Thoughts on honors and awards




Chuck Doswell


Created: 07 October 1999 Updated: 06 May 2005


For 3 years (Jan1997-Jan 2000), I was a member of the Executive Council of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Among the Council's many duties is the task of approving recommendations for the Society's awards (which include named lectureships). This was an interesting process but I found that some considerable concern exists for various formal forms of recognition offered by the AMS, whereas I have felt over the years that much of this concern is both needless and pointless. This essay grows out of that experience, but includes some thoughts that have been brewing in my head for a while.


One Nobel Laureate's view:

A number of years ago, I discovered the following passage in the book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by the Nobel Laureate physicist, Richard Feynman:

I had a certain psychological difficulty all the way through this period. You see, I had been brought up by my father against royalty and pomp (he was in the uniforms business, so he knew the difference between a man with a uniform on, and with the uniform off -- it's the same man). ... My greatest problem was the Thank-You speech that you give at the King's Dinner. When they give you the prize they give some nicely bound books about the years before, and they have all the Thank-You speeches written out as if they're some big deal. So you begin to think it's of some importance what you say in this Thank-You speech ... And the truth was, I really didn't want this Prize, so how do I say thank you when I don't want it? ... I started out by saying that I had already received my prize in the pleasure I got in discovering what I did, from the fact that others used my work, and so on. ...

This passage hit me very much dead-center when I first read it. In a PBS program that consisted solely of an interview with Richard Feynman, he asked (and I'm paraphrasing here) "How do they decide what research deserves to get the Nobel Prize?" Clearly, he was not impressed that his research was selected as deserving - he understood that a lot of other research might have been deserving, as well, and the process of selection was sufficiently mysterious as to be troubling to him. There probably is no purely objective way to decide which research deserves an award versus that which doesn't.


My interpretation:

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became: anyone who seeks formal recognition is probably in deep trouble with their ego. That's not to say that scientists are immune from ego problems - far from it! In science, the work is generally considered to be its own reward. Good scientists love what they do and feel privileged to get paid to do it. Those who might obsess about awards are generally seen as being rather sad, and certainly emotionally immature, by those of us who truly love our work. Anyway, I eventually made up my mind about how I was going to approach the problem of recognition.



For a scientist, being allowed to do the work that we love so much is the primary reward that we scientists get. Obviously, it's very nice that our employers pay us, as well! I can remember my first check that I received as a meteorologist - it felt like stealing, this being paid to do something that was so much fun! If I weren't paid to be a scientist, I'd have to do science as a hobby, in my spare time, as I tried to make a living doing something else. If I hadn't been lucky enough to be paid to do research, I probably wouldn't have had all the opportunities to travel and interact with my colleagues across the nation and around the world. The idea that I should expect more from this profession than the very generous things I've received strikes me as the height of arrogance and greed. It misses the point of what science is all about. Sure, if someone paid me more money, I wouldn't mind, but I really don't need more money. Money has never been a motivator for me - the opportunity to do the work is what motivates me. Frankly, I have a lot of difficulty understanding scientists for whom money has such allure. If you really want to reward me, give me the financial resources to do more science.



As for recognition - the most sincere and meaningful recognition a scientist gets is when the work you do is used by your peers. When your scientific results are cited by other scientists, when that work stimulates other scientists to do related work (even if that work is motivated by the desire to show that your work was wrong!) - this form of recognition from the scientific community is not just flattery or some sort of accident. There can be no more meaningful recognition than when your peers have understood what you have been trying to share and have found it useful or stimulating in what they are trying to do. Anything else - any other form of recognition - is, at most, frosting on the cake. Scientists should respect even those peers with whom they disagree, and this form of recognition (citing the work of others and using it in your work) is a manifestation of that respect.


