Bonus Friday Link: 13th consecutive male Waterman Award winner

NSF has announced this year’s Waterman Award winner, chemist Mircea Dincã. He is clearly an excellent scientist, but I am disappointed to see that NSF’s streak of male award winners continues. Dincã is the 13th consecutive man to win the award, over the past 12 years. (In 2012, two men won the award.)

NSF says, “The annual award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by the National Science Foundation.” It is simply unacceptable that a woman has not received this prestigious award (and the $1 million grant that comes with it) since 2004.

As I’ve written about in the past, all of the winners have been excellent scientists and engineers. But a streak this long indicates bias. There have been excellent women scientists and engineers nominated during that time. I really hope that NSF enacts changes to deal with this in the future.

15 thoughts on “Bonus Friday Link: 13th consecutive male Waterman Award winner

  1. Disappointing news, especially since we know NSF is aware of the issue and of the community’s concerns (or at least was, before Maya Montrose moved on from NSF).

    Time for a letter to NSF perhaps? Ideally one that has some signatures that would make the NSF director sit up and take notice. Perhaps we should think about drafting something and then drop a line to Rita Colwell and Jane Lubchenco.

  2. There seems to be a common notion that we can accurately rank candidates for awards, faculty positions, admission to programs with limited places, etc. Given the biases that we all have, that seems doubtful. Even consensus decisions can be swayed by persistent arguers and good debaters.

    Possibly NSF would do better with random selection from the pool of qualified candidates? Maybe it would be easier to reduce bias if the judgment was qualified or not?

  3. Pingback: NSF’s Water Man award | Small Pond Science

  4. How would people feel about alternating male/female award years? Potential issue would be the erasure of transgender/non-comforming gender identities. It might also make some people feel like the award isn’t as prestigious, but I wouldn’t see why. It is for an “outstanding young researcher” so hard to see how it’d age people out or throw off early careers.

    • This came up in the comment thread on Meg’s previous Waterman award post, starts here: Personally, I’d want to exhaust other ways of addressing the issue rather than going to a quota for women, in part because I’d worry about reducing the prestige of the award. Some people are going to think of an award for “best woman scientist” (or “best male scientist”) as less prestigious than an award for “best scientist”.

      • Let those who are inclined to see the Waterman award as less prestigious if they choose to, in their sexist minds. Won’t change the cool $1 million award making a huge difference to winners.

      • Yes, absolutely, $1 million is a lot of money no matter how prestigious anyone considers it! Plus, one thing $1 million buys is a lot of prestige. 🙂

        I’m still not sure I’d want to see the award to go alternating men and women or some other quota system just on the grounds that it’s worth $1 million so who cares about its prestige. In general, I think of quotas or “separate but equal” systems as last-resort fixes for bias.

      • Yes, I agree that the $1 million would offset any concerns about the award being less prestigious. That would still leave the issue of making gender binary. That issue seems harder.

        I am starting to wonder more about whether the idea to just get rid of the award is the way to go. More on that below.

  5. To head off the opposing arguments: It is utter nonsense that there is a “best” young scientist, much less that committee could pick the “best.” Whoever they pick is likely not in dire need of funsing or recognition, so the award is not doong any useful work in that sense. This is a promotional tool for the NSF, and as such why not use it to bring attention and support to a female scientist? At least avoid the negative attention that more than a decade of bias brings.

    • “The award can’t possibly be given on merit, and serves no useful purpose” seems like a strong argument for abolishing the award entirely. Is that how you meant it?

      • I’m not a fan of awards like these. I’d rather see money spent on ideas, not people, awarded by a panel of scientific peers. Private orgs can do this sort of thing if they want, but this amounts to the Congress and NSF setting aside $ ($1M could cover several grants) from the grant review process. So yes, I’d abolish these special awards entirely if it were up to me. I don’t see the point. I’m sure the winners are very capable of competing for grant $, and they get lots of coverage for their accomplishments in the media.

      • Following up on a comment on Small Pond Science on this thread. I don’t think awards for general excellence do much of anything. Some people have poo-pooed various aspects of the Nobel Prize and how it might be doing more harm than good of late, and I’m sympathetic with that. It’s not something I can get worked up about, other than the fact that there is a huge amount of bias and things are entirely unfair. I’d rather have no awards than unfair awards. Of course, you can have unfair but still *merited*. But if I was one of these dudes who got the award, I’d feel that I wouldn’t have earned it as much as I should have, because it’s the consequence of a bias in my favor.

        This is clearly a symptom of a much greater phenomenon. Getting upset about this is important, but in my mind only because it signals how pervasive this bias is. So it’s not about the award, but instead, about the bias at every level that women face. And complaining about this is to raise visibility about the bigger set of issues for me.

      • When I first started calling attention to this problem 2 years ago, I definitely wasn’t thinking that the solution might be to get rid of the award. But that seems pretty sensible now. There is no way someone can actually choose a best early(ish) career scientist or engineer. I imagine that trying to do so is very difficult for the award committee, as they are trying to compare people from very different disciplines. Add to that the numerous ways bias can creep into a process like this, and it does start to seem like getting rid of the award entirely is a reasonable solution — perhaps the best solution, even.

        As Terry said, part of why this is important is because it is a symptom of a larger problem, and that is the real problem we need to work on. But I think this sort of award helps perpetuate that problem. If a really prestigious award is always (or almost always) given to a man, then it reinforces the best = male bias that we all have. So, the Waterman Award streak is a symptom of a larger problem but also reinforces that larger problem (though probably in a relatively small way).

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