17 June 2015

Nominate a Worthy Scientist for a Prize from the AAS

Jason Wright, Pennsylvania State University

This post is adapted from the original version on Jason Wright's AstroWright blog with the author's permission:

In October 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 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 three 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 prizes and awards, but others are not. As a result the nomination pool does not accurately reflect the talents of the eligible astronomers.

The 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 who 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 who 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. 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. 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 nomination package and your letter of support.

2. Bookmark the prize nomination checklist and triple check it as you go. You'll need to find the nominee's CV and bibliography.

3. Scour the list of prizes. See who's won them. Brainstorm people who 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.

4. Get individuals knowledgeable in the field who can speak to your nominee's strengths:

  • Brainstorm who should write the support letters. Get input from people in the field. Find individuals who are knowledgeable practitioners in the field, and/or individuals who have insight into your nominee's contribution to the field, as well as other tangible contributions, such as mentoring and outreach. 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 whom you know they respect.
  • Ask them if they would be willing to write an outstanding letter of support for your nominee.
  • Give them some parameters for the letters:
    • Scrutinize the language of the award, and ask the writers to use that 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 nominee's work and stress them.

5. Remind 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 who can help you pester.

6. 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!