NSF’s Water Man award


When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.

Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?seriesa

If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!

Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?


If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!

Let’s look for another pattern:


What do you think comes next? If you guessed 2016, then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic!

What kind of pattern is this? These are the recipients of the US National Science Foundation’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence, known as the Alan T. waterMan award. This award exists “to recognize outstanding young scientists whose accomplishments showed exceptional promise of significant future achievement. Candidates may not be more than 35 years old, or seven years beyond receiving a doctorate degree.” This man must “demonstrate exceptional individual achievement in scientific or engineering research of sufficient quality, originality, innovation, and significant impact on the field.”

You wouldn’t recognize it from the pattern, but at least on paper, this award is open to women and men. I just wish the committee that selected the most recent thirteen awardees realized this too.

I have no doubt that all of these fine gentlemen pictured above are top-notch scientists worthy of this award. I also have no doubt there have been many women who are also top-notch scientists worthy of this award.

I’d like to share with you, and with NSF, some wisdom from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:

It doesn’t matter what you say you believe — it only matters what you do.

We don’t need NSF to tell us what they believe about women in science, because their actions are speaking loud and clear. NSF, please do better. Please make your awards representative of science in America.

7 thoughts on “NSF’s Water Man award

  1. Also hoping that the eligibility stipulation of 7 years beyond doctoral degree is somewhat flexible. If several of those years are spent on leaves of absence or parental leaves instead of full time research that is further biasing the pool of applicants and disadvantaging some people.

  2. That this is an early career award makes this even more egregious, since women have made up >40% of S&E PhDs since 2009 (according to NSF’s own survey statistics), whereas they are smaller percentage at more senior career levels. Other early career awards (AGU, AMetsoc, etc) are much more gender-balanced than the lifetime achievement awards from same organizations. Given 40% women in eligible pool, the chance of 13 men in a row, if this was random (i.e. not due to bias) would be 0.13% (see http://aanandprasad.com/diversity-calculator/?groupName=women&numSpeakers=13&populationPercentage=40).

  3. At the risk of derailing the thread, curious as to your thoughts on a related topic Terry. Over on Meg’s post on this at DE, a commenter suggested just doing away with awards like the Waterman, on the grounds that they’re impossible to adjudicate, and serve no useful purpose. How do you decide who’s the “best” young scientist across all fields of science? And why does anyone you might pick need grant money and recognition, since they probably already have a fair bit of both? (plus, you could spend the money on 2-3 regular research grants instead).

    I confess I’m unsure how to respond to this. Logically, it seems like a cogent case. But my gut feeling wants to resist it; I’m still trying to figure out why…

  4. But-but-but-but-but! We all know men are more meritorious! And you are trying to dilute their excellence with your affirmative action! And men are the default merit-stick to measure all things merit! Across all science! And all other fields!
    And let’s not forget — but-but-but, reverse sexism!

    Seriously now. As a (cynical, bitter) senior woman in science, I have no reaction to this awardee lineup other than “Yes, and..?” We can all fret on the web as much as we want, but when hear my colleagues (the young ones are even worse than the older ones), I have no hope about the things for women in science improving much. I mean, you boys allow us gals to get science jobs sometimes, what else do we want? It’s not like those jobs are on real merit, but just because we are annoying hysterical whiners spoiling everyone’s day/lunch, so to shut up and go away we are allowed to get jobs here and there. Now we want awards? I mean, how greedy are we? Puhleez.

  5. At least the pattern of nerds in tuxes was broken? :/

  6. Easy solution here, make applications gender blind and thus remove gender bias at least in the selection process.

  7. Jeremy- I’m with that commenter. While I’m definitely aware that I’m low on the totem pole, I feel like these kinds of awards have exactly the problems the commenter mentions. Eventually, it seems like people get awards just based on a bunch of past awards they’ve gotten. This can happen because people use others’ choices as an easy benchmark, or because the previous awards have allowed them (unlike others) to do good science and be recognized, science they might not have had the chance to do without an award. Given the apparent stochasticity and bias that can influence who gets awards and chances early in their careers, it seems really hard to make fair judgements this far into someone’s career, when there are so many people out there from whom to choose.

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