Now that non-scientists can win a Rutherford Medal, there’s a good case for changing the name of the award

Until this year, the Rutherford Medal has been the most prestigious science award the Royal Society of New Zealand can bestow on worthy scientists.

But big changes are being made to the meaning of “science” and the society has proudly announced:

Rutherford Medal now includes humanities

The announcement explains that Royal Society Te Apārangi’s highest award, the Rutherford Medal for recognition of eminent research, scholarship, or innovation, will now include humanities scholarship in the fields of recognition.

This change has been made to recognise the widening of the object and functions of the Society under our Act, with the inclusion of the humanities, so that now the Society’s highest award will be opened to all disciplines covered by the Act.

In light of this change, the nomination deadline for the Rutherford Medal (and $100,000 prize money) will be extended out for an extra month (to 30 April 2020) to allow time for humanities nominations to be submitted for the current year. 

 The medal (obviously) is named after Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand experimental physicist and Nobel Laureate, who pioneered the orbital theory of the atom.

But if a medal is to be awarded for a broad range of research activities, extending into social science and the humanities – well, why not give it a new name?

Professor Jon Hickford, president of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, is making that suggestion.

Rather than debase the prestige of a Rutherford Medal, he suggests it be named something else – the Royal Society Te Aparangi Medal, for example.

His reasoning:  Rutherford was a scientist.

“It would therefore seem rather odd in my world to give a medal named the Rutherford medal to a non-scientist, but that is what RSNZ plans. 

“Given that, I feel there is a case to change the name to something that would better encompass the broader range of likely recipients.

Let’s keep an eye out for changes in other countries where Rutherford has been  honoured with the presentation of medals to eminent scientists.

  • The Rutherford Memorial Medal is an award for research in the fields of physics and chemistry by the Royal Society of Canada.  It is awarded once for physics and once for chemistry each year, “for outstanding research”, when there is a suitable candidate.
  • The Rutherford Medal and Prize is awarded once every two years by the Institute of Physics in the UK for “distinguished research in nuclear physics or nuclear technology”.

Then there’s the Rutherford Memorial Lecture. an international lecture tour under the auspices of the Royal Society in the UK created under the Rutherford Memorial Scheme in 1952.

It is worth noting what is said about the New Zealand medal on the Rutherford.org.nz website:

The Rutherford Medal was inaugurated by the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1991. It is awarded annually to a scientist of distinction who will stand in high public esteem through research work of international significance.

The “international significance” bit of that wording has disappeared.  On the royal society website today we are told:

The Rutherford Medal recognises eminent research, scholarship or innovation by a person, or team, in any field of engineering, humanities, mathematics, sciences, social science, or technology.

Award details

Disciplines: Biological and environmental sciences; health and medical sciences; humanities; physical, earth and mathematical sciences; social and behavioural sciences; or technology, applied sciences and engineering

Let’s see how this gels with past winners.   They include –

  • 1991 Vaughan Jones, for his contributions to String Theory.
  • 1995 William Denny, for his sustained innovation in developing new anticancer drugs.
  • 1997 John Walker, for his lifetime contribution to soil science.
  • 1998 Bill Robinson, for his development of energy absorbers for earthquake protection of civil structures.
  • 2000 Alan MacDiarmid, for his discovery and development of conducting polymers.
  • 2003 George Petersen, for his exceptional contribution in pioneering methods for sequencing DNA.
  • 2005 Paul Callaghan, for world-leading research in development of new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) methods.
  • 2008 David Parry, for his world-leading research on fibrous proteins.
  • 2011 Christine Winterbourn, for her outstanding achievements and discoveries in free radical biology.

Though designed to be called the Rutherford Medal, the Rutherford website says, all categories were actually awarded as New Zealand Science and Technology Medals.

Not any more, eh?

Mind you, if the royal society can simply conduct a committee vote to declare that Rutherford Medal “science” now includes the humanities, then we imagine that physicists, chemists, mathematicians and so on similarly could be made eligible for the Humanities Aronui Medal.

On second thoughts, maybe not.  This is the society’s award for research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the Humanities …

 The Humanities Aronui Medal is awarded annually for research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the Humanities.  This includes conventional academic research and work in the creative arts. Researchers from all disciplines of the Humanities will be considered each year. 

The disciplines: Humanities includes languages, history, religion, philosophy, law, classics, linguistics, literature, cultural studies, media studies, art history, film, and drama.

On the other hand, the Halberg Awards for top sports people could well be opened up to scientists.  For starters, they have become skilled at jumping bureaucratic hurdles to secure their funding  – in fierce competition with claimants from the humanities.

4 thoughts on “Now that non-scientists can win a Rutherford Medal, there’s a good case for changing the name of the award

  1. The Royal Society hasn’t been about science for years. It now seems just to be a bunch of activist academics trying to give gravitas to their protests. The fact that many of the organization’s members are from humanities says it all.

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