The annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences ended with a President’s Dinner at a museum, and the business meeting, with announcement of new members. There is intense silence as we stare at the three screens of names. The first two are the 84 who made it in. The third screen shows those who nearly made it, but did not, beginning with the most unlucky number 85. We cannot photograph the screens, but that third screen is what has our most attention.
I look at those names and think of how many great scientists all three screens represent. I wonder how joining this prestigious body will change these people. I hope that the change is for the better and that it will mean they will bring a broader perspective to their home community and their home perspective to national issues.
And those thoughts bring me to my more radical thought. It is based on two things. The first is about the point of the National Academy, to be a pool of experts to advise the government. Does that not mean that it would be good if they come from diverse areas in all respects? And won’t they be good for their home community with the broader perspective I like to think Academy membership brings? They will get that perspective from the duties of members, whether attending meetings, editing for our journal, or serving on National Research Council committees. If this is the case, then it is also a good thing for as many communities as possible to benefit from NAS members. It is not good for our nation to have regions that lack NAS members. It is not good for our nation to have members concentrated in a few places. This is my first point, that the nation’s interests are served best from diverse perspectives. I do not think this is a radical thought.
My second point is the radical half of the idea. This opinion I am about to present is verifiable, though I am not social scientist enough to know the literature in this area. It is that we are very poor in making fine judgements about excellence in people. We try to do this for many things. We try to be fair. First, we divide knowledge into disciplines and evaluate what we know. Someone who studies stars will not know the nuances of discovery in microbes. We divide things up more finely, often conceptually. Biology is divided into several sections My section is 27, evolution, and my secondary section is 26, genetics. But even within evolution there are areas I know better and areas I know less well, though the experience of being an academy member broadens one.
Once we have divided science and scientific approaches into sections, we can make lists of excellent people more easily since we can read their papers and understand their scientific advances. When we do this, it is easy to see that researchers are not all equal. Some simply have better ideas, test them more rigorously, advance the field more than others. So don’t think I would ever claim everyone is the same when it comes to science. I do not think that.
But what I do think is that truly phenomenal advances are rare. If we relied on them alone for giving recognition, in most years no one would be recognized, perhaps not even in most decades. What is more common is that someone takes a certain area and explores it thoroughly, making excellent advances in both understanding that area and in using
understanding of that area for more general conceptual advances. But these things occur on many fronts, so how do we choose between people advancing in similar ways but different systems? How do we choose between the snake person and the monkey flower person?
I would argue that we cannot really use excellence alone as the final criterion. If we already have 5 monkey flower people and no snake people, take the snake person. If we have people from a given place in excess, take the person from elsewhere. The same of course goes for diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity.
Would it be true that if you make it to the final ballot, you are indistinguishable from those at the top of that ballot? Maybe, maybe not. How about top half of that ballot? Surely at some point you would say that you cannot distinguish people, so then use other criteria. Pick someone from a non-coastal state. Pick a woman. We are only human and cannot make these fine decisions easily. Why do we pretend we can?
How about other honors, awards, and the like? I would argue there too that we cannot make the final judgements very clearly very often, so use other criteria once the field is narrowed down. How many more women might NSF’s Waterman award go to if they decided they could not distinguish in excellence among the top group?