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ACS Awards—Who Cares? We Care

by Eric C. Bigham, Chair, Board Committee on Grants & Awards
November 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 45

While money, power, and advancement are strong motivators, peer recognition is unique.

Awards are part of our culture and almost every organization of sufficient size gives them. But are awards so ubiquitous as to be meaningless?

The purpose of the ACS National Awards Program is to recognize and encourage excellence. The recipients are a group of exceptional people who have increased our knowledge of the world around us and helped to solve some of mankind's most pressing needs through research, teaching, and service. These individuals and teams are a national treasure whose work is important to us. Their accomplishments should inspire each of us to strive for excellence in our own work.

ACS administers 64 national awards. Descriptions of the awards and the names of sponsors, nomination procedures, and past winners can be found under the "Funding & Awards" tab on the new ACS website ( Some are bestowed only once every two or three years. The Priestley Medal, the society's highest honor, was established in 1922 to recognize distinguished service to chemistry and was first awarded to Ira Remsen in 1923. Quite remarkably, the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal was established in 1936 to recognize distinguished service by women. Our most recent addition is the ACS Award for Affordable Green Chemistry, established in 2007 by Rohm and Haas, to recognize outstanding scientific discoveries that lay the foundation for environmentally friendly products or manufacturing processes.

The National Awards Program's honors include awards, prizes, and medals. Many carry a small cash award. While some, like the Arthur C. Cope Award, offer substantial financial components, others, like the Priestley Medal, our most prestigious, have no cash award. The program includes awards for not only scientific discoveries, such as the Ronald Breslow Award for Achievement in Biomimetic Chemistry, but also for service, like the Award for Volunteer Service to the American Chemical Society, for example. We have awards for young investigators and others for lifetime achievement.

ACS national awards are authorized by the ACS Board of Directors through the Committee on Grants & Awards. Requests for the establishment of awards have come from individuals, corporations, and ACS local sections, divisions, and committees. A number of awards are supported by endowments—the preferred method—established through contributions from individuals' gifts and bequests, or from corporations both big and small. Many awards are supported by annual contributions from corporations and organizations like Alpha Chi Sigma Fraternity, which is our longest-running sponsor, having supported the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry since 1940. Some awards are sponsored by ACS.

Any individual can submit a nomination for any award. Nominations are submitted electronically through the ACS website and are due by Nov. 1 each year. Canvassing committees, which are appointed by the ACS president-elect, work to identify potential nominees and potential nominators for awards where the pool of candidates is too low. Selection committees, usually composed of a chair and four members (jurors), are appointed by the president-elect in December. These committees work from March through June, and the award winners for the next year are announced at the fall national meeting.

Most selection committees meet by teleconference (and in the near future all will) to discuss the merits of nominations in order for jurors to make a more informed decision. The final decisions are made by anonymous ballot. Jurors are drawn from lists of former recipients and individuals recommended by divisions, journal editors, committees, and other informed sources. About a third of the committee members turn over each year. The Board Committee on Grants & Awards worked this year to develop clear guidelines for the operation of these committees.

The national awards are presented at a formal awards banquet at the spring national meeting. Seeing so many of the best scientists in their fields gathered for this event is truly exciting.

The value of ACS awards derives from peer recognition. While money, power, and advancement are strong motivators, peer recognition is unique. Scientists who feel good about their contributions to society are apt to be highly motivated, and when they are recognized for their accomplishments, they continue to have a desire to excel. Members of ACS are the peers who provide that value.

You, the members of the chemistry community, play an important role in making the ACS National Awards Program truly inspirational and rewarding. Together we need to increase public and professional recognition of our award recipients. You can increase the prestige and impact of our awards by recognizing the recipients and their accomplishments. You can increase awareness among teachers, students, and young scientists. You can increase awareness of employers and the government agencies that support the work of these outstanding scientists. You can recognize and thank the sponsors who make these awards possible. You can serve on canvassing and selection committees when asked.

Most important, you can nominate deserving individuals-especially women and underrepresented minorities—and teams for our awards. Do not let accomplishment go unrewarded. Being nominated for a national award is an honor you can bestow.

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Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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