The Fermi Awards: A Celebration of Outstanding Science and Scientists

By February 5, 2014

On February 3, two outstanding scientists, Dr. Allen Bard and Dr. Andrew Sessler, received the Enrico Fermi Award. Dr. Sessler has been a longstanding member of the Federation of American Scientists and served as the Chairman of FAS during part of the 1980s. In introductory remarks, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, commented that earlier that day Dr. Bard and Dr. Sessler were at the White House, where President Obama said that it was great to be around rational people. According to Dr. Moniz, Dr. Sessler then urged President Obama to listen even more to scientists. In describing Dr. Sessler’s work on arms control and human rights, Dr. Moniz said that Dr. Sessler may have sacrificed a paper or two but it was worth it to serve society. Dr. Moniz called attention to Dr. Bard’s dedication to mentoring and collaborating with many scientists. According to the awards booklet, Dr. Bard has mentored or collaborated with “83 Ph.D. students, 18 M.S. students, 190 postdoctoral associates, and numerous visiting scientists.” These collaborations have resulted in more than 850 peer-reviewed research papers.

While both of them have made major commitments to the communities of scientists and society, they won the prize for their outstanding work on science. The Fermi Award, in particular, is a presidential award and one of the most prestigious awards bestowed by the U.S. government. “It recognizes scientists of international stature for their lifetimes of exceptional achievement in the development, use, control or production of energy (broadly defined to include the science and technology of nuclear, atomic, molecular and particle interactions and their effects on mankind and the environment.)”

Established in 1956, the award was named after Enrico Fermi, one of the intellectual giants of science, who made numerous monumental discoveries and achievements in atomic physics, chemistry, nuclear science, energy, and statistical physics. Notably, during the Manhattan Project, he led the team that created the first nuclear chain reaction and helped direct efforts to make plutonium for the first atomic bombs. From 1944-1945, he was Associate Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. After the war, he returned to the University of Chicago as a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Studies. Later in 1950, he served as a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Unfortunately, he died in 1954 at the relatively young age of 53.

Dr. Bard’s citation called out his achievements: “For international leadership in electrochemical science and technology, for advances in photoelectrochemistry and photocatalytic materials, processes, and devices, and for discovery and development of electrochemical methods including electrogenerated chemiluminescence and scanning electrochemical microscopy.” Since 1958, he has been on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and holds the position of the Hackerman-Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry.

Dr. Sessler’s citation read, “For advancing accelerators as powerful tools of scientific discovery, for visionary direction of the research enterprise focused on challenges in energy and the environment, and for championing outreach and freedom of scientific inquiry worldwide.” While early in his career, he worked as a scientist at Cornell and the Ohio State University, he has devoted most of his career at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). He started there in 1961 and served as its Director from 1973 to 1980. Since the 1950s, he has performed path-breaking work on high-energy particle accelerators and beam science. Starting in the 1960s, he spurred U.S. governmental agency and laboratory efforts on energy efficiency and sustainable energy research and led the creation of new divisions for energy and environmental research at LBNL.

In both scientists’ remarks after receiving the award, they repeatedly touched on the themes of sacrifice and service. On sacrifice, they thanked spouses and loved ones for understanding the numerous nights and weekends spent in the pursuit of science. “Science is like a love affair with nature, an elusive, tantalizing mistress. It has all the turbulence, twists and turns of romantic love, but that’s part of the game,” as said many years ago by neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. As in a courtship, both Dr. Bard and Dr. Sessler discussed the long period of training and dedication to become a scientist.

Concerning sacrifices, Dr. Bard lamented how scientists more and more are spending huge amounts of time working on grant proposals. Contrasting the immediate post-Sputnik era from the late 1950s through the next few decades (when funding was relatively easy to come by) to the more recent couple of decades, he said that scientists used to spend almost all their time at conferences talking about science, but now they talk about the difficulties in getting funding. He highlighted that federally funded research has led to numerous inventions and innovations and that “Congress should understand the damage that has been done by recent cuts to this funding.” Moreover, he underscored the need for “the use of shorter [funding] proposals” and “to simplify the nature of the proposal process and grant reporting.” He expressed concern that more researchers are becoming demoralized and many are leaving the research track. Dr. Bard’s remarks are meant to warn that society could lose or risk diminishing one of its greatest assets: scientists pursuing research and development.

Dr. Sessler said that the world needs more scientists and called for an emphasis on “Jeffersonian science,” meaning “basic science with the long-term goal of societal importance.” He himself has exemplified dedication to science and society on numerous fronts. While his some of his major scientific accomplishments are outlined above, his societal achievements are as important. He served in 1998 as the President of the American Physical Society (APS) and promoted the establishment of three new APS sections and the Division of the Physics of Beams as well as APS outreach to Latin America.  He had also served as Chairman of the APS Forum on Physics and Society. A strong proponent of freedom and human rights for politically persecuted scientists, “he co-founded Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky, and served as the 1982 Chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, as well as on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights 2007-2012,” as stated in the awards booklet. In his remarks, he mentioned his work with APS and the Union of Concerned Scientists on independent scientific assessment of the “Star Wars” missile defense system and his service on the FAS Board of Directors as Chairman.

Remarkably, many FAS leaders and prominent members have received the Fermi Award, including Hans Bethe (1961), who was an FAS founder, Leon Lederman (1992), who serves on the Board of Sponsors, Freeman Dyson (1993), who served as Chairman of the FAS Council in the early 1960s, Richard Garwin (1996), who serves on the Board of Directors, Herbert York (2000), who served on the FAS Council, Sidney Drell (2000), who serves on the Board of Sponsors, Arthur Rosenfeld (2005), who served as Chairman of the Board of Directors, Siegfried Hecker (2009), who is a prominent FAS member, Burton Richter (2010), who serves on the Board of Sponsors, and most recently Andrew Sessler (2013), who served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors. It is worth noting that the award is not given every year and that FAS members make up a significant fraction of the winners.

Having attended the 2013 Fermi Awards ceremony as FAS president, I felt proud that so many scientists, especially those affiliated with FAS, have benefited humanity with their scientific work and have also devoted their time and effort to the greater good of society.
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