Of Honors, Awards, and Prizes
On a May day in 1967, I received with a mixture of surprise, pleasure, and puzzlement a letter informing me that I had been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Surprise because I had not known that I was being considered; pleasure because I was aware, though not very, that the academy was a prestigious organization and membership was considered an accolade; and puzzlement because, although I had been a scientist for over twenty years, I knew almost nothing about this organization, about how one became a member, or even whether I wanted to be one, although now I clearly was, though I had never been asked.
As I subsequently learned, the National Academy of Sciences is an extraordinary organization, unusual in almost even feature. It is a quasi-governmental organization, founded during the Civil War with a congressional charter to make available to the federal government the expertise of the scientific community. Yet it is also, and importantly, a quasi-private organization that receives no direct funding from the government, that elects its own members and officers, and that can initiate studies and projects of its own in addition to those it undertakes on request for the government. Located in Washington, the academy serves in some degree as an intermediary between the intensely political world of the Capitol and the academic, sometimes arcane world of the scientist.
The role of science has changed drastically since the Civil War. Government has expanded and most government agencies have acquired
their own in-house technical expertise. At the same time, government has become the principal patron of science and federal funding is the sine qua non of research in every field. The government uses the academy as a source of external, impartial, expert advice on a host of technical issues arising in modern society. The academy is able to provide this because of the scientific eminence of its limited membership and because of a conscious effort made to establish balanced panels to analyze each issue, followed by scrupulous, thorough review of reports before they are released.
While the academy thus serves an important national function, its procedures and activities are in many ways baroque and it has some major limitations.
I was elected to and served on the Council, the nominal governing body of the academy for three years, 1970 to 1973. The academy also sponsors a major scientific publication, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and I served as chairman of its board of editors for eight years, from 1972 to 1980, all of which both permitted and required me to achieve some understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the academy.
A remarkable amount of the time and energy of the academy is devoted to self-perpetuation, to the election of the new members. Only sixty may be elected in any year and while this number has fluctuated somewhat over the years, it has in no way kept pace with the increase in the number of active scientists, so membership has become progressively more exclusive. Since new members are nominated only by present members and are elected by vote of all members, not surprisingly membership tends to be concentrated in a small number of elite research universities—Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Caltech—and in certain disciplines. The latter effect, which militates against election of members in newer disciplines, is from time to time countered by action of the academy's Council, which can provide for special nominations that bypass some of the lower-level hurdles to election. The former effect, institutional concentration, is never addressed and indeed is considered reasonable and proper.
Though the academy was initially dominated by the physical scientists, in more recent years the biological scientists have achieved nearly equal status. The divisions of the academy representing applied science, the medical sciences, and the social sciences have distinctly lesser influence. In fact, the limited role accorded to the applied sciences in the academy inspired the formation in the 1970s of a parallel sister orga-
nization, the National Academy of Engineering, established by engineers who felt that their profession was not receiving appropriate credit for its national contributions. The two separate academies collaborate in certain responsibilities and coexist in a sometimes uneasy partnership.
In an effort to stave off the formation of yet another academy, the National Academy of Sciences established a somewhat autonomous branch, the Institute of Medicine. The institute is concerned primarily with the sociological, organizational, and policy aspects of medicine as a profession, as distinct from its scientific component, which is left primarily to the academy.
As membership in the academy is a recognition of distinguished scientific contribution, it tends to be a venerable institution, with the average age of election in the fifties. After I was elected, Ray Owen remarked that he particularly enjoyed the academy meeting as one of the few where he could still be among the younger group present. However, while advanced in years, the membership is by no means devoid of spirit, as was evidenced by the sight of several hundred academicians marching in the aisles while the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played "When the Saints Come Marching In" at an evening concert.
While the Council, twelve members elected for staggered three-year terms, is the nominal governing body, the president is the only full-time officer, elected for a six-year term and eligible for reelection. The president has a staff and, as he or she is present before, during, and after the monthly Council meetings, plays a major administrative and policy-making role. During my period of major interaction with the academy, Philip Handler was president. Aristocratic, eloquent, skilled in the ways of Washington politics, he ran the academy in an increasingly personal fashion as his twelve-year term progressed. The membership was by and large satisfied with the arrangement as long as it determined those features in which it had real interest, the disciplinary organization of the academy and the distribution and election of new members.
