NSF’s accountability for the Waterman award


Usually we talk about accountability when people are getting it wrong, and perhaps on the occasional moment when someone or some organization experiences appropriate negative consequences for their own actions.

That’s only the first step. Accountability includes taking the steps to right the wrong, to move forward doing the right things.

So: I’d just like to take a brief moment to say thank you to the National Science Foundation for showing some accountability and doing the right thing. Good on ya, NSF.

In 2016, I made an entirely appropriate stink about gender disparities in the Waterman Award that NSF announces on an annual basis. (And I was not the first to notice this, to be clear. I mean, it was painfully obvious.) This is a superlative kind of thing, the “best among the bestest” situation. Receiving the Waterman is a huge deal, and the fact that it had gone exclusively to men for 11 years in a row was a huge problem. And, no surprise, the long history of the award wasn’t much better.

Considering the huge number of massively accomplished women scientists in the US, then how it is that The Best have always been men? This is simply how gender bias works, it’s horribly insidious and when any process has multiple decision points, then biases amplify. I imagine the filters that NSF used to identify the Best of the Best had the same variety of gender biases that baked in every other aspect of our life in science.

Judging by the outcome, NSF apparently fixed their process. Part of fixing this process seems to have meant abandoning the entirely silly idea that only a single person who is the Best of the Best So now now they’ve embraced the marginally less silly idea that multiple people can be super duper amazing, and they are now awarding the Waterman to 2 or three 3 people each year. (This year, there were three awardees. Between 2019 and 2021, there were two awardees per year.) Here’s the full list of prior awardees. (I’m familiar with the science of a few of the recent awardees and, yeah, I can vouch that they stuff they do is otherworldly in its awesomeness, so their new process meets the smell test as far as I’m concerned.) The outcome has resulted in something that resembles gender equity. I’m not an NSF insider by any measure but have spent enough interacting with different parts of the organization to know that they were not simply going to pick women because they were supposed to – they fixed the process to address the bias.

Thanks to those of you at NSF who did the hard work to make things right. While it’s true that this award only goes to a very small number of people, the visibility of this representation matters and it sends a signal about the composition of our scientific community. Congrats on a job well done.

Now, we’re counting on you to make progress on a much, much bigger structural problem. Please keep us updated on your progress!

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