Caroline Herschel Medal announced to celebrate female astrophysicists

Today, the UK government has revealed the Caroline Herschel Medal, a novel prize that will be awarded for exceptional research by female astrophysicists from the UK and Germany.

The inception of the Caroline Herschel Medal commemorated the visit of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, honouring a scientific collaboration between the two nations that has spanned decades. The Caroline Herschel Medal will alternate between UK and German female astrophysicists each year and will be determined by an expert, independent panel, with the recipient receiving £10,000 that they can spend on research or associated costs.

The legacy of Caroline Herschel

The Caroline Herschel Medal will be overseen by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the German Astronomical Society (Astronomische Gesellschaft, AG). The RAS has celebrated German astronomers since its formation in 1820; even Caroline Herschel and her brother William when they moved to Bath in the late eighteenth century, with Caroline becoming the first woman to receive a royal pension for astronomy in Britain. Additionally, Caroline was the first woman to receive the RAS Gold Medal, a prize to honour her discovery of eight comets and commitment to refining star catalogues.

In the present day, scientific partnerships between the two nations have never been more prosperous, with the UK and Germany being top partners within the EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020, with in excess of 4000 signed grants. This amounted to €25.1bn in total being awarded to projects, of which €3.6bn was awarded to the UK, with 1196 UK and German collaborative projects funded by Innovate UK and the UK Research Councils worth an impressive £1.07bn.

Striving for equality

The aim of the Caroline Herschel Medal is to provide an impetus for creating equality in the male-dominated field of astronomy, as in the UK, only 12% of professors, 18% of senior lecturers, and 29% of lecturers in astronomy are female. Furthermore, in solar system science, only 21% of professors, 22% of senior lecturers, and 27% of lecturers are women, with only 20% of A level physics entrants being female.

female astrophysicists
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Comparatively, in Germany, only 30% of astrophysics doctoral degrees are attained by women, who remain incredibly underrepresented in positions of leadership – achieving only 18% of all professorships – with only 18% of the German members of the International Astronomical Union comprised of female astrophysicists, way below the global average of 21%.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “We are delighted to support this exciting new initiative recognising outstanding contributions to astrophysics by women based here in the UK and in Germany and the longstanding cooperation between our two nations. Caroline Herschel has a profound connection to our Society and had a significant impact on astronomy, and as such, it is fitting that a new medal and prize should be named in her honour.”

Dr Michael Kramer, President of the Astronomische Gesellschaft, said: “The German Astronomical Society welcomes this prize as it underlines the strong UK-German collaboration in astrophysics. Caroline Herschel lived her passion for astronomy on both sides and is an important historical role model for all of us.”

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The UK boasts deep scientific ties with Germany, and this has been reflected over the past year and a half with both nations working hand in hand to defeat COVID-19. Backed by the UK Government, the Caroline Herschel Medal will support trailblazing scientists in both nations to take their astronomy research to the next level, increasing our knowledge of the universe and encouraging women to pursue diverse and rewarding careers in science.”

Carole Mundell, Chief International Scientific Envoy for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and Hiroko Sherwin Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy at the University of Bath, said: “Caroline Herschel is an outstanding choice, highly recognisable, inspiring for women and exemplifying the strong, longstanding UK-German research links. It is rather wonderful that this Medal is being launched in honour of Chancellor Merkel, and in celebration of the UK-German science connections then and now”.

Charles Draper, Chair of the Herschel Society, said: “A wonderful initiative to further honour one of the founders of modern astronomy as well as celebrate links between Caroline Herschel’s home country of Germany and her adopted country of the United Kingdom”.

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