Discrimination damages progress

Science benefits from diversity. But those who don’t comply with the norm have to risk being disadvantaged.

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  • Text: Marlene Halser
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Catherine Heymans

The British astrophysicist Professor Dr Catherine Heymans teaches and conducts research at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In 2018, she was granted the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award, valued at 1.5 million euros, for her investigations into dark energy. In the context of a visiting professorship at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, she is one of the directors of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing.

Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award

If we are going to resolve global crises, the worldwide research community will have to become more fluid, interdisciplinary and transparent,” says Catherine Heymans, astrophysicist from the UK and Max Planck- Humboldt Research Award Winner. This would also require more diverse teams. Today’s most important, most pressing issue for the future is climate change, says Heymans. “What we need for that is the will to cooperate on solutions in cross-disciplinary teams that are as diverse as possible.”

“The great thing about science is that you’re allowed to ask big questions,” says Heymans. “To answer them, we need teams of researchers involving as many diverse perspectives as possible, who have grown up differently and gone through various education systems. Teams like this are able to approach a problem from quite different directions.” Heymans emphasises that diversity in science and research is not only in tune with the zeitgeist but also politically correct. “In business it’s long been accepted as common sense that a diverse workforce that feels appreciated and at home in the workplace demonstrably improves results.”

Heymans is a professor based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh where she teaches and explores dark energy. Almost three quarters of the universe is made up of this mysterious substance, which is thought, amongst other things, to explain the accelerated expansion of space. In May 2021, the 45-year-old’s research earned Heymans the honorary position of Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the first woman to hold the title which recognises astronomers for their achievements and enhances their visibility at the same time. When Heymans was awarded the title, she said she wanted to install telescopes at all of Scotland’s remote outdoor learning centres, where most of the country’s school pupils spend a week during their last year at primary school. This would enable them to gain access to a telescope irrespective of their parentage and background.

Science is too hard for you

In the quest to get diverse groups of people interested in science, Heymans believes that what is needed first and foremost is constant representation, for example by female scientists who deliberately reach out to the public as role models. “We have to start with the parents,” says Heymans from her own experience. “They are often the ones who tell their daughters or non-white children that science is too difficult and not for them.” It can help, she thinks, to see successful women researchers of colour in public.

We must define scientific excellence more flexibly.
Catherine Heymans, Astrophysicist and Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award Winner

In addition to diversity, Heymans believes in open science. Research tends to be very competitive, she says, and therefore often shrouded in secrecy. “If we are going to solve the huge global problems, we must share our work and our findings with others – and have the courage to publicise failures,” says Heymans. “This is how we may save each other a lot of valuable time.”

One issue that has occupied Heymans personally for a while now is the way top-level research handles disabilities. Since catching COVID, the astrophysicist has been suffering from long COVID – a disease as yet underresearched for which there is neither a cure nor a consistent clinical picture.

“In research it’s often not just the quality of work that counts but the volume of output,” says Heymans, who has co-authored more than 140 scientific publications. Since falling ill, she has experienced first-hand how discriminatory academic life can be, whether towards people with disabilities, the socially disadvantaged or those with children. “A person may not be able to work 60 hours a week for various reasons but may still be an exceptional scientist.” That is why, she continues, it is necessary to define our understanding of what constitutes top research and scientific excellence more flexibly. “Due to my illness, I am unlikely to be seen as competitive for research funding,” she says. “You often only realise quite how discriminatory a system is when you are affected yourself.” This experience has strengthened her resolve to campaign for more diversity. In the last resort, she had become more resolute, she notes. “Because I can’t do as much, I concentrate on the really important things.” 

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