Let’s nominate folks for NSF’s Waterman award, including women


Every year, the National Science Foundation gives an award to the most bestest early-career scientist in the US. It’s up to the scientific community — that’s me and you — to make sure the pool really has the best. Which means it has to have a lot of women in it.

Months ago, we had a small spike in traffic here at Small Pond because we joined the chorus wondering how NSF can manage to go thirteen years without giving the Waterman Award to a woman. I’m really hoping that the present post — which is about actual action that we can take to fix the problem — gets more traffic than the post that did little more than complain. (The complainy posts get way more traffic than the constructive ones, I’ve noticed.)

The Waterman selection committee doesn’t sort through all of the country’s scientists. Instead, they decide from a set of nominees. If you’re not nominated, you’re not going to get the Waterman. Of course, anybody who is eligible can be nominated. And lots of people are eligible. You just need to be awesome and not had a PhD for too long. And we’ve got lots of awesome early career colleagues.

NSF is worried about their gender problem, too. And while it’s our job to complain about it, they have the harder job of actually fixing it. It doesn’t seem that they’ve changed the nomination process to alter the composition of the pool yet (as far as I am aware), and based on the nomination process, I imagine it might be hard to avoid a biased result. I don’t know the gender radio in the pool. They haven’t shared the demographics, but based on some recent conversations, I’ve been led to believe it’s highly male-biased, which I find entirely unsurprising.

I guess there are three ways that people get nominated. First, an institution might decide to throw some names into the ring. Do deans or provosts say, “We should nominate Linda and Gary for this!”? I have no idea. The second way is if friends and colleagues get together and assemble a nomination. The third way is that the nominee leans on colleagues and institutions to make a nomination happen. I’m imagining that all three of those methods have some gender bias to them, especially number three.

It takes a lot of balls to ask your colleagues to nominate you for an award that goes to The Very Best Scientist In The USA. Perhaps literally.

There is evidence that men are far more likely to apply for jobs (and presumably awards) for which they think are not 100% qualified. Women (supposedly) have a tendency to not apply unless they fully meet all of the specific criteria. (Though I couldn’t find peer reviewed research on this and I took a few minutes searching, for what it’s worth. I imagine they exist, but I just don’t know the right keywords to find it yet.)

What well-adjusted person thinks that they are so amazing that they belong in the pool for the Waterman? All of the men and women I know that might come close to fitting the bill are so humble they wouldn’t even think that they belong in the pool. (And I know a couple guys who probably think they belong in the pool even though I’d say it’s out of their league.) Odds are it’s going to be a man who does the work to drum up a nomination for himself.

(At least, that’s what my entirely amateur understanding of sociology and feminism suggests. Professional sociologists, along with everybody else, are more than welcome to remark on this in the comments!)

The flyer is below – here’s what you need to know: You need a special account in for the honorary awards section. You can create it in a matter of seconds. Then, you need some references (presumably very prestigious people at very prestigious institutions are the only ones that count) and basic CV kind of stuff, along with a narrative about how the person’s stuff is really great and important.

To put together a competitive nomination, I’m guessing you’ll have to be tight with bigwigs to write the letters of recommendation that the panel will take seriously. I mean, if most of us (including myself) wrote a letter for someone, then NSF would just guess that they couldn’t get a bigshot to write the letter. And of course, as always, who you know really matters. But if you have an amazing early career colleague, and they know bigwigs enough to write letters for them, it’s worth a go. For all I know, there might be a cabal of National Academy members that have already decided who is going to get the award each year. But if that’s not true, we want to make sure that we offer up a tremendous set of alternatives they’ll have to reckon with when the panel meets.

I imagine that Kristi Anseth, the last woman to receive the Waterman — way back in in 2004 — would be pleased to know that the pool has more women in it. So let’s make it happen. Be sure to chat up your chair and dean and whomever to see what nominations are going in from your institution, just to make sure the right folks are getting nominated.

If we keep seeing awards to go man after man after man, then we can be confident that the process has been passing over the best of the best, because that list must include women. Let’s make sure the Waterman goes to the best, which, in many cases, is a woman.

You can download the flyer, posted below. And click here to start an account to nominate a woman for the Waterman.


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