Why is science progress so slow when there's diversity in science prizes?

The awarding of prizes can help boost career prospects and provide role models.

Why is science progress so slow when there's diversity in science prizes?

The awarding of prizes can help boost career prospects and provide role models. Some of the most prestigious awards have the most secretive selections. This leads to a low representation of women and minorities among the winners.

The European Geosciences Union (EGU), at its annual general assembly, did something very unusual. Thomas Blunier (chair of the awards committee) presented a breakdown by gender of all prize nominees and nominators since 2014. These data were shocking. Despite women making up 37%, only 20% of the society members were women. This suggests that women are less likely than men to nominate. Data also revealed that people are more likely to nominate their own gender than other genders when they make nominations.

It is clear that this is a problem. However, it is possible to fix the situation by being aware of the issue. Despite being underrepresented in EGU nominations and receiving awards, women now have a greater share of EGU awards, thanks to the corrective actions taken by the awards committee. Unfortunately, the EGU is one of the exceptions. Most scientific societies don't make their nomination data public. They should do so because it is crucial to understand the patterns of nominations and nominees in order to determine why prizewinners are not including members of marginalized groups in science.

Because of systemic barriers, women and people of color, especially women of colour are often underrepresented in science and technology in high-income countries. This alone is not enough to explain why award-givers aren't able to give women more prizes. An analysis of 141 top awards awarded between 2001 and 2020 revealed that the percentage of women receiving these prizes was lower than the proportion of female professors across many fields.

Minority genders and people of color could be in worse shape, but it is difficult to find the necessary data. An unpublished analysis of nearly 9,000 science prize winners dating back to the 18th century was presented at this year's EGU meeting. It only identified one woman of color.

Nevertheless, there are some initiatives being made to make prizes more fair. The International Mathematical Union has established guidelines for making nominators and members of award-committees aware of unconscious bias in mathematics. Nominators are encouraged to be inclusive on prize nomination forms. The Nobel Prize Committees have stated to Nature that they are working to increase diversity and that there is a rising number of women being nominated. In the awards' 121 year history, no Black person has ever won a natural science prize. Only 22 women have.

The organizers of Nobel prizes and the Fields Medal do not publish current aggregate data about nominees or nominators. These data are also not available for Nature awards and prizes. We are working to increase diversity and will soon publish aggregate data about how applications have been broken down by gender and region.

Science was told last year by members of the Nobel committee that women comprised only 7-8% among 2021 nominees for chemistry2, even though this figure was twice what it was in 2018. This is a good example of the need for such data in order to understand imbalances and rectify them. Nature and other prize-givers should be able to collect and publish nomination information, especially information about race, ethnicity, and country of origin. Blunier pointed out that the EGU doesn't yet have these data.

Prize-givers need to expand their nomination pool. Nature suggested in 2019 that award organizers could reach out to networks that include science academies in low- and medium-income countries such as the International Science Council or the World Academy of Sciences when looking for nominations3. It is not happening on the level it should. Only the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters is the only major prize-awarding organization that Nature has approached. It has done so since at least 2018. The Nobel Prize Committees for Physics, Chemistry, and Economics say that the invitations go to around 200 faculty members from 1,600 universities each year, on a rotating basis. But, it is not known where they are distributed.

Universities can play an important role in increasing diversity in award nominations that are not invitation-only. By encouraging staff to submit nominations, institutions can help them overcome administrative hurdles and encourage them to nominate colleagues from under-represented communities.

These measures won't make science prizes reflect global diversity. Many prizes are based upon work done decades ago when barriers to entry into science were higher for people from countries and under-represented groups. There is excellent science everywhere. Professional societies should ensure that their nominee pools reflect the communities they serve. A greater transparency and a larger, more diverse pool of nominees increase the chances of awards that reward excellence rather than amplifying existing networks.

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