University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Young-investigator Awards

Diatribe on a Pet Peeve

It is a fad in academic medicine to feature during its annual circuses a competition for the best research or the best presentation of the year by a young investigator (YIA). The mechanism is devised to stimulate intense competition and it culminates among a few finalists for an award based on originality, clarity, and promise, criteria usually judged from abstracts submitted for the youth award category.

Such awards, often named in honor of a departed colleague, are purported to provide a healthy incentive to performance, to encourage excellence, motivate to professionalism, and give early career recognition. An awards committee is established to review the abstracts submitted in the YIA category, culling them to a half-dozen finalists. These candidates are informed

beforehand so that they may specially prepare their presentations and, incidentally, notify their spouses and parents and maiden aunts that they are among the chosen of their academic society.

Finally, in a mock contest most resembling a Miss America pageant, the nominees are called one by one upon the stage during the plenary assembly or grand banquet of the herd. They appear in their best garb, rosy faces illuminated, hands in various awkward positions, fingers twisting and torturing the notes composed for the winner’s speech. Their too tight jackets and too short skirts set them up for tearful sentimentality among their families and for sardonic whisperings among their peers.

Sure enough, just as with Miss America, the honorable mention candidate is first named and momentarily featured. The second place winner is then announced and spotlighted, and finally the grand prize finalist is called with great fanfare, crowned, and given a brief encomium, set to music and to wild applause.

  Think about the values inculcated into such young investigators. Should not the emphasis be rather  on the research experience, the skills acquired in method and analysis, the maturation of synthesis and judgment? Do we not imply with such awards a distorted value of winning rather than satisfaction from thoroughness, diligence, skills, and understanding?

Do these awards not set false values of prestige, rewarding technique rather than maturity and humility? Does this system not  reward mindless competition rather than systematic consideration of alternative hypotheses, openness about the limitations of one’s study, skepticism or modesty in conclusions, and rigor  in argument?

Does running after and winning a YIA become more important than coming up with a sound study design? Does this so-called motivation to excellence in fact replace with a momentary limelight  the lasting satisfaction from a sense of real accomplishment and the quiet but meaningful approbation of peers.

Do we, with such awards, set the stage for seeking awards rather than seeking truth and understanding? Are we not, in fact, creating conditions conducive to data distortion or fabrication, dishonesty and  self-aggrandizement and against fundamental  steady growth of curiosity and application?

Do we not leave young people unprepared and unwilling  for the long haul as modest, patient, and competent observers of nature? Do we encourage them to glorify false idols that cannot sustain them?

Can any award in a young investigator competition approach the beauty of one respected colleague saying softly, “That is a fine idea. You have done a good job. What next?” What is more important and real than such quiet approval of a mentor or peer? Surely not the brou-ha-ha and blather and bright lights of a YIA.

I ask you, young investigator, is it worthwhile? Is it not sad to be standing there on stage in that line of young vedettes, fingers crossed, biting lower lips, waiting, slowly twisting, in the wind?

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