCA Ethics statement is modelled on that of the AAS).

It is heartening that the professional astronomical world appears to be trying to effect positive change.

The Amateur world is a whole other universe. A search of the documents of the Astronomical League for any policies, working groups, or documents comparable in ethos to those of the professional groups listed above yields absolutely nothing. Same with The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO), and the British Astronomical Association. The AAVSO does much better, with its Event Conduct policy, and its Non-Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy. The two principal North American popular astronomy magazines, Sky & Telescope, and Astronomy Magazine, have also done much to support diversity and inclusivity in their pages over the last decade or so.

What of the RASC? The Mission Statement of the Society now specifically states as one of its values the "Enrichment of our community through diversity" (Policy Manual 2018, Version 5.9, p. 2). The RASC has had a "Anti-Harassment Policy" since 2015 (Policy Manual 2018, Version 5.9, pp. 38-44). One of the Society's newest committees is the Inclusivity and Diversity Committee. And it is now specified that candidates for Board appointments must "respect for the diversity of cultures, abilities, family structure, race, socio-economic status, and geography of Canada’s astronomical community" (Policy Manual 2018, Version 5.9, p. 87). This looks very promising, at least on paper. As is well known from examples of governance, getting the right legislation in place is only half the work. Effective, fair, and consistent implementation of the legislation is necessary if greater inclusivity and diversity are to rise off the page to become reality.

As mentioned in the podcast, the silent (or silenced) members of past astronomical communities, and members of invisible communities who wanted to participate in astronomy but couldn't because of cultural or social-economic barriers can be hard to write about because they weren't well documented—except by their absence. In the year and a half which has passed since the broadcast of this podcast, nothing further about those potential parts of the RASC's past have come to light. Perhaps some day they will.

Peter Broughton's book with information on changing rates of female participation in the Society can be found here.

The autobiographical sections of Vera Rubin's Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (1997) are available for sampling.

Frank Kameny's story is briefly recounted in his AAS obituary, and in a Guardian article.

The unedifying story of the RASC unthinkingly publishing Haliburton's highly questionable anthropological work is related in  "The Pleiades, the Deluge, and the Dead: How the RASC Became a Publisher of Anthropology in the Service of Theology", JRASC 113, 3 (2019 June), 98-104.

There has not yet appeared a full account of the role of astronomy in Oscar Peterson's life, but some references may be found here, and there.

Finally, it is important to take the issues of inclusivity and diversity seriously, if for no other reason than that a group made up predominantly of older white males will find itself sooner rather than latter irredeemably dead to the world, in every sense. There is no future in homogenous monocultures.


*To take but one example from a larger context, during the first half of the 16th century, at the height of a particularly rapacious period of colonialism, there were voices of opposition from the dominant society to the colonial enterprise (e.g., Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, o.p.).


—R.A. Rosenfeld

A transcript of this podcast is available

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Saturday, May 16, 2020 - 11:27am