Representation throughout the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines still largely does not mirror that of society at large. Furthermore, we now know that when underrepresented individuals are employed in a STEM field, especially in academia, the very fact of being the lone or one of a few diverse members creates an additional “invisible burden” of handling tasks that often go less recognized when being considered for awards and honors [Rodríguez et al., 2015; Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017]. Because of these unseen burdens, nominating individuals from underrepresented groups for those honors can sometimes be a challenge, as their career may not result in as many of the obvious markers of impact and influence. This lack of recognition is one of many effects of implicit bias.
One way to address this underrepresentation in honors is to deliberately seek out deserving but overlooked members and put their work in front of award committees. In the fall of 2017, with this goal in mind, Liz MacDonald, a heliophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, organized the Nomination Task Force within AGU’s Space Physics and Aeronomy (SPA) section. It was straightforward to start up: MacDonald and others created a Google form sign-up that she and SPA leaders publicized at AGU’s Fall Meeting and on the mailing lists for our field. She scheduled a series of telecons for the group that continued through the winter and into early spring—nominations for AGU Honors are due each year in March. Our primary motivation with the task force was simply to nominate people who were not being adequately included in the process and thus show that the problem was not a lack of high-quality candidates but that they were not being recognized at the nomination stage.
The work culminated in six nomination packages for individuals from underrepresented groups—and it worked. Three of our nominees were honored with one AGU fellowship, one AGU medal, and one American Meteorological Society fellowship.
Here we’ll share our experience, and perhaps it will inspire you to organize a nomination task force in your community to help to increase the diversity of honors and award winners at AGU and throughout the scientific community.
In our task force, we approached the nomination process by dividing and conquering. One person from the group volunteered to be a “shadow nominator” for a candidate—the person who put the whole package together. The shadow nominator was responsible for contacting senior and lauded members of our field for nomination and support letters, putting together the nominee’s curriculum vitae (CV) and bibliography, and submitting the package. We then invited a main nominator, usually a senior colleague, either in or outside the task force, to write the overarching nomination letter and support the shadow nominator as they assembled the package. The weekly telecon hours were spent suggesting, strategizing, and discussing potential candidates for nomination, who we listed in a shared Google sheet along with relevant information such as h-index, notes on significant contributions to the field, and suggestions for nominator and letter writers.
In our effort to create the best nomination packages possible, we reached out to members on our section’s Union Fellows Committee. During one telecon session they gave us an in-depth presentation on what a nomination package looks like and how best to highlight the accomplishments of the nominees.
One useful tip was to have the three supporting letter writers focus on different themes of the nominee’s career, such that the letters are complimentary with little to no overlap. We achieved this by dividing letters by science topic or by decades, as a career evolves over time, or by accomplishment (e.g., notable publications for one, mentorship for another, and service for the third). The main nominator then wrote a letter that outlined the achievements noted in detail in the other letters and tied them all together with persuasive, enthusiastic language. We learned not to be timid when asking letter writers to focus on a certain topic or to change their language to be more forceful. The successful packages from our group went through several revisions of each letter.
Our team carefully selected the individuals whom we asked to be letter writers. You want to find close colleagues of the nominee who know them and their work but are also accomplished—ideally, a previous recipient of the award. Avoid soliciting writers from the same institution to avoid any conflicts of interest, and vary the letter writers by age, background, geography, and specialty.
When creating your nominee’s CV, it is absolutely okay to ask the nominee for a copy of his or her most recent CV. There is no need to mention the purpose, unless you wish to. On the one hand, nominees may be able to aid in identifying the right letter writers and adapting their CVs if they know about the nomination. On the other hand, if a nomination is not successful, they may feel unnecessary rejection. Once you have the CV, refine and pull out a summary timeline of positions, awards, notable contributions to the field (service, science, or otherwise), evidence of good mentorship, and any other activities of note. Bullet points or short tables work well to highlight metrics that will impress. For our AGU Honors nominations, we highlighted the number of publications in AGU journals, service to AGU, number of invited talks, and number of students and postdocs mentored throughout the nominee’s career. Distill the CV down to the essentials, leaving a concise profile of the breadth of the impact that the nominee has had on the field.
For the bibliography list, put citation numbers next to the highly cited papers and annotate more relevant papers (for our nominees that included those published in AGU journals). Use boldface or italics to emphasize any annotations you have added. Don’t feel pressure to conform to a standard APA citation list in alphabetical order. Place the publications chronologically or in order of citation number on the basis of how the list will show the most expertise and impact.
Several volunteers from our group served as red team reviewers. They looked over the nomination letters, CV, and bibliographies as they were being created and again before submission. The red team looked for redundancy between nomination letters and suggested ways in which the letter writers could refine their wording to focus on different achievements.
The process may sound straightforward, but that is not meant to trivialize the amount of work that all the members put in over several months. Since many male allies volunteered in our group, it wasn’t simply a case of more invisible burdens. We kept enthusiasm high through our telecons, during which we shared experience and advice with each other. Our task force members are highly motivated, but in any all-volunteer group, ongoing encouragement is crucial.
In addition to half our nominees receiving honors, we were also told that our successful nomination for AGU Fellow was one of the strongest packages in the entire submission pool that year. This tells many of us what we already know: There are scientists in our research areas who are due an honor but have been overlooked.
To spread the workload, MacDonald passed the chair position this year to Amy Keesee, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, and the team recruited new members. In addition to being rewarding, participating in the task force is a valuable and unique opportunity for early-career folks to network with more senior scientists. These new members also brought fresh ideas for potential nominees. This year, we are revising last year’s unsuccessful packages and putting together new packages to better shine a light on the achievements of those who deserve to be seen.
Additional Tips and Key Steps of Our Process
- Before creating a task force, raise awareness of the lack of diversity in honorees with your community or section, specifically with the appropriate awards committee, which will help get some leadership buy-in regarding the systemic issue. Convince leadership to support and encourage a task force to address it. Broadening and demystifying participation in the awards cliques take a network, and our task force serving as a proxy network of like minds proved to be a powerful approach to creating a new kind of power network.
- Leverage best practices with the support of your section or community’s award committee and find resources. We discovered many helpful AGU resources during a discussion with our honors committee and online.
- Recruit a team motivated to address this issue and encourage volunteers by turning involvement into an energizing professional development opportunity. Our team of about 30 highly motivated volunteers met on a weekly basis from January to March in 1-hour telecons, with about 12 people per call. This year we’ve reduced that to once every 2 weeks and started the process earlier.
- Build in multiple ways to participate, such as encouraging early-career folks to be shadow nominators and pairing them with more senior nominators who mentor and oversee their work.
- Make it easy for your team to collaborate on nomination packages. Our team used Google Drive to host tools. Since h-index and citations are complex, we agreed on a source for h-index across all nominations and recruited a librarian who helped create standardized bibliographies for each package.
- Embrace crowdsourcing: Gaining awareness of scientists outside our direct networks, after all, is the entire point of this process. If all you can do is identify the right names, you’ve cleared a big first hurdle that may inspire others to take on the work of pushing those names forward.
Many of us believe diversity is the foundation from which good science flourishes. We hope other sections and communities will use these lessons from our experience to organize a nomination task force or redouble their ongoing efforts and bring recognition equally to the very best scientists in our fields.