As one who had lived within the cloistered walls of academe, I at first found the wholly political life of Washington—in which who one knows, and how well one knows them, can be far more important than the logic of an issue—bizarre and uncongenial. As I became more familiar with this scene and realized its imperative, I became more appreciative of the role that Handler and those like him played in meshing the needs of science with the wishes of Congress and the administration.
The academy is able to serve the government well in its basic role as the provider of dispassionate advice on technical issues. The academy
cannot serve the government as provider of advice concerning science policy. Issues such as the allocation of resources among disciplines or the establishment of priorities, which thrust different factions of the academy into competition, cannot be resolved within the academy. Nor has the academy been notably successful in the formulation of policy with respect to those social issues for which the scientific and technological factors are significant but not overriding components. While one might hope for a more rational approach to the resolution of such questions, in practice the intricate political compromises of Washington appear to generate the only acceptable solutions.
As chairman of the board of editors of The Proceedings, I was responsible for maintaining the quality of its articles, assuring its fiscal solvency, and placating occasional irate members. While the content of The Proceedings ought to reflect the diverse interests of the academy membership, in practice the publication tends to be used principally by a selected subset. In recent decades, papers of the biologists—particularly the molecular biologists—have dominated the pages of The Proceedings . Of course, all scientific journals are subject to a specialization of readership and authorship. Authors want to publish in those journals that are read by the prominent workers in their field. Repeated efforts to diversify the scientific fare and stimulate the submission for publication of papers in the physical or social sciences have failed. These disciplines have their own journals and it is in those journals that readers look to learn what is new. A new development in physics published in The Proceedings would not be seen by most physicists because The Proceedings has little of interest to them.
Members have the privilege of submitting self-authored articles to The Proceedings without review. The assumption is that articles from such distinguished scientists will surely be meritorious. Mostly this is true, but occasionally, especially in articles submitted by some of the more senior members, this standard is not met. The chairman of the board of editors has the authority to reject a paper even when submitted by a member. If the paper was outright embarrassing or, say, bore on medical concerns and—given the prestige of the academy—might induce some patients to forsake other more efficacious treatments, I would write to the author to suggest that the paper was not up to his or her usual standard. Outright rejection never proved necessary.
And I will always remember the fine paper submitted by Joel Hildebrandt at the age of ninety-six, together with a handwritten cover letter in a perfect, unfaltering hand.
For the most part, scientists do not become wealthy. In some dis-
ciplines, industrial consulting and entrepreneurial opportunities provide exceptions, and a few have written lucrative textbooks, but in general scientists are far less well remunerated than are other professionals such as physicians and lawyers, not to mention MBAs.
As one consequence, alternative modes of reward—awards and prizes—have been developed. These are primarily honorific, providing only modest financial sums. Such modes of recognition are usually found in the more mature disciplines and are sponsored or dispensed by well-established professional societies. The awards are often named for a distinguished member, usually deceased, of the discipline, and the selections are made by senior members of the society.
In general, these prizes recognize a distinguished career of significant contribution in a particular field and as such are awarded to scientists at the peak of their productivity, or beyond. Some awards are specifically designated for younger members of the profession. Receipt of such an award can have a favorable effect on one's career. In a sense, such an award is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for the recipient is more likely to obtain a better academic position, to attract better students, to receive larger grants, and so on. In science as in other aspects of life, there is a natural tendency for "the rich to get richer." Regrettably, such awards are not usually available in the newer interdisciplinary or ground-breaking fields, which often do not fall within established professional boundaries. Their lack expresses and reinforces the incrementalism and rigidity of the disciplines.
I have been honored by two major awards; both came a few years after the most significant f X discoveries.
In 1968, I received the California Scientist of the Year Award. Unlike most, this is a cross-disciplinary award given to the California scientist in any field whose accomplishments in the previous year are deemed to be of the greatest significance. The award is sponsored by the Museum of Science and Industry and the selection made by a panel of senior California scientists. Luis Alvarez was chairman of the panel that awarded my prize. In addition to the citation, presented at a black-tie banquet attended by distinguished members of the community, a five thousand dollar prize was also awarded. Receipt of this award made me aware of the incidental benefits of such an accolade—increased recognition at my institution, press conferences and publicity, honors that accrue not only to me but also to my family and institution, and even the rediscovery of old friends and acquaintances with whom I had lost contact.
