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It’s not every day that W. Nicholas Haining receives an email from the White House, and he said that he certainly took notice.
“There’s a small part of you that imagines that somebody’s pulling your leg,” said Haining, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Obviously, there was a little bit of disbelief, but after I realized it wasn’t someone pulling my leg, I was absolutely delighted.”
Haining is one of four Harvard faculty members who were named recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the government’s highest honor for those in the early stages of their independent research careers, according to a White House press release Monday. Nationwide, 94 scholars won the award.
In addition to Haining, Harvard’s winners were Tina A. Grotzer, associate professor at the Graduate School of Education; B. Price Kerfoot, associate professor of surgery at the Medical School; and Ali Khademhosseini, associate professor of medicine at the Medical School.
The goal of the awards is to help support young researchers in an effort to “tackle grand challenges and contribute to the American economy,” according to the White House release. Winners are selected on the basis of not only quality of research but also leadership in community service, including mentorship, education, and other forms of outreach.
“It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers—careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation,” President Obama said in the release.
Winners receive a five-year research grant, funded by various government departments, Khademhosseini said.
With the increasing difficulty of obtaining funding in today’s economic climate, the awards will have a significant impact, Haining said.
“The general concern shared by a lot of scientists is that there are more good ideas that can be tested than there are research grants to support the research that goes on,” he said. “Science is always a meritocracy, so I think that there always has to be some competition to show that your research project is worthy of getting funded. But I think it’s also true that in recent years, the number of projects that get federal research dollars has decreased.”
Although the White House emphasized the awards as indicative of Obama’s prioritization of science research, the most recent federal budget cut funding for organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, which funds much medical research.
Still, the award recipients credited the administration with being aware of the needs of science.
“[The Obama administration’s] funding priorities have been very thoughtfully forward thinking,” Grotzer said. “They are willing to invest in things that may have significant payoff and to try things that are different, and to really push the envelope.”
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