Report to the APS Executive Board and Council by the Task Force on APS Prizes and Awards, April 2002

Committee Members:
Myriam P. Sarachik, CCNY (Chair)
Robert Cahn, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Jerry Gollub, Haverford College
Wick Haxton, University of Washington
Richard Hazeltine, University of Texas
Timothy Lodge, University of Minnesota
Denis McWhan, Brookhaven (ret.)
Alan Chodos, APS Senior Staff
Laleña Lancaster, Administrator

The Task Force on Prizes and Awards was appointed by APS President George Trilling in June of 2001 as part of a periodic review of the society's honors programs. An earlier Task Force, chaired by Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT, submitted its report in February of 1998.

The current Task Force was asked to consider the following issues:

  1. What should be the Society's response to the proliferation of proposals for new prizes?
  2. Are the value and awarding frequency of the prizes and awards appropriate, given the potential pool of recipients? Do some prizes overlap in a detrimental way, and, if so, can correction be made?
  3. APS currently bestows 36 prizes and awards, many of which have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. Should there be some attempt at standardization of the process?
  4. Should there be a designated minimum time interval between bestowing two different APS prizes or awards to a single individual?
  5. Should selection committees be urged to seek more international candidates for APS prizes and awards?
  6. In the administration of each prize and award, what is the appropriate balance between the role of the unit involved in that prize or award and the Society's responsibility to ensure adequate uniformity in the selection process?
  7. Are the size and mechanism of appointment of selection committees appropriate?
The Task Force was also asked to comment on any other topics relevant to the issue of prizes and awards. The following additional questions were considered:
  1. What criteria and procedures should be used to consider proposals for new prizes?
  2. Should the APS establish one or more superprizes?
  3. Should the APS divisions be permitted to use excess revenues from divisional meetings to increase funding of prizes and awards of special interest to the unit?
  4. Should a standing Prize and Awards Overview Committee be established?


The Task Force met in College Park, MD on July 26, 2001, with all members present. Minutes of the meeting and a preliminary draft report were circulated by e-mail during September and early October. The Task Force held five more meetings by conference call: on October 17, 2001 with all members except Haxton attending; on November 5, 2001 with all members except Cahn attending; on December 20, 2001 and on February 8, 2002 with all members present; and on March 27, 2002 with all members except Gollub attending.

The Executive Committees of all the units of the Society were asked for comments. After extensive discussion the Task Force makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: To establish an Advisory Committee

To ensure that the administration of prizes and awards is consistent with APS policy, we recommend the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Prizes and Awards, as a committee of APS Council appointed by the President-Elect.

The membership of the Prize and Award Advisory Committee shall consist of six Councilors, appointed by the President-Elect to staggered three-year terms, which may include one year of service beyond their term as Councilor. The President-Elect shall appoint the Chairperson from among these six members. The Committee shall review all proposals for new prizes and awards and make recommendations to the Executive Board and Council. It shall review all existing Society prizes and awards at least once every five years to ensure they are properly funded and that the subject area of each prize and award remains relevant. The Committee shall also ensure that prize and award selection committee members represent the broadest possible context of the prize or award subject area and consider any other administrative issues related to prizes and awards.

Recommendation 2: The monetary value of prizes

The 1998 Task Force Report on Prizes and Awards, accepted by Council, recommended that the stipend associated with APS Prizes be raised to at least $10,000. Although some progress has been made toward this goal, the recommendation has not been fully implemented. The current Task Force recommends that:

Any prize established by the Society from this date onward must carry a minimum monetary value of $10,000. Moreover, the endowment required for new prizes must be sufficient to ensure that the prizes retain their value (in "real" dollars).

All units are strongly urged to raise the stipend and endowment of existing prizes to this level. To the extent possible, the resources of the APS Development Office should be channeled toward helping units meet this goal by raising additional funds where necessary.

Recommendation 3: Selection committee membership

The Task Force recommends a strong emphasis on the breadth of selection committee membership. Nominations to selection committee membership should reflect the subjectarea of the prize or award in its the broadest possible context. Averaged over time, nominations should also reflect the diversity of the Society with regard to criteria such as gender, geographical location, minority status, and institutional affiliation. Each selection committee should include at least one member whose work includes substantial contributions to a field of physics outside that in which the prize is awarded.

Units recommending committee membership should ensure that their recommendations are consistent with these guidelines, and should address these criteria in writing when the nominations are submitted. In particular, the nominee whose work extends outside the field of physics of the prize should be specifically identified.

Those involved in nominating members of prize committees should be apprised that APS prizes are honors bestowed by the Society rather than by a particular unit.