Some years later, as chairman of Caltech's division of biology, I had
the privilege to nominate Roger Sperry for the Scientist of the Year Award, which he received and most eminently deserved.
In 1969, I received the Beijerinck Virology Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences in Amsterdam. Beijerinck was a famous Dutch microbiologist who in the 1890s discovered the virus of tobacco mosaic, which he described as a contagium vivum fluidum —a "contagious, living fluid," so named because he could transmit the disease with his extracts but could see no cells or particles therein with the light microscope, nor could he eliminate the infectivity with any filters he had available.
My studies of f X, one of the smallest known viruses, although quite visible in the electron microscope, had clarified and extended Beijer-inck's concepts at the particulate and molecular levels. The prize consisted of an engraved gold medal and two thousand dollars, which sufficed to bring me and my family to Amsterdam for the award ceremony. It was my privilege to address the Royal Netherlands Academy. As an accompaniment to receipt of the prize, I lectured at each of the five leading universities in the Netherlands—Leiden (founded in 1575), Utrecht, Amsterdam, Nymegen, and Gronigen—and was thus able to meet most of the leading Dutch microbiologists, as well as to see Holland in January.
Prizes are pleasant, but in the science of today such priority is largely an "ego trip" that gives one an illusion of leading the pack instead of merely riding the tide. In fact, nature exists and the discovery is waiting to be found; if scientist A does not find it one year, scientist B will the next. A does so first because, most often unwittingly, he or she has chosen the more accessible instance or has access to the more relevant techniques. The real inventors are those who create and develop new techniques—the ultracentrifuge, gel electrophoresis, the electron microscope, the scintillation counter, and so on. But most often they are not the ones to make the biological applications and thereby receive the acclaim for discovery. Yet without them, molecular biology would not exist.
The most famous prizes are the Nobel Prizes. These differ from most others in several ways They are highly remunerative. They are awarded only in certain fields, designated by Nobel, and are awarded primarily for consequence of a particular discovery, that is, whether the work recognized has proven to be of seminal importance for further development in the field. Sometimes consequence can be quickly recognized, sometimes it can be delayed as long as forty years. The prize is not
awarded, necessarily, for imaginative ingenuity, elegance of experimental design or execution, sustained contribution, or even (always) correctness. As a result, recipients of the prize are not always as yet members of the national academy (an oversight usually quickly corrected).
I have known almost all of the recipients in biology and medicine, and many of those in chemistry, since 1950. In my experience, the recipients of the prizes are good scientists, some very good scientists. But in nearly every instance, one could name half a dozen others of equal ability whose contributions, averaged over their professional lifetimes, would rival those of the recipients. It might be argued that the recipients should be specially rewarded precisely because they had the prescience to work on problems that had great consequence. But in many cases, this could not have been known in advance. In others, it was obvious in advance that a solution to that problem would be of great importance, and the prize winners were those who happened to choose a more favorable system to explore.
Understandably, the prizes tend to recognize those who make dramatic advances but often overlook those whose prior advances and inventions made the "breakthrough" possible. Thus, Gilbert and Sanger deservedly received the Nobel Prize for their development of means to sequence DNA, but no award was given to those who invented and perfected the technique of gel electrophoretic separation that made their work possible. Likewise, several Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research involving "recombinant DNA," but not to Boyer and Cohen who invented this technique.
Nobel Prizes probably served a different function in an earlier era, when scientists worked more as individuals and science was less connected and scientific progress more sporadic. Today, the achievements recognized by Nobel Prizes are mostly only slightly higher crests in the advancing waves of scientific progress.
However, the publicity of the Nobels creates its own aura. Even major institutions feel obliged to pay obeisance to the selections of the Swedish Nobel Prize committees. Each spring at Caltech, as biology chairman, I prepared a schedule of proposed biology faculty salaries for the next year to discuss with the provost. It was understood that any Nobelists would be at the top of the list. Later, all of the division chairpersons would gather with the provost to review all faculty salaries, to seek to achieve rough parity between the divisions, and to recognize any faculty whose contributions may have been split between divisions. In accord with institute tradition, the Nobelists in physics were always
at the top of the institute list and all other salaries were pegged to theirs.
The prize doubtless serves an important public relations function for the scientists and institution concerned and for the image of science to the general public, just as Oscars do for the movies. But within their respective professions, each is viewed very differently.