Five of the nation’s top ice scientists found themselves in a conundrum.
They’d been tasked with a formidable job: reviewing candidates for the American Geophysical Union’s fellows program, the most prestigious award given by the world’s largest earth and space science society. But when the group looked at its list of candidates, all nominated by peers, it spotted a problem.
Every nominee on the list was a white man.
“That was kind of a bit of a showstopper for me,” said Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the five committee members.
The AGU fellows program, established nearly 60 years ago, recognizes members who have made exceptional contributions to their fields through scientific innovation, breakthroughs and discoveries. It’s a high honor. Fellows often serve as “external experts, capable of advising government agencies and other organizations outside the sciences upon request,” according to AGU.
The selection process this past spring was an arduous, careful operation from beginning to end.
Candidates, typically middle- or senior-level scientists, are first nominated by peers. The nominees are divided into groups with 20 or 30 names, and then organized by scientific disciplines within AGU — atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, planetary sciences and so on.
Committees representing each section review the pool of nominees, select a few final candidates and send them on to an upper-tier committee. This last group, the “union committee,” makes the final selections.
The process proceeds the same way each year and concludes, ostensibly, with the same outcome: a new batch of AGU’s best and brightest scientists.
Fricker and her colleagues — Jeff Dozier, Sinead Farrell, Bob Hawley, Don Perovich and Michele Koppes — represented the AGU’s cryosphere section, comprising scientists focused on the Earth’s snow and ice. The group was just one of about two dozen different committees, all reviewing their own lists of candidates.
The homogeneous pool of nominees didn’t sit right.
Fricker had been named a fellow herself in 2017, when relatively few women were recognized.
“One of the reasons I was put on the committee was because I’d been quite vocal about the year that I’d been a fellow, I was very much in the minority, and we needed to do better and get more women,” she said in an interview.
So the committee members made an uncomfortable decision. They declined to recommend any nominees at all.
The decision has triggered a spirited dialogue among AGU members and other earth scientists about the persistent lack of diversity in science awards — and how to address it.
Within the AGU fellows program, it’s a pervasive issue. AGU selected a total of 59 fellows this year, and 45 of them are men. Additionally, 46 of the fellows are from the U.S., while only 13 are from other countries.
The trend has been similar in recent years. In 2020, 46 out of 62 fellows were men, and 43 fellows were from the U.S. In 2019, 47 out of 62 fellows were men, and 36 were from the U.S.
AGU doesn’t publish data on the race or ethnicity of its fellows. But AGU scientists and committee members have pointed out that people of color tend to be underrepresented.
“We are disappointed that there were fewer women and fewer individuals from international countries nominated and awarded in 2021,” AGU said in a statement last month, shortly after announcing the new class of fellows. “For the first time ever, one Section chose not to advance any of their Sections’ nominees to the Union Fellows Committee for consideration. The Section felt that this was their only course of action due to a lack of diversity in the nomination pool.”
The cryosphere committee further explained its decision in a letter to its section members, which it also shared publicly on Twitter.
“While it is tempting to blame the pandemic and see this year as anomalous, the Cryosphere Fellows committee now realize that the slate of nominations received this year is part of an alarming trend in Fellows nominations that warrants review,” the letter stated.
The number of female cryosphere nominees has steadily dwindled over the past five years, the committee pointed out. It reached a low point in 2021.
“We realize that our decision means that excellent scientists who have done nothing wrong and who were strong candidates for recommendation by the Cryosphere section were denied the support of the Cryosphere Fellows committee at the AGU Union Fellows level this year,” the committee added. “What we hope is that this moment will serve as both a time to reflect on community engagement and a call to action.”
Declining to recommend otherwise strong candidates was “the hardest part,” Fricker added.
“It was a very sad, sort of tough thing to have to do, because there’s people on that list who were truly, amazingly deserving,” Fricker said. “But the honest truth is that they will get nominated again and they will become fellows. There’s no question there. It will just be a fairer process.”
‘Nothing would change’
The cryo committee’s decision has triggered a flurry of responses from AGU members and other earth scientists. Reactions have been mixed.
Raymond Bradley, director of the climate system research center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was among the first to publish a statement to AGU’s online member forum, AGU Connect. He called for the committee members to resign.
“What the committee should have done is what they were tasked to do, which is to select from the nominations they received the best people and put them forward,” Bradley said in an interview. “At the same time they could recognize that there aren’t enough nominations being received from women and underrepresented groups, and they could shake up their members and say, ‘Hey, come on, let’s nominate more people.’”
AGU data from the past few years suggests that there are significantly fewer female fellow nominees than male nominees. Of those nominees, a slightly greater percentage of women than men go on to be selected as fellows, Bradley pointed out.
“This hardly supports the idea that there is some sort of implicit bias in the selection process,” he said in a follow-up email. “The problem lies in the low number of nominations, and that depends on the effort people make to submit candidates for Fellow.”
But others have disagreed.