Recommendation 4: Criteria for new prizes

The Task Force bases its recommendation concerning new prizes on the1998 Report. We recommend that the Advisory Committee (described in Recommendation 1) use the following criteria in evaluating proposals for new prizes and awards:

  • Is the proposed prize or award in a major field of interest?
  • Does the topical area of the proposed prize or award complement the areas covered by existing prizes and awards?
  • When the proposed prize or award recognizes work outside the traditional APS technical disciplines, does it extend APS recognition in a manner that benefits the Society? Examples include the extension to new physics areas (such as physics of the environment or history of physics) and broadening the recipient pool by focusing an award on, for example, women or younger physicists.
  • Does the proposal include provisions for travel and expenses for recipients to attend the meeting at which the prize talk is given and the prize or award is presented?
  • Does it provide for a general review, after a specified period of time (such as 15 years), to reassess the importance of the subject area of the award?

Recommendation 5: the role of the units

(A) in administering prizes and awards.

The Task Force finds the present strong role played by the units in administering APS Prizes and Awards to be valuable and wholesome. The units most closely associated with particular prizes have the expertise and broad knowledge necessary to supply appropriate nominees for the Prize Selection Committees. In connection with Recommendation 3, the units' input will be valuable in identifying committee members whose interests overlap with the subject matter of the prize, but whose primary affiliation may be to a unit other than their own. As described in Recommendation 3, the Prize Selection Committee should provide appropriate balance between the role of the unit and the Society's responsibility to ensure uniformity. As an APS committee appointed by the President, each Prize Selection Committee should operate independently of any unit. Uniformity across the Society in following this policy should be monitored by the Advisory Committee proposed in Recommendation 1.

(B) in the funding of prizes.

Since they are bestowed by the Society and not by individual units, units should not use excess revenues to fund Prizes and Awards on an on-going basis (except possibly for certain "unit awards", see part (c) below). Prizes and awards are given by the Society with input from the unit, and the appearance of ownership could result if a unit partially or
fully funded an APS prize or award. Individual members are encouraged to contribute directly to the endowment of APS prizes and awards.

Unit funding of APS prizes and awards for one or two years should, however, be permitted, upon approval of the Executive Board, to allow time for raising the funds necessary to increase stipends to the new recommended levels, or in case of an unanticipated shortfall.

(C) Unit awards.

Various units of the Society have established their own awards, which have not been approved by Council, in seeming contradiction to the APS Bylaws. The Task Force is aware of eight such awards, ranging in age from the George B. Pegram Award of the Southeast Section, dating from 1971, to the Katherine E. Weimer Award of the Division of Plasma Physics, scheduled to be given this year for the first time. Many of these have no stipends attached to them; the largest stipend seems to be the $2000 of the Weimer Award. The APS has played no role in administering these awards, they are not listed on the APS prize and awards page, they do not appear in the prize and awards booklet, and their certificates are not signed by the APS President or Executive Officer.

In general these awards have been successful components of the units' activities, and have caused no problems for or interference with the APS honors program. Nevertheless the Task Force expressed concern over the lack of APS oversight. For example, if a given APS prize were to fail to meet the recommended stipend level, a unit might simply allow it to be discontinued as an APS prize and then immediately reestablish it as a unit award.

Therefore the Task Force recommends:

  • that Council recognize unit awards as a distinct category under the APS Bylaws; Council will delegate the administration of these awards and the selection of recipients to the particular unit;
  • that Council give ex post facto approval to the existing unit awards;
  • that Council require all potential new unit awards to submit a brief proposal outlining its nature and purpose to the standing committee on Prizes and Awards, and that Council consider approval of such awards upon recommendation of the committee;
  • that all unit awards, including the currently existing ones, undergo periodic review by the standing committee at intervals of not more than five years.

Further responses to the charge of the Task Force, and consideration of additional issues:

  • The number of prizes currently awarded is not excessive given the large number of units within APS and the broad range of interests of its members. The Advisory Committee will screen all proposals for new prizes and awards and make a recommendation to the Executive Board and Council.
  • The potential pool of recipients appears to be adequate to warrant the present frequency of awards. This issue should be monitored on an on-going basis, and considered when establishing a new prize.
  • The Task Force is not aware of any prizes that overlap in a detrimental way.
  • Although different rules and requirements are applied for different prizes, there appear to be no serious problems that require attention at this time. Some degree of uniformity should be considered when new prizes are proposed.
  • A second prize to the same individual can be awarded for contributions in different areas of endeavor, or for major advances since the last award that are clearly worthy of a separate prize. No minimum time interval should be specified.
  • The selection committees should make every effort to seek candidates of the highest caliber, regardless of national origin.
  • The Task Force does not favor the establishment of a superprize, that is, a prize with a particularly large monetary award open to all branches of physics. Many of the existing prizes and awards have long traditions that imbue them with special meaning; superprizes would tend to overshadow these traditions and reduce the significance of existing prizes. Moreover, it is likely that superprizes would be awarded to recipients of other very prestigious prizes and honors, such as membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In contrast, current APS prizes and awards are frequently won by highly deserving physicists who have not been otherwise singled out and recognized for their contributions. Finally, there is concern that the effort necessary to endow a superprize would seriously compromise the Society's ability to fulfill Recommendation 2 to raise the level of existing prizes to the recommended level of $10,000.

These issues should be monitored on an on-going basis by the Advisory Committee.