Award Naming

The Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB) posted a proposal to rename the “Ernst Mayr Award” to the “Outstanding Student Presentation Award”. This proposal was approved by the SSB council and explained at

Predictably (but still regrettably), the conversation about this issue has turned very ugly on social media - often the targets have been early career researchers. I’ve been an officer of the society since 2020. I voted in favor of sending the proposal to the SSB membership for a vote, and I expect to vote in favor of the renaming. I thought the wording of the announcement mentioned above was quite good, but it is easier to explain one’s own position rather than craft a statement that expresses a consensus viewpoint. So, I thought that I’d express my own viewpoint here. Sorry that this is not brief!

Who is the "target audience" of an award opportunity?

The people most affected by how a scientific society’s award is “marketed” (ie. named and advertised) are the people who are eligible to compete for the award. In the case of SSB’s Ernst Mayr award, this is SSB members who are students or people who recently recieved their Ph.D.

While one would expect the applicants to be familiar with systematics, we should not assume much knowlege about the history of SSB or a very detailed knowlege of all of the people who have contributed to systematics. Systematics is one of the broadest disciplines of biology; the winners of the award have had wide backgrounds not only from biological disciplines (from speciation theory to phylogenetics to biogeography…), but also from math and computer science.

Nor should we assume that the potential applicants are tightly connected to SSB already. Many students join SSE, SSB, or ASN for the first time to get the discount on the cost of registering for the joint Evolution meeting. It is quite plausible that they have not spoken to another SSB member or interacted with SSB at all prior to the annual meeting.

We need to make our meetings and career opportunities as welcoming to new-comers as possible (Rushworth et al. provide a recent summary of how far the Evolution meetings are from being representative of society as a whole). Presenting in a symposium to recognize the best student talks is very valuable for an early-career researcher. So, SSB should strive to extend that invitation in a clear, welcoming manner to all scientists who are eligible.

If there was a way for SSB to have the award eligible population vote on this issue, I’d be happy to defer to that group, as they have the most at stake. I don’t know of a practical way to do that, so I think we (who are no longer eligible) need to listen to them as much as possible.

Is having an award named for a prominent scientist a potential barrier to participation?

If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, I probably would have answered “only if the prominent scientist was infamous” (in evolutionary biology, R. A. Fisher springs to mind). However, after listening to many younger scientists (some on SSB council, but also some not members of SSB [as far as I know]) discuss the topic of the awards named after scientists, I’ve changed my mind. Some of the reasons expressed for preferring descriptive award names were things I might have thought of on my own, if I’d given the issue more thought: there can be too much “hero-worship” in general in science, or the fact that a descriptive award title on a CV can speak to a broader audience (e.g. outside of academia).

But one of the comments that stuck with me was from an early-career scientist who remarked that they felt some hesitation when they encountered a named event/award/etc along the lines of “I should check more in depth to see if this is a person I want to be associated with” (I’m paraphrasing). My instinct in that position would not have been to check or worry about it, because “some people are jerks, you can’t let it hold you back” - but I haven’t been discriminated against nor has my family been discriminated against. This had not sunk in for me: if you are a member of a group who has had to endure a long history of being made the target of hatred and discrimination, then a career opportunity named after someone (even some one who, upon further research, turns out to be basically a good person) involves some level of research and due diligence that would not be necessary of everyone.

As evolutionary biologists, we can’t claim that such a concern is unnecessary - our field has done a very poor job of disavowing the more toxic aspects of our history. It would be unrealistic to expect students to trust us to only name the awards and honors of our field after admirable people.

Is this a substantial barrier?

I don’t know how many students might have been dissuaded by considerations such as this. I don’t know how much extra time/effort some students had to expend to allay their concerns about applying for the Mayr award.

But I also don’t know of a reliable way to estimate how big of a problem this is. If a student finds the award name off-putting, they may not join SSB and we’d probably never know.

This is nowhere close to being our field’s most serious barrier to inclusivity. If you take a look at the abusive commentary about this issue on blogs and Twitter you’ll see an atmosphere that seems much more problematic. I don’t recall any one on SSB council expressing the opinion that this award naming issue was the most important thing we could do for DEI. But the current name does strike me as a potential barrier, and I do think that having a descriptive name is a better practice in general.

What are the downsides of having a descriptive name rather than the "Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology"

Removing the name may lead to less recognition of the good work Mayr did (for science and SSB)

This sounds reasonable, but I just don’t buy it. I’ve been attending Evolution meetings since the 1990’s, and don’t recall much more than a cursory mention of Mayr in the symposium intro. I think there was basically unanimity among the council that SSB should do a much better job at teaching members about the history of SSB and key figures in the history of systematics.

Past-president Laura Kubatko (who has been an outstanding SSB president during a very difficult 2021) has organized an SSB Legacy Committee to help rectify this. That committee is made up of a stellar group of scientists, and I’m really looking forward to their contributions. Regardless of how the vote turns out, I think this will be an unambiguously positive result of this whole issue.

Some students may prefer an award named after Mayr

Obviously we shouldn’t expect everyone to feel the same about naming awards after people, and Mayr was much loved. He had a truly outstanding level of productivity and many key contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics. And he spoke out against racism, and was generous with his time and money toward the cause of helping young scientists. I expect that anyone reading this has seen David Hillis’ facebook post of 21 June, 2021 that was reposted on Panda’s Thumb about Mayr. But if you haven’t read it, you should read it - it is at the top of this post (I specify the top of that post, as I think some of David’s other commentary on that page is unhelpful, but that is a different topic).

At least two graduate students made comments on that Panda’s Thumb blog post eloquently expressing their preference for retaining the name: see this comment by Mario Cupello and this comment by Jackie Childers (NB on that blog I often have to refresh the URL in the browser status bar to make it jump to a comment). I really enjoyed reading their posts; it’s very fun to see early-career researchers so excited about systematics.

It is clear to me that some SSB members will be very disappointed if we do change the name, and others will be equally disappointed if we don’t. It is hard to know what proportion of members fall into each group without voting on the proposal.

Polling is difficult. Counting social media posts “for” or “against” or looking at Twitter polls are not reliable methods. If I were an early researcher, I wouldn’t say anything about this issue given this climate.

I don’t want to disappoint any early-career researcher who would prefer to compete for an award that was named after Mayr. The deciding factor for me was: I do not see how the name “Outstanding Student Presentation Award in Systematic Biology” could be a barrier to anyone joining or participating in the competition. So, the downside of the descriptive name seems lower to me.

What are the downsides to making a name change?

If people hear the name was changed without any explanation, they might think SSB was changing the name to criticize Mayr

It’s a risk, but I don’t think the council should avoid topics they think might improve SSB just because people might get the wrong idea. I think the best course is to just try to explain the motivation clearly. This proposal is explictly not criticizing Mayr. As stated in the announcement: “This proposal is not intended to cast judgement on the legacy of Ernst Mayr, who was a prolific and profound scholar of evolutionary biology and a dedicated champion of students, nor are we intending to defend the contents of his writings which some find problematic.” Josef Uyeda had a nice thread on this point.

There are probably more downsides I haven't thought of

I’ll continue to read civil commentary on the issue to get more perspectives. There is still time before a vote, so I’ll try to keep listening.

Finally a conclusion to this post

I know this is too long, but hopefully it will be helpful to some.

Let’s all be kind to each other and listen.

Edit history

  1. "scienticists" corrected to "scientists".
  2. Several other typos fixed at 5:00CST 11 Jan. See the commit diff if you want to be amused by how many typos and grammatical goofs I write.
Written on January 11, 2022