On awards - practical considerations

by Oded Goldreich

[written 2004, minor revision 2006]

The (relatively new) obsessive preoccupation of SIGACT with the institution of awards gets on my nerves. In general, I see nothing positive about any type of award (in any arena, be it science, art, humanities or social service). This page focuses on practical considerations of the subject; see a companion page companion page on ideological perspective.

The promoters of the creation of awards often offer the practical consideration by which awards help the field in presenting itself towards the outside. That is, it is claimed that, when presenting our candidates to the outside world and/or when leaders of our field appear in the ouside world, it is useful for them to be accompanied by "credentials" in the form of awards. Two scenarios are frequently referred to: (1) hiring and promotion procedures in which TOC candidates are evaluated by non-TOC people, and (2) negotiations between TOC leaders and leaders of other areas in the context of various multi-disciplinary panels (which determine funding etc). It seems that everybody agrees that (1) is more important than (2), and indeed I'll address (1) first.

Clearly, awards make an impression (especially on people coming from disciplines in which awards are common). Still the question is how dominant is this impression and whether there are ways of counter-acting it. For example, TOC is different from other disciplines also in other aspects (e.g., the relative importance attached to conference versus journal publications, the greater irrelevance of various citation counts, etc). Indeed, this means that senior TOC researchers that participate in various committees have to explain these basic facts, a task which is not that hard at all. Certainly, the lack of awards would have been easier to justify than other TOC practices (e.g., some disregard of journal publications). Furthermore, awards will only assist a small minority of our candidates, while possibly hurting the vast majority. This point is crucial and is elaborated next.

A quick calculation will show that a handful of "best paper awards" per year will only assist 10 percent of our (good!) candidates. That is, only 10 percent of the candidates that deserve promotion (according to our judgment) will receive such awards. This means that awards will assist 10 percent, while harming the remaining 90 percent. Furthermore, assuming that awards are positively correlated to quality, the awards will assist our very best candidates (which typically do not need assistance at all), while harming our other candidates...

(Carrying this logic further, if one insists on "best paper awards", then I'd advocating giving as many of them as possible to the point that every good candidate is likely to receive such an award. This may require handing a couple of dozens awards at each FOCS/STOC.)

Regarding the effect of awards on the "credentials" of our leaders, again I think the issue is minor (esp., when compared to other issues; e.g., what our leaders really lack is the willingness to put the effort needed for promoting the interests of our field). However, if we seek awards for that purpose, it will be good to consider the potential effectiveness of the award-candidate (in negotiations with the outside) when deciding of the granting of these awards...

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