Aligning ASCB awards with the ASCB mission


“What one really needs is not Nobel laureates but love. How do you think one gets to be a Nobel laureate? Wanting love, that’s how. Wanting it so bad that one works all the time and ends up a Nobel laureate. It’s a consolation prize. What matters is love.”– George Wald, 1967 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine

Why do scientific societies have awards?  The straightforward answer is that awards allow societies to recognize and honor outstanding achievements by their members.  But even this basic framework prompts a number of additional questions:  What do we mean by “outstanding”?  How, exactly, do the recognition and honor work?  What kind of achievements should be honored? How do we ensure that all outstanding achievements and achievers are brought to the attention of the people charged with judging them?

In the earlier days of ASCB, its mission focus was largely on research, and the convention in science at the time was to give awards for lifetime achievement.  Accordingly, the two oldest ASCB awards—the E.B. Wilson Medal and the Keith Porter Lecture—have recognized those who have been running their own labs for decades.

Over time, however, ASCB broadened its mission to acknowledge that a healthy scientific enterprise is based on more than pure research:  it requires education, mentoring, outreach, and sustained public support.  It also requires diversity.  When a variety of people with different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds work within the same field, new directions are revealed and progress is brisk; when monocultures dominate, stagnation sets in.

As it expanded its mission, ASCB added new awards, and while some of these were also targeted to research accomplishments, others came along which were intended to recognize achievements in education, mentoring, and promotion of diversity. Currently, ASCB has 13 award categories, as well as the ASCB Fellows.  However, the various awards were developed organically, and ASCB has never undertaken any kind of systematic analysis of the questions posed above.  Further, new questions arise with the broadening of ASCB’s mission:  What is an appropriate balance of awards for research versus awards for other areas of the mission?  What is an appropriate balance for awards targeted to different career stages?  How do we ensure that the diversity of ASCB’s membership is reflected in the award winners?

To address these and related questions, ASCB formed an Awards Task Force.  This group of scientists comprises ASCB members from a broad variety of backgrounds, institutions, and career stages.  In addition to asking questions, the task force is charged with identifying areas where changes are warranted and then (here’s the fun part), trying to figure out how such changes can be implemented in the face of a variety of constraints, including those related to resources.  That is, while it would be nice to simply deal with things by adding more awards, it turns out that awards are expensive:  even without an honorarium, each one runs to $5,000-$10,000 per year; to permanently endow an award runs to $275,000.

The work of the task force is complicated and challenging, but the goals are important.  And if George Wald was right and an award is not as good as love, having a balanced and equitable awards portfolio at least ensures that ASCB members all have a consolation prize to shoot for.

The Awards Taskforce will propose a set of recommendations for Council approval at its February 27 meeting. Once approved, the recommendations will be shared with the community.

About the Author:

Bill Bement ( is a long-time ASCB member who, with the members of his lab, studies cortical pattern formation in cell division and cell repair. He is the Hans Ris Professor of Cell Biology and Integrative Biology and the director of the Center for Quantitative Cell Imaging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.