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Supporting Diversity and Inclusion through the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund

The IOP was delighted to be asked by Jocelyn Bell Burnell to set up the Graduate Scholarship Fund using her Breakthrough Prize money, says Deputy Chief Executive Rachel Youngman. 

“We are committed to bringing more people from a wider range of backgrounds into physics at every point in their career, and the research stage is a crucial one, where this fund makes a huge difference,” she says.

“These students have overcome significant barriers to get to this point. And this support makes a fundamental difference to their future.”

Rachel hopes helping the students on the scheme to tell their stories will encourage other people from non-traditional backgrounds to pursue careers in physics. “The scheme is saying, if you have got the aptitude, anyone can do this – you can get the support you need to be a success in physics. That’s very powerful and very important.”

In this, the second year of the Fund’s operation, the IOP has committed funds on top of Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s own prize money, to allow eight students to benefit from the programme this year, compared to four in the Fund’s inaugural year. But supporting postgraduate students is just one area in which the IOP is determined to bring change. “We are working to open up physics from the first years of school to careers in research, teaching, business and industry,” says Rachel.

In schools, the IOP is working to recruit more physics teachers, in the knowledge that better teachers encourage more people to pursue the subject. Schools in the least advantaged areas are least likely to have professional physics teachers, as opposed to other science teachers taking physics lessons. “So getting more physics teachers in the most challenged schools, means there is more chance of children in those schools being inspired to keep going with physics,” says Rachel. 

The IOP is also running a pilot programme to support A-level students from non-traditional backgrounds into studying physics at leading universities. 

The IOP’s focus is not just on formal education. It wants to transform how physics is depicted in the media and on social media – so it is not seen as something ‘hard’ done by remote ‘boffins’, but is part of everyday life, done by regular people who do amazing work that has such a positive effect on all our lives.

“Our Limit Less campaign aims to encourage more people to study physics at 16 by changing the way families, teachers, journalists and social media influencers talk about and show physics,” says Rachel. “We want to show how physics plays a vital role in every part of life – and anyone can do it.”

Rachel, who is not a scientist herself but comes from a background in social justice, says there are three key reasons why physics must be opened up to the whole of society.

“First, there’s the moral argument. It’s unacceptable that people are discouraged from coming into physics or staying in it because they are treated less well based on who they are: anyone with the aptitude for physics should have a fair chance to succeed in any of the many ways you can do physics in our society.”

But, she says, there is a benefit to physics in widening the pool of potential talent. “Lots of research shows we are facing a shortage of the scientists we need to confront challenges like climate change, food insecurity, or the need for better healthcare for an ageing population. If we only recruit physicists from the groups we have drawn on in the past, we simply won’t have enough good people, and we’ll be missing out on the brilliance of some people in groups who have previously been excluded. We simply can’t afford to do that.”

In addition, there is good evidence that teams are better at problem-solving if they include people from a range of backgrounds. And more and more physics – whether in research settings or in industry – is done by teams, rather than one ‘brilliant’ individual. Ensuring those teams draw on a wide range of backgrounds is likely to improve their work.

“Scientific progress comes from innovative ideas and unique perspectives,” says Rachel. “If no-one’s been able to solve a problem so far looking at it in the traditional way, you can often benefit from bringing in a non-traditional point of view, to challenge the group-think that might be getting in the way. That means you need a wide range of people active in physics, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

The IOP is also taking steps to make sure it runs itself in a way that welcomes and supports members from all parts of the physics community. The process for selecting recipients of the IOP’s prestigious awards has been changed this year, to allow people to nominate themselves. 

“We found from talking to our members that some felt winning an award depended on who you know, rather than pure merit,” says Rachel. “There was a sense that people who had good networks would nominate each other, while other people who might be just as good were being left out. So now anyone can put themselves forward. The standards for winning are just as high, but we want to be sure that the awards committees are seeing the very best from across the physics community when making their decisions.”

The IOP has been working to improve the participation of underrepresented groups in physics for more than 15 years. There’s no doubt progress has been made: for instance the proportion of professors of physics who are women has doubled in a decade – but only to 12%. 

“There’s still a very long way to go,” says Rachel. “Physics is still very far from looking like our society in all its richness and variety. We are determined to keep working to change this, and I think Jocelyn’s Scholarship Fund, created by a stunning act of generosity, will continue to inspire us.”