Just over 50 years ago I reported for duty at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, UK. After signing various documents I was unexpectedly told that I was to work in the Carbon and Graphite Group where I had the task of trying to understand some of the problems of radiation damage in graphite, a major component in current UK nuclear power reactors. I first had to read a number of reports and then learn to prepare few-layer graphene. Of course, we did not use the word “graphene” because its use was not recommended by IUPAC until 35 years later. The technique of thinning natural graphite crystals by repeated cleavage using adhesive tape was being explored by several researchers at that time and some perfectly transparent samples were occasionally produced. The resulting material could be examined in the transmission electron microscope, and at least two studies of dislocations in graphite prepared using this method were published in 1960.
Readers will know that 50 years later the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Geim and Novoselov for “producing, isolating, identifying and characterizing graphene”. As is often the case, there were arguments over whether other scientists should have been recognized by the award. When I raised the subject with a senior colleague, I received a reply that contained the comment “science is not about awards and prizes”.
Many countries have a system of awards, and in the UK we have a system of honors and awards that recognizes “outstanding achievement and service across the whole of the United Kingdom”. The usual awards range from the title of Sir (Knight) or Dame to MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Many people who win gold medals in the Olympic Games, Nobel Prize winners and people retiring from high government office are often given the title Sir or Dame, while an MBE may be awarded for “achievement or service in and to the community of a responsible kind which is outstanding in its field”. An Honours List is published twice a year. The awards have no monetary value. While some are for achievement (winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel Prize), most are simply a public recognition of service to a community. As illustrated by the recent failed bid to host the 2018 Football (Soccer) World Cup, success is not a criterion: the people involved in the bid were recognized for their service.
When I retired from university life almost thirteen years ago I returned to the village in England where I was born and raised. The village is situated in the middle of the Norfolk Broads: a picturesque area of shallow lakes (broads) and rivers that is renowned for its wildlife. I know many people in the village, some of whom I went to elementary school with. A few years ago, one of the villagers was awarded an MBE for “services to the Broads”. He had worked as a reed-cutter on the Broads for around 35 years and had given outstanding local service. [Norfolk reed is recognized as a premium thatching material for the roofs of houses.] This prompted a good friend to comment: “if (he) can get an award for cutting reed, why can't you get one for what you do?” I must say that the friend did not really have any knowledge of what I do, except that I had long been involved with editing a major scientific journal.
The answer to this question is probably quite simple. I have never been nominated. Most people who are nominated for awards in the UK come from government departments, from national to local, and quangos. The Broads Authority was undoubtedly responsible for the nomination referred to above. The latest Honours List includes three school crossing wardens awarded MBEs for guiding children across the street outside a school for many years. They were certainly nominated by the local council. But any organization or person is allowed to nominate, and one wonders how often it is done?
When it was suggested that I write this Comment I was reluctant to do so because I did not want readers to get the impression that I was “fishing” for a nomination. I also certainly do not want people to think that I am of the opinion that the people mentioned above did not deserve their awards. They did! They all devoted a major part of their lives to a task that was not highly rewarded financially, and they were reliable and diligent in what they did as a service to their local community. But such is true of many people who do not work in a government organization. How often do such employees get nominated for awards? Who was the last person recognized for “services to scientific publishing”? Is a publisher going to take time to prepare a nomination? Do they even think about doing so?
In the last thirteen years I have nominated several people for different awards and I am proud to say that they have all been successful. Why? I think there are two reasons. First, the nominee has to be truly worthy of the award. Second, the nomination has to be carefully prepared, presented and supported. It takes a lot of effort and time, but it is satisfying to see people receive the recognition they are due.
The latest issue of my Cambridge University Alumni Magazine reports that six people from the university received awards in the latest Honours List. Five of these were professors, as one might expect, but one was presented to a department administrator, for services to “Higher Education”. Two names further down the list one sees a person recognized for services to “Ploughing in Wales”. The range of activities recognized is enormous!
Winning a Nobel Prize may guarantee consideration for a national award, but there are those who work “behind the scenes” that are also deserving of recognition. It is our responsibility to see that steps are taken to ensure that this is done.
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in Materials Today (2011) 14(11), 510. To access past issues of Materials Today, and register for your free subscription to the magazine, just click here.