Simply drumming up more nominations isn’t as simple a solution as it might sound, said Twila Moon, a scientist with the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
“There have been some really well-thought-out responses in AGU Connect pointing out that often the work of nominating more diverse groups of people falls to people who are within those diverse groups,” she said in an interview. “And that those are maybe people who are especially hard hit in having time available.”
That’s especially true now, as the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, people of color and other underrepresented groups, she added. Writing nominations requires time and effort.
Others have voiced their support for the committee’s decision.
“I think that the committee’s response was bold, but it definitely got the conversation started, and for that reason alone I think that it was a great reaction to the nomination pool,” said Melisa Diaz, a postdoctoral scholar and geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “When you have a nomination pool that consists of one very specific demographic, how can you actually tell that that demographic is truly the best in our field?”
Nicole Gasparini, a geoscientist at Tulane University, agreed that the committee’s gesture kick-started important conversations within the organization. While there have been both positive and negative responses on AGU Connect, reactions across social media, including Twitter, have been overwhelmingly supportive, she added.
“I think their decision is absolutely bringing attention to the fact that there is a lack of diversity in AGU awardees,” she said.
According to Fricker, raising awareness was a major goal when the committee made its decision.
“Everybody’s given us all this great advice on what we could have done. But honestly, I don’t think anything would have had the impact of what we ended up doing,” she told E&E News. “If you just go forward and put names forward and then say, ‘OK, we’ve put these names forward, but honestly guys this is a terrible pool and you need to do better next year,’ nothing would change.”
AGU is hardly the only organization to reckon with issues of diversity in awards. Studies have indicated that women and other underrepresented groups are often less likely to receive science prizes.
One recent study, just published last month in Quantitative Science Studies, found that women are less likely to receive prestigious science awards than men. Examining 141 of the world’s most distinguished international research awards, the study found that the prizes were given to 2,011 men between 2001 and 2020, compared with just 262 women.
The Nobel Prizes, widely considered the world’s most prestigious science awards, have been subject to particular scrutiny in recent years.
Only about 3 percent of Nobel science prizes have gone to women since the awards were established more than 100 years ago. Not a single one has been awarded to a Black scientist.
The AGU fellows announcement was followed by this year’s Nobel science prizes, all of which went to men.
Despite persistent problems with diversity in science awards around the world, researchers say there are plenty of ways to tackle the problem.
Implicit bias plays a major role in who receives science awards, according to Mary Anne Holmes, a geologist and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It’s an unconscious bias or prejudice that can lead people to identify more strongly with people from their own social groups.
If awards nominators or selection committees are composed primarily of homogeneous groups — for instance, white people or men — that can lead to an unintentional skew in the people who are nominated or selected for awards.
Holmes served on AGU’s Union Honors and Recognition Committee, which oversees all of its honors and awards programs, between 2013 and 2019. She also previously worked with the Association for Women in Science on a National Science Foundation-funded project aimed at studying and addressing gender disparities in science awards.
She and colleagues LaToya Myles and Blair Schneider, who also served on AGU’s honors committee, published some of their insights last year in the journal Advances in Geoscience.
“We’re all committing acts of implicit bias every day, all the time, without meaning to be biased,” Holmes said in an interview.
Implicit bias training for awards selection committees “is huge,” she added.
Experts say canvassing committees, designed to scout for worthy nominees and encourage people to nominate them, can also make a difference. These committees can also help answer questions about the nomination process, which is often long and time-consuming.
Gasparini, the Tulane scientist, is a member of AGU’s earth and planetary sciences section. A few years ago, she and several other members began canvassing after noticing a gap in the number of women in their section receiving awards.
“We went out and we found all the letter writers and did all this work, and it worked: Women started winning,” she said.
These committees can also help tackle the issue of implicit bias, she added.
“It’s not that men don’t see women doing good work or white people don’t see people of color doing good work,” she said. “But people need to be pushed to do it, and when they do it they might think only of the superstar who’s already won seven awards and published 10 Nature papers. And the truth is there’s a lot of people making a lot of impact who aren’t those people.”
Other scientists have pointed out that there may be broader structural issues in science awards. Prizes aren’t always designed to recognize all the people contributing to scientific breakthroughs, they say.
“Science is so collaborative now,” said Diaz, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist. “So does it really make sense to give awards to a single person? They’re not doing the work by themselves; there are students and postdocs and collaborators and friends. So I think we really need to think about who we want these awards to go to and what we want them to represent.”
Other scientists share the sentiment.
“I actually think that there are some broken elements to the larger awards system,” said Moon, the NSIDC scientist. “I think that there’s really interest, particularly in the early and middle-career generations of scientists, who are for a system that recognizes a wider range of what it means to be a scientist and what it means to contribute to the scientific endeavor in its success.”
Fricker hopes this year’s events will spark a bigger conversation within AGU, perhaps culminating in new recommendations from the organization about how to diversify future pools of award nominees.
“I’m looking forward to some real change,” she said.
Holmes, the former honors committee member, said she’s optimistic that the conversations around science awards are evolving.
“I think people who normally wouldn’t have paid any attention to this are paying attention,” she said. “At least I hear people talking about it as if, yes, this is an issue now. That’s a big leap forward from 20 years ago.”