Gender and Diversity Gap in Prizes & Awards

Posted on 8/09/2021 in Data


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Prizes and awards such as the Nobel or the Brain Prize are some of the most important recognitions of scientific excellence. The awardees’ names are linked to historical greatness along with a substantial financial reward. However, there is a deep gender and diversity gap in scientific prizes and awards.

What are the causes?

In a 2019 study entitled “Gender Disparities in Awards to Neuroscience Researchers”, the authors David E. Melnikoff and Virginia V. Valian tried to understand this gap. It would emerge in part from the gender bias that portrays women as “warmer and less competent than men,” but also because of the gender gap in citations. This results in less prestigious awards for women and the continuity of women being seen as less competent than men.

This theory seems to be confirmed in a recent Nature analysis of biomedical awards, “Women who win prizes get less money and prestige”. The study shows that women scientists receive 50% of the service prizes that are linked to advocacy, mentoring and education, but less than 30% of the research prizes that are linked to scientific excellence, larger financial reward, and that are generally more important for professional advancement.

A bias often forgotten concerns the selection of prize winners based on area of expertise, as is explored in the 2015 article "Expertise vs. Bias in Evaluation: Evidence from the NIH”: “Evaluators with expertise in a particular field may have an informational advantage in separating good projects from bad. At the same time, they may also have personal preferences that impact their objectivity.”.

Sparking change - The Nobel Prize example

The Nobel prize is the most popular scientific prize. In the Physiology or Medicine category, out of 111 awardees, only 12 were women and only 5 from non-western countries (4 from Japan; 1 from China).

How is the Nobel’s winner selected? This Nature article describes the selection process. The nominee selection is organized by different organizations per category: The physiology or medicine prize is chosen by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The committee invites eminent scientists to nominate people, from which they generate a shortlist. In 2018, the Nobel organizations started to change their nomination processes to encourage gender and geographic diversity among prize nominees. Changes included increasing the number of women among nominators, and updating the wording of their letter invitation to nominate to encourage nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography and topic, as well as to nominate more than one discovery.

Nature interviewed Göran Hansson (secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) one year after these modifications were implemented. Göran Hansson saw a trend in the 2019 Nobel selection: more women were being nominated. When asked about the diversity beyond gender, the secretary-general replied: “We realize that the Nobel laureates become role models, and it’s important to have role models who are women and from diverse ethnicities”; “We hope that more countries around the world will build up their science. Science is an expensive activity and requires stability, so the opportunities are very different in different parts of the world. We all hope that this will gradually change in such a way that individuals from many more countries will have more opportunities to pursue careers in science and to make discoveries.”

Moving forward – The Brain Prize example

With the arrival of Dr Martin Meyer as the new Scientific Program Director for The Brain Prize in 2020, The Lundbeck Foundation has increased its efforts to improve the diversity among nominations. Some of these efforts include actively encouraging diversity in nomination (i.e., Brain Prize advertisement), being transparent in the selection process and timeline (i.e., Brain Prize Homepage) and facilitating the nomination process (see webpage).

The ALBA Network applauds these efforts and believes that more active steps need to be taken along similar lines to improve diversity in prize nominations.

Brain Prize advertisement "we encourage diversity in nomination"

What can we do?

As an Award/Prize organizer: 
  • Actively encourage diverse nominations in your call promotion.
    • Applicants are evaluated and judged most fairly when they make up a critical mass (at least 30%) of the pool”; “Consider the roles that gender and racial socialization may play in self-promotion and self-nominations. Women and those in communities of color may be socialized to not engage in self-promotion”. (Managing internal nomination and peer review processes to reduce bias, University of Michigan)
  • Facilitate the nomination process: The nomination form and eligibility criteria should be clear and easy to find on your website.
  • Transparency and detailed timeline of the selection process.
  • Diversify the Selection/Nomination Committee and ensure a gender balance, the representation of other underrepresented groups, and the representation of diverse areas of research.
  • The Selection/Nomination committee should follow a training against unconscious and conscious bias.
  • Develop prizes targeted towards underrepresented scientists or scientists from low-income countries to promote diversity in scientific recognition (see examples in the list below*).
As an individual researcher:
  • Apply to be on the Selection or Nomination Committees (eligibility criteria vary between prize/award)
  • Nominate or suggest the nomination of underrepresented scientists.
  • Cite high-quality papers from women and researchers of non-western countries in your articles.

Overall, there is a need to expand the criterion of scientific excellence beyond citations, and increase the value of mentorship, teaching, diversity and mental health advocacy.

Selection of Awards and Prizes in Science and Neuroscience

ALBA encourages its members to apply or nominate a colleague to the following prizes:

  • Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (nominee submission between September and January)
  • The Brain Prize - The world's largest brain research prize is organized by the Lundbeck Foundation and awards one or more brain researchers who have had a ground-breaking impact on brain research. (nominee submission between May and September)
  • The Golden Brain Awards (selection by previous awardees) - Each year, the Minerva Foundation awards a Golden Brain to an investigator at the forefront of research for significant findings of vision and the brain.
  • The Breakthrough Prize - Honours important, primarily recent, achievements in the categories of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics.
  • The Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine - The award is dedicated to furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity's spiritual civilization.
  • The Kyoto Prize - International award for individuals who have made significant contributions in the fields of science and technology, as well as the arts and philosophy.
  • The Gruber Yale Prize in Neurosciences - The Selection Advisory Board for Neuroscience is nominated by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN)
  • The Kavli Prize - Honours scientists for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience
  • FENS Awards and curated Awards Directory - FENS launched research awards biennially and curates a directory of recurring awards promoted by and donated by other funding agencies.
  • SfN Awards - SfN awards span a wide range of achievements, from recognizing the merits of young and promising neuroscientists to honouring those who have dedicated their careers to furthering the field.
  • The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize - The prize is awarded by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine for a seminal discovery in neuroscience.
  • Organization for Human Brain Mapping awards - OHBM recognizes the outstanding contributions of its members in the field of human brain imaging.
  • NAS Award in the Neurosciences is awarded every three years by the National Academy of Sciences to recognize extraordinary contributions to the progress of the neuroscience fields, including neurochemistry, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, developmental neuroscience.
  • Karl Spencer Lashley Award and Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology - These prizes acknowledges the increasingly active and important role of neurobiology in advancing our understanding of the functioning of the brain and the nervous system.
  • *NIH Diversity Awards (US) -  The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is promoting programs to enhance diversity and focus on underrepresented groups, individuals with disabilities, from disadvantaged backgrounds, or institutions primarily serving underrepresented groups.
  • *Henry Grass Rising Stars in Neuroscience Award (US) - The award recognizes excellence in neuroscience research by women and PEERs (Persons traditionally Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race) in the United States.
  • *Ben Barres Spotlight Awards - Offer scientists from minoritized groups up to $6,000 each to use to advance their research career.