Why expanding the requirements for the Waterman Award won’t fix it

The National Science Foundation gives out an annual prize to their choice for the top scientist, the Waterman Award. Actually, it is a committee that does the choosing. You can see for yourself who is on it, here. The award has not gone to a woman in a long time. This year it even went to two people and neither were women. I do not seem to be alone in thinking there is a problem with this; look here, here, and here.

Yet NSF is one of the fairest places around. I was at an Advisory Committee meeting for the Biology Directorate earlier this week and women were clearly well represented in leadership positions. The head of NSF entirely is a woman, France Córdova. There is other evidence of fairness at NSF I can’t go into here. So I’m guessing they are as frustrated as anyone.

Does this mean we have to take some people’s advice and throw up our hands and simply have a boy’s pile and a girl’s pile? Is it really so impossible to avoid bias even when it is recognized? I do not know the answer to that.

But I am a bit discouraged by the NSF response to the problem. They have decided that the problem is not with bias in the nominations or bias in the committee, but simply that there are not enough good young women. So they have lengthened the time window to 10 years since Ph.D. or 40 years old. This will certainly increase the pool, but I submit that it is narrow thinking by the committee as to what is outstanding and perhaps narrowness in nominations that is the problem, not the dearth of excellent women in the category. In fact, I know some personally that were nominated, some even by me, but I’ll keep this private.

Bias is a huge problem, as we heard about in a gripping talk today here at the National Academy of Sciences from Jennifer Eberhardt. I can hardly do justice to her compelling talk, but I’ll try on a couple of points backed up with the papers. In the first that she talked about she flashed photos of men of different races or random photos so quickly one could not know if one actually saw them. She then gradually filled in an image of a gun. The people tested, including policemen, were quicker to see a gun from the incomplete drawing if they had subliminally seen pictures of black men. The other study flashed visible pictures of people of different races in different frequencies and in that one if there was a larger percentage of blacks, people were more likely to support a punitive form of three strikes and lifetime jail. She has more. The point is we are biased. All of us. Better to understand it and try to make conscious amends.

Studying Jennifer’s work should be required for all. There are others in her field and in behavioral economics that treat these issues. Only with understanding can we have any hope of advancing to get rid of things that hurt people’s lives far more profoundly than the inequity in the Waterman does.

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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
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