Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s triumph reminds us that a commitment to inclusivity is not at odds with excellence – it is about ensuring it
Three instincts mingled in the delight which greeted the award of the Breakthrough science prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell this week. The first was a kind of renewed awe at her landmark achievement: the dramatic discovery of pulsars in the 1970s. The second was a sense of justice served, given that she was notoriously overlooked for a Nobel. The third was admiration at her generosity. Already known for encouraging and promoting women in academia, she is donating her $3m (£2.3m) prize to fund PhD studentships for female, black and minority ethnic and refugee researchers. Her gift recognises the obstacles they face – but also the contribution they can make: her own discovery happened in part because of her minority status, she suggests.
The benefits of being an outsider are far from obvious in her case. At Glasgow, she was the only woman studying physics; the men catcalled and banged on their desks each time she walked into the room. She came from Northern Ireland, and at Cambridge was surrounded by English southerners. Her extraordinary breakthrough was at first dismissed by her supervisor. Yet later, he won the Nobel for the discovery; she did not. When media did cover her work, she was quizzed about boyfriends and asked to undo buttons for photographs.