Who would you nominate for the Crafoord Prize?

The Crafoord Prize is a Nobel-like award that goes to up to three biologists (with an “emphasis on ecology”), once every three years. It goes to people in other disciplines in other years. In practice, the biology award usually goes to an evolutionary biologist rather than an ecologist; more on that below. Anyway, the Crafoord Prize is one of the most prestigious and lucrative awards in biology; it’s worth over $700,000 USD at current exchange rates.

The next Crafoord Prize will go to a biologist; nominations are due Jan. 15. I got a letter inviting me to submit a nomination (a “perk” of being a blogger, presumably), but anyone is allowed to do so. Who would you nominate?

I’ve thought about it a bit and have a few candidates in mind. But I think it’ll be a more interesting conversation to talk about the thought process, rather than just listing names. Here’s my thought process; please share yours!

  • I’d like my nominee to have a non-zero chance of being selected, insofar as outsiders can judge that.
  • Looking at the list of past winners, the prize invariably goes to a very famous, very senior person, for work done many years earlier. Here’s the full list of past biology winners, 1984-2015: Dan Janzen; the Odums; Paul Ehrlich & E. O. Wilson; W. D. Hamilton & Seymour Benzer; Bob May; Ernst Mayr, G. C. Williams & John Maynard Smith; Carl Woese; Bob Trivers; Ilkka Hanski; Dick Lewontin & Tomoko Ohta.
  • Personally, I’d rather the award go to someone who’s still an active researcher doing important work. I’m fine with lifetime achievement awards in general (in the unlikely event anyone wants to give me one in 30 years, I won’t say no!). But when the award comes with a cash prize this big, I’d prefer it to go to someone who’ll spend it on great science. Ideally, the sort of science that would be difficult or impossible to fund with a conventional grant. Kind of like a MacArthur “genius grant”.
  • But given the past history of the awardees, there’s no way it’s going to go to a mid-career or early career person.* So my search image is “famous senior person still doing leading-edge work”. Someone who’s a plausible candidate on “lifetime achievement” grounds, but who also is still achieving significant scientific advances.
  • The biology award has only ever gone to one woman, Tomoko Ohta. It’d be nice to diversify it.
  • As an ecologist, I think it’d be nice if a prize that’s supposed to emphasize “ecology” went to an ecologist instead of the evolutionary biologists it usually goes to.
  • I thought of one candidate I really like, but that candidate doesn’t meet all of my criteria. So I want to think about it further and hear from others. Hence this post.

But that’s just one person’s thought process. What do you think? Looking forward to your comments, as always.

*You may feel the prize should go to an early- or mid-career person, on the grounds that such a person likely would have more need for the money or make better use of it. Or that it should go to a team rather than an individual, given the increasingly-collaborative nature of science these days. Or that it shouldn’t exist at all, that in a better world that money would go to support grad students, or to a worthy charity, or whatever. My own view is that (i) the prize exists, (ii) there’s no way to make it not exist or go to very different sorts of people than it’s historically gone to. So the thing to do is either not nominate anyone (if you feel like you have better ways to spend the time required to write a nomination letter), or else nominate an outstanding still-active senior researcher. But your mileage may vary.

32 thoughts on “Who would you nominate for the Crafoord Prize?

  1. Lenore Fahrig – she has substantially contributed to developing her field (Landscape Ecology) and is still very much active.

  2. Fun question. Don’t forget that the MacArthur award is and has always been available to biologists (and its award money is on-par or even less than some major NSF grants). The Crafoord being what it is, I like your idea of awarding someone still active, though. My first thoughts for a famous, senior, still-active ecologist: Robert Ricklefs. Evolutionary biologist: Masatoshi Nei. On purely lifetime achievement grounds: the Grants, Felsenstein.

    • Re: the MacArthur, yes. Just off the top of my head, Sally Otto got one a few years ago–and then gave the money to charities rather than using it herself. Further back, when I was an undergrad one of my biology profs (Heather Williams) got one. And there are others I don’t know off the top of my head.

      The MacArthur is in an interesting and tricky position, because their purpose is to give money and recognition to people who could really use some, but who will then go on to do great things. But the award loses cachet if it goes to lots of people who *don’t* go on to do great things, and if it always goes to people no one’s ever heard of. So on the one hand, they’re rying to make risky bets on people who aren’t already widely recognized as having achieved great things. But on the other hand, they’re trying to bet on sure things–people who likely will go on to achieve great things, because they already have. There’s an interesting old Crooked Timber post discussing this, and talking about how in practice the MacArthur tends to err on the side of giving the award to people who’re already fairly well on their way. The recent MacArthur for Lin Manual Miranda is a good example–it went to him *after* “Hamilton” became a massive hit, not before.

