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Survey of astronomers and geophysicists shines a light on 'bleak' systemic bullying

'We need to hold each other to account when we're talking through these issues'

A survey of astronomers and geophysicists has unveiled a "systemic bullying problem" which is "disproportionately worse" for women and members of minority groups, already under-represented in the field.

In a survey of 650 scientists carried out by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) last year, 44 per cent of respondents said they had suffered bullying and harassment in the preceding 12 months. Those identifying as disabled or Black and minority ethnic were 40 per cent more likely to have experienced bullying than non-disabled and White colleagues, while women and non-binary scientists were 50 per cent more likely to be bullied than men.

The survey also found that half of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer astronomers and geophysicists were bullied in the 12 months leading up to the survey – and 12 per cent of those identifying as bisexual reported experiencing bullying at least once a week.

"This is the first time data like these have been collected in our field. It's bleak, sadly somewhat unsurprising, but is unequivocal evidence to show we need to improve the workplace culture in academia," Aine O'Brien, diversity officer of the Royal Astronomical Society, said of the findings. "We have a well-reported diversity problem in STEM and this does nothing to help. Women and minorities are feeling pushed out."

"The results from the survey are very concerning indeed," added RAS president Emma Bunce, professor of planetary plasma physics at the University of Leicester, "and we must act to change this unacceptable situation. The RAS is doing important work to uncover these facts, and we are committed to working alongside the community to urgently improve the environment in astronomy and geophysics."

"I think in some cases where you've got senior people who are perpetrators of bullying it gets overlooked," Robert Massey, PhD, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, told The Register. "Where you have people involved in very high-profile projects, to some extent there's possibly a tendency for departments to overlook some of that.

"There shouldn't be anyone too senior for this to apply to them, you know. We need to hold each other to account when we're talking through these issues, and simply being incredibly senior, successful, bringing in prizes, money, etc. etc. shouldn't exempt you from scrutiny to behave decently."

"We want to be talking to the research councils that fund UK research, the Space Agency and others in the context of research, and saying if this is the stuff that's being supported it's clearly unacceptable," Massey told us of the organisation's next steps. "We want to have a work climate in which everyone can thrive.

"But secondly, we also need to be talking to universities and saying that we don't want to be creating a work climate that drives people out. It simply shouldn't be happening. So there is a discussion to be had there as well."

RAS has announced it will be publishing the full results of the survey later this summer, following O'Brien's presenting of key findings at the virtual National Astronomy Meeting today. ®

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