It takes more than talent and hard work to win academic awards

Upon seeing the announcement by NSERC of its “Top Researchers,” I couldn’t help myself from tweeting, “UBC a no-show! Get off your comfortable arse and start nominating your colleagues.” I was surprised by how many non-UBCers retweeted my scream. I then remembered a recent conversation with a UBC senior executive, who was expressing his disappointment about the latest elections to the Royal Society of Canada: 4 fellows from UBC, 14 from U. of Toronto. We agreed that our university is not doing a good job nominating its deserving researchers. But a recent incident –and of course this remarkable intervention by the Governor General– reminded me of another serious obstruction to bringing the awards home.

It goes without saying that you need to nominate, nominate and nominate, and of course you need to have the talent to nominate. But is it enough? It was a story much closer to home that got me thinking about the missing third ingredient.

The VP-Research had just announced UBC’s internal awards for this year, and one more time the mathematics department was nowhere to be seen on the list of happy winners. Yet, I was aware of the department’s continuing success in getting prestigious external awards, from Sloan’s to Fellowships in the Royal Society –the original one, that is. I, for one, have had in the past few years a 100% success rate in my nominating efforts (to external awards) of deserving colleagues. So, what gives?

I asked first whether the department had nominated anybody for these internal awards. The response was disconcerting: “We have mostly concentrated on external Math prizes because, frankly, we have in the past had zero luck with the UBC prizes. As you know, it takes a lot of work and intrusion to put a nomination together, and is very disheartening to be brushed off. In the past, we had no math reps on any of those campus-wide prize committees so these all seem like a hopeless long shot.

It doesn’t take a Hercule Poirot to corroborate all what was in this loaded message. Yes, 2005 was the last time someone from Math had won a major internal research award at UBC. No one from the mathematics department -at least since then- had indeed been called upon to serve on the VP-Research award committees. And yes, the departmental nomination committee had given up on the internal process, though it is not clear when this counterproductive reaction had started to prevail.

It is of course hard to sort out what came first in this chicken and egg situation, but I am ready to defend the conclusion of my colleagues on the departmental nomination committee. From firsthand experience, I agree that the disciplines of winners are tightly correlated with those that are effectively represented on award panels.

It is not enough to have the talented candidates for the awards, and it is not sufficient to nominate. It is becoming a requirement that disciplines be effectively represented on award committees by panelists who can understand them, evaluate them, and explain them. And this prescription is particularly vital in the case of the mathematical sciences.

My latest stint on the national Killam Prize (supposedly the Canadian Nobel) and Fellowship committee was particularly illuminating in this regard. After 3 years on the committee, I came out with the strong conviction that, unless mathematics is represented on the committee, no mathematician would ever stand a chance of being recognized, appreciated or selected.

You need someone who can explain and translate. Yes, the conceptual levels of elliptic curves and modular forms are far removed from the daily dose of intellect required from most panelists, but putting an L-function on a computer chip in order to help secure financial transactions in a digital economy, may not be. But these are intellectual quantum leaps for most panelists, hence the need for in-house expertise to take them through them.

I am not sure whether I am willing to accept the administration’s assurance, “that awards decisions are made by an independent committee of expert faculty members with no administrative interference (and that) The process is standard peer review, with all of its strengths and weaknesses.”

That no faculty member from one of the largest academic departments of the university, representing such a core discipline had been asked to be on the award committees for almost a decade is by itself an administrative interference. Whether this bottleneck was intentionally created (i.e. reflecting someone’s personal agenda) or accidentally induced (i.e. based on a sheer ignorance of the creative forces at hand) is unfortunately harder to investigate.

These are non-trivial matters, since they can spill over to other aspects of university life. Just take a look at this webpage stating that, “UBC Science faculty members conduct top-tier research in the life, physical, earth and computational sciences.” Are the mathematical sciences not sexy enough to be mentioned on promotional pages, or is it another alarming and astonishing case of ignorance by a communication officer?

Then, a dear friend wrote, “On the other hand, probability is mentioned on the website…  Someone has good taste!” Le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres.

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