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
CREDIT: Miranda Savani; P.
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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