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More teams, more diversity: The Royal Society of Chemistry overhauls its awards

After an internal analysis, the society realized that they needed their awards to better reflect their membership

by Megha Satyanarayana
December 19, 2019

The front entrance of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Credit: Royal Society of Chemistry
The Royal Society of Chemistry is making large changes to their awards program.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is overhauling its awards program to start recognizing more teams instead of individual scientists, to be more inclusive, and to create criteria under which an award can be revoked. RSC officials say it is the biggest set of changes to come to the society’s awards in 150 years.

Dr. Deirdre Black, the head of research and innovation at the RSC, says that some of these changes are already in progress, and reflect the 12 recommendations generated from an internal analysis that the organization commissioned. As part of the analysis, the society surveyed more than 2,000 members to ask questions about what awards mean to the people who get them, who should get the awards, and why. Black says the committee that reviewed the survey results and created the recommendations was made up of scientists—mostly chemists — in industry, academia, and the arts. She says RSC will evaluate the recommendations and implement them over time.

“The underlying reason people were calling for change is that our rewards should reflect modern science,” Black says, adding that unlike when the awards program started, science today is more collaborative and done in teams, rather than the mythic lone male scientist at the bench.

The underlying reason people were calling for change is that our rewards should reflect modern science.
Deirdre Black, Royal Society of Chemistry

Of the 90 awards the society currently gives out, 80 are for individuals. And while many of the individual scientists who have received awards are considered leaders in their fields, the review suggested that the RSC expand its definition of leadership to include people who are service-oriented or who bring prestige to chemistry through work other than scientific research. The RSC is also looking to give more awards to chemistry teachers. Some survey respondents called them “unsung heroes.” The RSC also plans to recognize more members of industry who, in the survey, said that there are few awards that recognize their contributions.

In addition, the society asked its members how it should diversify who gets the awards. Some suggested instituting minimum numbers of female nominees for every award. Others suggested that improving diversity in the committees that judge awards would lead to more diversity in the people getting them. But some survey participants told RSC it was not important for the organization to concentrate on diversifying awards, saying that the RSC is being too “politically correct” and “is over obsessed with women’s rights, inclusion, and diversity to the point it may be alienating men.”

One of the 12 recommendations that the review committee gave RSC is to create a code of conduct for award recipients. Should an award winner not meet that code, they would stand to lose their award. “You don’t want to be holding them up as ambassadors of science,” Black says.

She explains that in developing these criteria, they want to be fair, and are looking to other organizations for their approach to revoking awards. One organization she cites requires that awardees not be under investigation for misconduct. She says currently the society asks the people who nominate chemists for RSC awards to attest to their nominee’s good citizenship.

Nessa Carson, an organic chemist who works in industry in the UK, says that the changes are welcome, and reflect the diversity within RSC’s own membership.

“Seeing teaching, effective leadership, technician work, and the collaborative nature of most truly enabling research being celebrated is very positive,” she says. “I’m particularly happy to see that conduct expectations are now part of the RSC’s rules on prizes. I believe this is a keystone for accelerating progress in the chemistry community, given the multilayered damage that misconduct can provoke.”

In conducting the review, Black says the society looked to other scientific organizations’ efforts at modernizing how they create and present awards, including the American Geophysical Union and the Wellcome Trust.

Spokespeople for the American Chemical Society, the publisher of C&EN, say that they want to see RSC’s “detailed plan” before commenting further on whether ACS would embark on similar changes. ACS gives out numerous awards each year. Many are given to individuals. The 2020 Priestley Medal, ACS’s highest honor, will go to a woman.

“Like RSC, ACS continues to look broadly at ways to honor key scientific contributions,” ACS spokeswoman Susan Morrissey says.


This story was updated on Dec. 20, 2019, to correct the image credit. It is the Royal Society of Chemistry, not Wikipedia.



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