October 2011

Awards in biochemistry

Of all the responsibilities assigned to an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology president, presenting awards is probably the most fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy handing out checks and plaques to delighted scientists, thereby forever changing their résumés? You probably would be surprised to learn the number of award recipients who invite their mothers to hear their lectures and join us for a celebration dinner afterward. I personally don’t think that we, as a community of scientists, do enough to recognize excellent science as well as significant contributions made in support of the community of scientists. It is important that the ASBMB recognizes outstanding research by presenting a dozen or so awards every year.

Some of our awards are made possible by generous, annual gifts: The ASBMB Merck Award is sponsored by Merck, and Avanti Polar Lipids sponsors two awards, one for a senior scientist and one for a more junior scientist. The Delano Award and Earl and Thressa Stadtman Awards are supported by endowments created by friends of the scientists in whose honor the awards were established. Other awards are supported by the ASBMB directly.

It was not that long ago that science was a much less populated vocation, and it was even possible to win more than one Nobel Prize. Fred Sanger did just that: In 1958, Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for determining the primary structure of insulin, and in 1980 he shared the Nobel Prize (with Walter Gilbert and Paul Berg) for his novel method for determining the sequence of nucleic acids. There is no question that Sanger’s contributions deserved two prizes, but today there seem to be many more scientists than available awards and many who deserve to be recognized but aren’t.

I feel strongly that ASBMB awards should be given to scientists who may not already have been recognized for their contributions. When the community of scientists honors a small number of scientists with multiple awards, the field seems much smaller than it really is. By thinking hard and broadly about whom to honor, we do a better job of supporting the community – by providing role models for younger scientists and by identifying award recipients who can pass the torch to an even broader and more diverse group of future awardees. Our breadth and diversity as a community should be celebrated.

Why is it that a small group of scientists seem to get all the awards? Assembling a nomination package takes a reasonable amount of effort. A nominator must obtain a current curriculum vitae for his or her nominee and write a summary of that person’s research contributions. Letters of reference must be obtained from scientists of stature (or sometimes from mentees) who agree that the nominee deserves to be recognized. All of this takes time – both on the part of the nominator and the letter writers. When a package already is assembled and the letters require only a change of date and recipient, nominating candidates for multiple awards is an easier path to take.

Some individuals are highly proactive in nominating their colleagues. Indeed, last year, two award winners came from a single, excellent department thanks to the efforts of a devoted chairman. In other cases, friends nominate one another for a variety of awards. Some scientists nominate themselves by preparing the packages and asking others to submit them on their behalf. This practice is actually more common than you might think and, in some cases, it is even recommended (1).

A number of demographic groups have not yet achieved a level of recognition commensurate with their presence in the halls of science. Anne Lincoln, Stephanie Pincus and Phoebe Leboy have noted (2) that “the proportion of women receiving service or teaching awards in the past two decades is roughly equivalent to the proportion of women within the cohort-adjusted Ph.D. pool in that discipline, but only half of these have won scholarly awards.” Using available data for 13 disciplinary societies, they found that the proportion of female prizewinners in 10 of them was much lower than the proportion of female full professors in those fields (1, 2). When lists of award recipients exclude any category of scientist, it can seem as if that category simply doesn’t exist.

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COMMENTS:

Bob, We welcome nominations from all arenas and I hope that with self nominations, we will receive more from industrial scientists as well. Vijay, we will definitely simplify the process. Thank you both for writing. --Suzanne Pfeffer

 

Suzanne: Interesting commentary. Of course the one group that is not merely under-represented, but essentially excluded from awards is industrial scientists. Bob Copeland

 

I agree with Suzanne Pfeffer, ASBMB President, that awards should be made to deserving individuals who are not previous recipient of awards, thus recognition is brought to diverse group of scientists. Additionally, I suggest the number of supporting letters for the nomination may be reduced to five to six letters. Vijay Kalra,Ph.D. Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology USC Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles,CA

 

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