      Re: your Crafoord suggestions, the Grants and Felsenstein also occurred to me if you wanted to nominate an evolutionary biologist on lifetime achievement grounds.

      My first thought for a famous, still-active senior biologist who could make good use of money that can be spent more flexibly than a conventional grant could: Rich Lenski. He could use the Crafoord Prize money to seed an endowment to run the LTEE indefinitely, and use the cachet of winning the Crafoord to help attract big-money donors to the endowment.

      Dolph Schluter is another candidate in the “famous, senior, but still-active evolutionary biologist” category.

      Other ecological candidates, mostly on lifetime achievement grounds (since they’re both retired or moving towards retirement): Dave Tilman, Jim Brown.

      • Solid choices all, and I like the logic behind the Lenski pick. Interesting point re: MacArthur. I’ll dig for that post you mentioned.

      • Dave Tilman is very much still active (and deserving of course). He, Marten Scheffer, or Geoffrey West would be my top choices.

        Another person who does some important but still underappreciated work (in my view, anyway), who I think would use the funds in interesting ways, is Peter Turchin.

        Other good options would be Sarah Hobbie, or Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom (another stellar couple, who could use the funding for Nut Net).

        And of course, I recognize that I am probably biased towards theorists and people in my UMN network.

      • Eric and Elizabeth are good friends of mine. But as contemporaries of mine, they’re surely too junior.

        Peter Turchin would be an interesting choice in that he moved into “cliodynamics” years ago.

  3. Jeremy–I can’t quibble with your thought process. Looks pretty sound to me and I agree with the asterisk. Considering the prize exists within a certain set of parameters, best to get the best result within the parameters. If you want to change the parameters, that discussion should occur with Crafoord Foundation in the interim years between biology prizes.

    As for nominees, particularly female, here are some suggestions from ecosystem ecology:
    Whendee Silver (possibly too mid-career, but that’s what I think I am even as a full prof, and she’s more senior than me)
    Nancy Grimm (combining ecology and built environments — I think she’s been on the forefront of urban ecology for some time now)
    Pam Matson/Peter Vitousek (obviously Peter is not female, but the prize has gone to multiple people before. Recognizing an academic couple might be a nice step for acknowledging the contributions of many academic couples. There is no drop off in quality either way between Peter and Pam’s work, in my opinion. Either could be nominated individually. They fit the “senior scientist” category and are still active.)
    Margaret Lowman has gone from breaking barriers and making discoveries in tropical tree canopies to personalizing science and designing “citizen science.”
    Mary Firestone spent some time with my cohort of grad students and was terrific.

    There are certainly other famous and deserving women too, but I don’t know their science as well: Gretchen Daily, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall, Jane Lubchenko, Joan Roughgarden, etc.

    Are federal/government scientists allowed to accept these types of awards? I think not. So I’ve not considered any, but if so, I might have a few more ideas.

    • All excellent suggestions, with a good mix of “senior but still doing great work” and “lifetime achievement” suggestions. The fact that the award is given to a biologist only once every 3 years means that strong candidates appear at a higher rate than awards are given out, so there will always be many strong candidates.

      I don’t know if government rules in some countries would prevent some government scientists from accepting the Crafoord Prize money.

    • Just glancing at the list of past biology winners, no ecosystem ecologist has won since the Odums. And many of the past biology winners won for mathematical theory or other conceptual work, at least in part. So if your approach is just to look at the past winners and then nominate someone like past winners, yeah, you’re probably looking for somebody who’s done some foundational mathematical theory or other conceptual work, and probably not an ecosystem ecologist. But as I said in the post, my own thought is to try to nominate someone who’s a bit different but not *too* different from past awardees on some dimensions.

  4. A correspondent asks an interesting question: do you want the Crafoord to reward a single major discovery (as with the Nobel), or to reward a cumulative record of strong work not necessarily including a single major discovery? Of course, some of the strongest potential candidates, such as Dave Tilman, the Grants, and Rich Lenski, are strong on both those criteria.

    Also, the materials I was mailed indicate that the prize is to promote “basic scientific research” and goes to “outstanding scientists”. Which suggests to me that service to science doesn’t “count” for purposes of the Crafoord. Which might count against someone like Jane Lubchenco, who has focused on doing tremendous amount of service to science over the past few decades (directing NOAA, etc.). She of course built an outstanding scientific record before that. But FWIW, looking at the list of past winners it looks like everyone won for their own scientific research. I don’t see anyone who appears to have won for a mix of their own science and service to science.

  5. When nominating someone for an award, to what extent should you try to find someone who fits your “search image” based on past awardees — on the presumption that that is the kind of research the awards committee seeks to recognize — as opposed to trying to persuade the committee to recognize outstanding research of a sort they haven’t recognized before? I don’t know that there’s a real answer to this question. Jeremy’s approach seems to be a reasonable middle ground.

