NI-born physicist donates £2.3m prize

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

A world-renowned astrophysicist from Northern Ireland will donate a three million dollar (£2.3 million) prize in an effort to increase diversity amongst leading scientists.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the UK’s leading female astronomers, was awarded the lucrative Breakthrough Prize for her work on the discovery of pulsars and a lifetime of scientific achievement.

She was overlooked for the Nobel Prize - with senior male colleagues involved in the work on pulsars awarded the honour in 1974.

The Lurgan-born scientist told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme she did not need the “shocking” financial reward from the Breakthrough Prize and hoped the money would be used to support female and ethnic minority physicists.

The money will go to the Institute of Physics (IOP) to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups.

“I think diversity is very important and I hope this might increase the diversity a bit,” Dame Jocelyn said.

“One of the under-represented groups in physics is women, so that is one that interests me.

“But groups with various ethnicities could well be included, it would be wonderful if we could find a refugee or two.”

Dame Jocelyn said her background had pushed her to work harder at university, studies which included the discovery of pulsars, a form of rotating neutron star which emits pulses of electromagnetic radiation as it spins.

“In the late 60s, early 70s, when all this was happening, science was very male dominated and, in Britain, white male dominated.

“I came in as a female and came into Cambridge from the north and west of the UK - I had never been that far south before.

“I was really scared, I thought they had made a mistake admitting me, reckoned they were going to throw me out in due course but decided to work my very hardest so that when they threw me out I wouldn’t have a guilty conscience and I was being incredibly thorough.”

Asked if she felt she should have been awarded the Nobel, she said “they don’t often give the Nobel Prize to students” and “it’s perceived as a senior man’s prize”.

Paying tribute to the NI-born scientist, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, President of the IOP, said the award was “an excellent and hugely appropriate acknowledgement of Jocelyn’s work”.

She added that Dame Jocelyn “stand alongside the greatest of scientists” and described her as a “hugely respected leader” in the scientific community.

“Her discovery of pulsars still stands as one of the most significant discoveries in physics and inspires scientists the world over,” Dame Julia added.

“She has been instrumental in making sure the issue of access to science by people from under-represented groups is at the very top of the science community’s agenda.

“We at IOP are delighted to receive this donation from Jocelyn and are looking forward to working with her to develop a programme that opens doors to physics for people from every walk of life.”

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is awarded by the Breakthrough Foundation to individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge.

Dame Jocelyn will be recognised at a prize ceremony on November 4.