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29 September 2005

Women Make Strong Showing at Pioneer Awards

What a difference a year makes. Leda Cosmides, an evolutionary psychologist of the University of California, Santa Barbara, was one of only two women among 21 finalists last year in the inaugural competition for the Director's Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And when men swept all nine prizes, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni was hard-pressed to explain why an award he created for "exceptionally creative scientists taking innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research" recognized only one gender.

Pioneers. Leda Cosmides and Pehr Harbury are part of a baker's dozen whose proposals wowed NIH judges.
CREDIT: Miranda Savani; P. Harbury

Today, Cosmides joined five other women on the pedestal for the second class of 13 "pioneers," each one of whom will receive $2.5 million over 5 years. And while the dramatic shift in gender composition was not a goal of this year's selection process, says Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who oversaw the competition, NIH did make a very deliberate attempt to level the playing field.

"Women, underrepresented minorities, and early-career scientists were especially encouraged to apply," Berg says, ticking off one change that may have played a role. Others include a shift to self-nominations (rather than institutional submissions) and spending more time schooling reviewers on the importance of looking for the best people with the most exciting ideas. Having fewer applications than last year (840 versus 1300) also made the three-tiered review process go more smoothly, Berg notes. The result was not only a better gender balance but also a younger cohort.

For Cosmides, the award represents further affirmation for a field that she and her husband, John Tooby of Harvard, helped establish in the early 1980s. "Those were tough years," she recalls. "Something like this at the beginning of our work would have been a godsend. I can't say enough about what NIH is trying to do [with this award] to encourage novel work across disciplinary boundaries."

Stanford neuroscientist Ben Barres, a vocal critic of last year's awards, says he was "deeply impressed by how NIH revamped the process this year." As it happens, he also chaired the final round of face-to-face, 1-hour interviews on the NIH campus, at which he says "gender or race issues" never surfaced. But the quality of the science being proposed blew him away, he adds.


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