Go forth and nominate!

Past President Alison Etheridge writes: In my Presidential address, I called upon everyone to be more proactive in seeking diverse nominations to Fellowship of the IMS. As the excitement of handing the gavel over to Xiao-Li subsided, I tried to put some more thought into understanding why nominations do not reflect the diversity of our community. A first step was to think of some people who I felt should be nominated. I quickly realised that I was not clear what a strong nomination would look like (and I was not really much the wiser having looked at the official guidance on the IMS webpages). How many people, I wondered, know what “makes” an IMS Fellow? This affects both nominators and nominees (if I don’t look like a current Fellow, I won’t allow my name to go forward). I did come across a 2015 Bulletin article on Fellows, but it listed the achievements of some of the giants of our profession; I was proud that they were IMS Fellows, but I didn’t think that their achievements should set the bar!

Recognising that I needed help, I contacted Philip Protter, a past Chair of the Committee on Fellows. He generously agreed to write the piece below. I hope that you find it as useful as I do, and that many of you will be inspired to submit nominations.

Details of how to do so can be found at https://www.imstat.org/honored-ims-fellows/nominations-for-ims-fellow/. The deadline is January 31.


Philip Protter, who is himself an IMS Fellow, has some words of advice for anyone who is wondering how to choose someone to nominate to be a Fellow of the IMS:

The guidance regarding the nomination of scholars to become Fellows of the IMS given by the IMS itself is rather minimal. It consists of two instructions:

(1) a candidate of well-established leadership whose contributions to the field of statistics or probability other than original research shall be judged of equal value; or

(2) a candidate of well-established leadership in the application of statistics or probability, whose work has contributed greatly to the utility of and the appreciation of these areas.

Perhaps it is wise to flesh out these instructions a little. First of all, the naming of a Fellow serves two purposes. It bestows an honor on the recipient, and it also reciprocally bestows an honor on the IMS. The more prestigious is the collection of Fellows, the greater is the honor bestowed both on the new Fellows and also on the IMS. Therefore, it makes sense to nominate someone whose work you, as the nominator, think is of exceptionally high quality.

There are many ways to judge quality. The easiest ways are indirect. One can count the number of publications, one can verify that the journals in which the candidate has published are considered to be high quality journals, one can look at the number of citations using the Web of Science or Google Scholar, for example. One can check the candidate’s “institutional authority,” by seeing what university or research institute he or she works at and assessing its prestige. All of these are poor as direct methods, and should be used only as external signifiers to validate in some sense a case of merit that has been well argued.

The true way to do this is for the nominator himself or herself to assess the contributions of the candidate’s work. Has she solved some important problem, developed a new technique, taken a new and innovative approach, had seminal work that has inspired the work of others? These justifications can be detailed in the nominator’s letter and echoed in the supporting letters of other scholars.

There are additional reasons to nominate someone to be a Fellow. One can be a leader in research in terms of one’s publications, sure, but one can be a leader in the community in other ways. A person who has many successful PhD students, for example, is contributing to the health of our profession.

One could be a superb mentor to young researchers, trying to guide them through the hornet’s nest of forging a career at a time when some referees and even some journal Editors are more consumed with venting spleen than with promoting the collective effort to advance knowledge. An editor who works with a new PhD to help her to improve her first papers is a hero to the community more than an editor who is quick to reject (and thereby discourage) with the idea of pursuing some elusive goal of ensuring quality.

One can contribute to the collective good of the community in several other ways as well. At times, there are individuals whose ability in typically unheralded areas can be profound. These can be organizational (such as organizing conferences, workshops, creating new journals, creating new sub-groups of societies, etc.) or by lending aid to scientifically deprived regions or countries.

Most of us might agree it is better to live in a society that provides health care and does not have people dying on the street left unattended. By analogy, and more subtle perhaps, is the desire to live in a society where the population is educated and perhaps even has a good grasp on the concept of randomness.

Even as an education helps one to appreciate modern art, knowing calculus and basic probability and statistics is helpful (in my personal view) towards the ability to live and to enjoy a full life. Education is a social good of the first order and there are remarkable individuals who devote considerable effort towards facilitating the education of others.

There is an aspect of the nomination of Fellows that needs to be mentioned, and that is the aspect of diversity. There is always the sinister suspicion that diversity somehow lowers the “quality” of the collection of Fellows, since we need to lower our otherwise exacting standards to include those who do not fit our model of what a Fellow should be. This is foolishness.

There is an old saying, “God created man in his own image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” In that spirit, a lot is to be said for those nominators who can escape the dominant paradigm of choosing Fellows who resemble the existing Fellows, in favor of a more original idea of what a Fellow should be, by rethinking the rubric to include the contributions in a wholistic sense and looking at the contributions of a person not only in terms of scholarship, but, in addition, in terms of an entire contribution of the welfare of our probabilistic and statistical community of scholars, all trying to advance the collective effort of knowledge and understanding, thereby making the world a better place.

In this sense, gender diversity and racial diversity play an important role. A diverse collection of Fellows encourages young researchers who intellectually and physically resemble some of the Fellows to continue and to aspire to do great things with their lives, both intellectually and otherwise.