    I thought about this question while thinking about what paper to nominate for the Mercer Award this year. I can think of outstanding work in (for example) physiological ecology of the sort that has rarely been recognized by the Mercer Award, and it’s not clear to me whether that’s just a matter of chance (or lack of nominations), or whether it just isn’t the sort of thing the committee finds valuable, or considers within its scope. I ended up nominating a paper that was closer to my “search image” — which was an outstanding paper — but part of my reasoning was that some of the more physiological papers I was considering just wouldn’t have a shot. In retrospect, I worry that that behavior may be self-reinforcing; if nobody nominates papers from subfield X because nobody from subfield X has won in the last 30 years, nobody from that subfield could possibly win.

    • You’re absolutely right that for many awards, the perception that the award is “really” only for certain sorts of people or work (despite nominally being for a much broader range of people or work) can easily be created by accident, and then be maintained by self-reinforcing self-selection on the part of potential awardees. I’ve no idea if that has happened with the Crafoord Prize or not, or if it’s happened with the Mercer. Meghan chairs the Mercer Award committee, so she might be able to comment generally on the range of subject matter and approaches covered/used by Mercer Award nominees in recent years.

      In my role chair of the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Awards committee this year, I wrote blog posts emphasizing that we want more applications from ecologists. In recent years, the applicant pool has been heavily skewed towards evolutionary biologists, particularly those working on sexual selection and sexual conflict. Potential ecological candidates might get the incorrect impression that the YIA is “really” an evolutionary award, for which they shouldn’t bother applying. And there are other possible reasons why the applicant pool would skew towards evolutionary biologists, such as ecologists just not being aware of the award. In any case, I’m very glad that we’ve succeeded in drumming up a larger applicant pool for the YIA this year, including many more ecologists than in recent years.

      • Sorry for being so late to reply! I agree that there are certain types of papers that tend to win, but I also think the committee is open to papers beyond those. We try to have taxonomic and subdisciplinary breadth on the committee.

        “In retrospect, I worry that that behavior may be self-reinforcing; if nobody nominates papers from subfield X because nobody from subfield X has won in the last 30 years, nobody from that subfield could possibly win.”

        I’ve thought about this when I’ve nominated papers or people for awards! I’ve sometimes read an award description, thought of a paper or person who seems to fit it, then looked at who won recently and decided there was no point. But then I’ve spoken with people on those committees who were frustrated by the lack of diversity in nominees. I’m not sure of how to deal with this, other than the committee chair trying to make it clear that they are hoping for greater diversity in nominees.

      • “I’m not sure of how to deal with this, other than the committee chair trying to make it clear that they are hoping for greater diversity in nominees.”

        As chair of the YIA committee, I can confirm that this works really, really well. Especially when the committee chair has a widely-read blog. 🙂

  6. Perhaps too much like past awardees – Simon Levin [who fits both the senior & doing great things and lifetime achievement categories]. If I’m going to go way biased to some of my personal favorite work, I really like Katriona Shea’s insights in conservation, ecology, and disease [maybe too “mid-career”]. I also find Fahrig very insightful.

  7. In the freshwater realm, Timo Muotka (University of Oulu, Finland), Russell Death (Massey University, New Zealand), Margaret Palmer (University of Maryland, USA). Leading researchers within their respective countries and internationally widely acclaimed & respected.

  8. Since I study coral reef ecology, I would like suggest some coral reef ecologists:
    Terry P Hughes: He is senior and famous and still active ecologists, and was among Nature’s 10 important people in 2016.
    Ruth D. Gates: Senior, active research ranges from ecology to evolution. Really cool work.
    Barbara E. Brown : She is active and sensior. Her work is really good, but I am not sure she is popular enough or not.
    Others- Jeremy B. C. Jackson or Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.

  9. Since you mentioned diversity, shall we go beyond gender and consider nationality and race/ethnicity as well?

    Dan Janzen: American, male, white
    Eugene Odum: American, male, white
    Howard Odum: American, male, white
    Paul Ehrlich: American, male, white
    E. O. Wilson: American, male, white
    W. D. Hamilton: British*, male, white
    Seymour Benzer: American, male, white
    Robert May: Australian, male, white
    Ernst Mayr: German, male, white
    G. C. Williams: American, male, white
    John Maynard Smith: British, male, white
    Carl Woese: American, male, white
    Bob Trivers: American, male, white
    Ilkka Hanski: Finnish, male, white
    Dick Lewontin: American, male, white
    Tomoko Ohta: Japanese, female, asian

    That’s 10 out of 16 (62%) American, 15 /16 (94%) male, and 15 /16 (94%) white.

    * Born in Cairo from kiwi parents, grew up in Britain

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