Nominate a Worthy Scientist for a Prize

[Updated to reflect the new nominating process, which no longer allows nominating letters.]

In October 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for their work just one month earlier forging and signing the Camp David accords that led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. The accords were initiated and brokered by President Jimmy Carter.

The Nobel is allowed to be split up to 3 ways, and many noticed the glaring omission: why did the Nobel Committee not see fit to include President Carter in the award? Was this some sort of message? A snub?

The answer was much simpler than that: Carter had simply not been nominated, and you can’t win if you’re not nominated.  Carter, of course, would later win the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of achievements, but it was widely seen as a corrective award, (sort of like Peter O’Toole’s Honorary Oscar or Denzel Washington’s Best Actor award in 2001).  Indeed, the Nobel Committee practically admitted as much in its citation.

Some astronomy/physics departments are very good at nominating their outstanding faculty for AAS awards, but others are not. As a result the nomination pool does not accurately reflect the talents of the eligible astronomers.

AAS logoThe AAS has addressed this to some degree by allowing self-nominations for all prizes, but of course some astronomers are not comfortable nominating themselves.  So it’s up to the rest of us to find those long-overlooked giants in the field, the rising stars at institutions that don’t aggressively nominate, and the quiet but profound field-changers that don’t make waves, and to get them the recognition they deserve.

Looking over the past winners for many of the prizes (including some recent “what took them so long?” prizes) many of those worthy of prizes that have been overlooked are white women and people of color.  Some of this might be unconscious bias on the part of the prize committees, but some of it is surely the nominating pool.  Like the Nobel Committee leaving out Carter, a committee has to give the award to a white man if only white men were nominated.

But getting someone nominated is not as simple as firing off an email to the AAS secretary.  It’s a lot of hard work.  I’ve made three successful AAS prize nominations (out of four!), so I think my strategy works pretty well.  Here is what you have to do:

  1. Scour the list of prizes.  See who’s won them.  Brainstorm people that have been overlooked. What are the most important aspects of astronomy? Of a particular field? Of the past x years? Guess who should be on each prize list and see if they’re there.
  2. Really probe the nominee’s history and cv, dig up anecdotes, talk to the nominee’s former students.   Choose the best papers to highlight in the letter and nomination package.
  3. Bookmark the prize nomination checklist and triple check it as you go. You’ll need to find the nominee’s CV and bibliography.
  4. Get outstanding letters.
    • Brainstorm who should write the support letters:
      • Get input from people in the field.
      • Consider who are the most senior, awarded, distinguished, high h-index people you can in the nominee’s field.
      • Look at previous winners of the prize for ideas.
      • Look at the prize committee composition: it can’t be one of them, but it could be people that you know they respect.
    • Ask your letter writers if they would be willing to write an outstanding letter of support for your nominee.
    • Give your letter writers some parameters for the letters:
      • Scrutinize the language of the award, and ask the writers to use them as a frame for their letters.
      • Make sure to hit all of the required elements for the award.
      • Use evidence for each point.
      • Be emphatic.  Find the most superlative aspects of the nominees work and stress them.
    • Remind the letter writers of the deadline in geometrically shorter intervals as the deadline approaches.  Like Zeno’s arrow, if you remind them halfway between the last reminder and the deadline, they can never actually miss the deadline because they’ll be too busy reading the infinite number of emails they’ll be receiving from you in the interim.
    • Find members of their department that can help you pester.
  5. Start early.  The deadline for most awards is 30 June.  If you start months in advance, you won’t end up with sloppy letters at the deadline.  If you want to nominate this year, you’ll have to get cracking now.

Good luck!

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