Get rid of age requirements for awards, NSF in particular!

Perhaps I missed the most important problem in writing about NSF’s Alan T. Waterman award, just now. I focused on the dearth of women in the last decade. But there is another perhaps more general issue: age bias.

The rules for the award say that it must go to a US Citizen or permanent resident who is 7 years or fewer past the Ph.D., and under 35 years old. CORRECTION. IT IS ACTUALLY OR UNDER 35 YEARS OLD FOR THIS ONE.

What does the age limit accomplish that the years since Ph.D. does not? It may exclude women (and men, but that is more rare) who have taken time off to have and care for children. It excludes people who have taken more time to get their degree. This can happen for many reasons, but is more likely to affect poorer, sicker people. They may have had to care for their parents, or for their siblings. They  may have had to work, unable to take the vow of poverty that is part of US higher education. They may have had cancer, lupus, fibromyalgia, or any number of other illnesses that slowed them down. They may have simply been unfamiliar with the routines of academia and taken longer to figure it out.

Why should we penalize them? Doesn’t this hurt women, under-represented minorities, first generation college, and people that qualify for assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act more than traditional students? After all, what we are ultimately recognizing is scientific excellence. If we want to do that particularly for early career people, doesn’t the rule of 7 years since Ph.D. suffice? That one also might have its issues, but if it is for early career people, there needs to be some sort of objective boundary.

Hmm, where was I at 35? Why did I not get nominated for this award? You should ask yourself that too, because it might give insight on this process. Well, at the time I had never heard of it, for starters. For me, the year was 1988. I had an 8 year old and a 5 year old. I had published 26 papers, including 2 in Science and a respectable number in places like Ecology, Evolution, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and Animal Behaviour. Of those papers, 17 were first or single author. But actually I was 9 years past Ph.D., so the real year to look at was 1986. In that year I had 17 papers, including all the same journals, and a 6 year old and a 3 year old.

By 1986 I had figured out some important things for my field. They generally had to do with kin selection in Polistes wasps since I had not branched out to other wasps yet. I discovered honey caches that influenced quality and social structure. I found satellite nests that differed in their popularity with the home nest wasps according to relatedness. I looked a lot at advantages and disadvantages of grouping, including impacts of parasites and predators. I did some physiological work on caste and cold hardiness. I found social IMG_0309variation in latitude, in sex ratios, and a hierarchy based on age. And a lot of other stuff too, but it is too much to digest here.

The next decade was transformative as we brought molecular techniques to the questions of social behavior and relatedness and expanded the wasps we studied to the tropics. In 1987 my collaboration with David Queller began, allowing an amazing and fun expansion.

So I was not a person that would have been hampered by an age limit. But I had all the advantages of an academic family that paid for my undergraduate education and taught me how this crazy discipline works. I do not want the field to be limited to people of my background, for reasons of fairness and because we need everyone!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Age bias, Awards and prizes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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