Some chemistry prizes are more equal than others.

Some chemistry prizes are more equal than others.

Chemistry prizes

Are chemistry prizes important? While no one would say that the Nobel prize is a waste of time, what about the myriad other prizes that proliferate each year?

There is an ever-increasing number of prizes up for grabs from professional societies, trade associations, magazines, universities etc. While some exist primarily to promote a particular area of science or reward individual performance, the motives behind most are not that altruistic. More often than not it is about increasing the profile of the awarding body, or making money, from sponsorship, entry fees, or tickets to the awards ceremony. In these circumstances are the prizes worth having?

Nobel prize-winning Japanese chemist Hideki Shirakawa clearly thought not. He reportedly turned down a new award from the Japanese chemical society because he felt the society was taking advantage of his reputation to increase its prestige.

What if you are not already a Nobel prize winner? The prospect of winning a prize is highly unlikely to be the motivating factor in your work, and it won’t be much help in your career, but it can boost your confidence and show your peers that you have made a contribution to your science.

The importance of a prize to an individual depends largely on what motivates them. Abraham Maslow (American psychologist whom many consider to be the founder of humanistic psychology) developed a hierarchy of five basic needs. For a person to be motivated the needs must be satisfied in order. The most basic need is for physiological security, followed by safety, social acceptance, personal esteem and lastly self-actualisation.

Prizes tap into the need for esteem because they provide tangible recognition of that person’s achievement. A cash prize is not necessary as this fulfils a more basic need for security, which perhaps explains why many young scientists say that, while they would like to win prizes, getting a grant is more important as that is what keeps the research going.

At the other end of the scale, a chemist who has achieved a lot and is motivated by the work may be close to reaching the top of Maslow’s hierarchy: self-actualisation - reaching one’s full potential. What really matters to these people is the satisfaction they get from the work itself.

’Winning prizes is just the icing on the cake. You have had all this satisfaction from doing science and seeing things that nobody’s ever seen and that’s thrill enough,’ says Harry Gray, recent winner of the Wolf prize for chemistry.

Whether it was just the icing on the cake, or something more important, Gray was thrilled to receive his Wolf prize, as no doubt Shirakawa was when he heard he had won a Nobel prize.

People like to win prizes but these must be well respected with a high profile to really mean something.

Building the reputation of a prize takes considerable effort from the awarding body both before and after it is awarded. Marketing is needed to boost the profile of the prize and attract the maximum number of entries and judging must be spot on as winners and the wider audience will look to see who has won the award in the past and what they went on to do. A lavish awards dinner is a must so the winners can receive their prizes in front of their peers and plenty of publicity for the winner will go down well.

The motives behind the award do not matter, as long as the work is put in and the winner feels they have won something significant.