On wednesday last week, the winners of the awards (one per field) for best PhD theses in Brazil in 2016 were announced. And, lo and behold, there was my name in the official gazette – receiving the award in the field of economics for my thesis on energy and climate change.
First of all, I am grateful for receiving some recognition for all the hard work that went into the thesis. As anyone who has done a PhD probably knows: it takes dedication, a lot of elbow grease and many sleepless nights to complete a PhD.
Secondly, I appreciate the opportunity to draw some additional attention to my own research, and to the excellent research of my friends and colleagues, as well as to my graduate program, my department and my institution.
Even so, however, I am wary of awards in science, which might be an attitude I picked from reading Dr. Richard Feynman’s autobiography when I was in high school. Mainly there are two reasons why I’m not such a great fan of awards in science:
Firstly, science is – directly or indirectly – a collaborative effort. Even if the scientist receiving the award may not have been working on a team, we are all standing on shoulders of giants and our work has been enabled by those who came before us. To bestow an award only on the scientist who happened to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, one is perhaps not paying sufficient attention to the entire foundation on which the work rests.
Secondly, there is no way to objectively compare works against each other and rank them, especially so shortly after publication, and I find it slightly pretentious to pretend to have that ability. The impact or importance of a discovery is often only obvious after many years, sometimes decades or centuries. In this sense, awards are more reminiscent of a popularity contest than a science contest, rewarding only those contributions whose impacts are immediately obvious and recognised (usually because they are uncontroversial and not too far from the dominating view of the time). Science already advances one funeral at the time, according to Planck, and handing out awards to those whose discoveries conform to expectations will help perpetuate scientific orthodoxy.
On the other hand, though, awards in science seem relatively harmless. Sometimes it is worthwhile to pay a particular homage to the anchor of the relay race of science. And so what if not all awarded discoveries age that well? That appears to happen to all types of awards (e.g. Titanic). It’s still a great opportunity to make some fanfare, drum up some positive press, celebrate our collective achievements and, perhaps, increase the overall interest in science.