As I've looked down the lists of award-winners over the years from the AMS, I'm struck by what Ron McPherson (formerly the Executive Director of the AMS) has called the "Oh, my God!" syndrome: that is, the omissions from those lists that cause one to exclaim, "Oh, my God! Why isn't so-and-so a recipient of this award?" Clearly, these represent omissions most of us might find puzzling or even embarassing. Sadly, there's nothing we can do to make up for those omissions to those scientists who have since died - such things make us, the living, feel good, but they have no value for the deceased! Would there be any point to adding a previously-omitted name to an awards list, just for the sake of completeness, now? I don't think so. On the other hand, as I go down those same lists, I find some names I feel are not in the same league as most of the other recipients, and I ask myself "Why did this person get this award, when they left out that person?" The answer eventually presented itself:

The process of receiving an award is closely tied to being nominated for the award. You can't receive an award if you're not nominated. If you work for or with someone who doesn't want to take the time to name their employees/colleagues for awards, it may well not happen for you, unless some champion of your work from outside your organization takes up your cause. Conversely, someone who works for an employer who wants to enhance the reputation of the organization by having their employees win awards will submit names often, and it can happen easily for those employees. A big part of receiving an award is having been nominated. In fact, nomination is by itself the primary honor, if you think clearly about it! Someone from the scientific community has thought enough of your work to put forth the effort to nominate you - that's another form of recognition from your peers, and it's very special.


Secret AMS Award Nominations

Having submitted an award nomination for a major AMS award, I'm aware of the effort this requires. Among other things, you have to find 3 scientists (presumably well-respected ones, whose opinion carries some weight) to write support letters for your nomination. And you have to acquire a complete curriculum vitae for the nominee. To top it off, the AMS wants you to keep the nomination a secret! When I asked about this strange policy (while on the Council), I was told by the AMS staff that this was intended to protect indivduals from the disappointment of not being selected for the award. Therefore, apparently, the AMS believes that scientists are less emotionally mature than Hollywood actors, who are told (and it becomes public knowledge) when they're nominated for an Academy Award (a so-called "Oscar"). This is an absurd AMS policy and can be considered insulting. If the honor truly is mostly associated with the nomination, then we shouldn't be forced by the AMS to keep our nominations a secret.

A related factor in receiving an award is the presence of powerful champions on your behalf and, equally important, is an absence of powerful enemies. In an ideal world, perhaps we'd have neither champions nor enemies - we could operate solely on the individual merit of the nominees and their work. However, in this very real world, you can be shot down simply by having the wrong person on the awards committee: a person who, for whatever reason, detests you and your work. Conversely, you can be selected to receive an award by having the right person on the awards committee: a person who is your passionate advocate, for whatever reason. The process of being selected after having been nominated is not guaranteed to work in a way that everyone would believe to be logical - it's a human endeavor, and so quite capable of error.



From where I sit, the upshot of this is that formal awards and honors may or may not come to you in your lifetime as a scientist. If they do, it's up to you how to accept them. A few might steadfastly refuse to accept any awards - perhaps they're embarassed by such things, or feel they don't deserve them, or (like Feynman), they find all the fuss to be annoying. I empathize with such persons, except - sometimes awards given to you by your peers are an expression of the respect they feel for you. Awards aren't only for the recipients - they also serve to make the people responsible for the recipient being chosen for the award and the colleagues of the recipient feel good about themselves and about the profession.

To those who would consider turning down an award: please consider the feelings of those who have championed your cause. You're denying them an opportunity to show they respect you and your contributions to the profession. In most cases, I'd say you should accept your award graciously and just go on about your work. There is no reason for you to feel cheapened or embarassed by awards, in general - for reasons I've already explained. On the other hand, there may be times when you have some really good reason to turn down some award. In such cases, the decision to accept or reject an award or honor is up to you, obviously.

Since the issue of whether or not you'll receive some formal award for your contributions is mostly outside of your control and not entirely logical, you should never expect to receive formal recognition for your work. If it happens, that's fine - accept it and go on. If it doesn't happen - accept that and go on. There's no need to feel disappointed or angry that someone received an award you felt you deserved more. That may lead you to feel bad about the situation, but that bad feeling is one that you impose on yourself unnecessarily. If your scientific work is paid for by someone, and that work is cited by others in their work, that's all the reward you can reasonably expect. If you're nominated for awards but aren't chosen, keep in mind that the majority of the reward is the nomination, so accept that and move on. Formal recognition doesn't inevitably go to the most deserving. Be happy when one of your peers receive formal recognition that's clearly deserved, and try to ignore the cases where someone is recognized who doesn't (in your opinion) deserve that honor.

Keep Richard Feynman's notions in mind. Feynman is a Nobel Laureate - aguably the highest formal honor that a scientist can receive - who was not overawed with his prize. He wasn't impressed with himself for having been named a Nobel Laureate. I doubt if his ego would have been damaged had he not received it; he even asked if he could turn it down, just to avoid all the fuss! His is the perspective that works for me.