Shaw Prizes still favour men of science

Women researchers notably absent from line-up of laureates and prizegivers say groundwork for success needs to be laid through education

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 6:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 5:22am

It's still a man's world in the Shaw Prizes for scientific research, with only one woman winning an award in the past decade.

And while strides are being made to tip the gender balance, the prizegivers said at this year's awards that it was not up to them to give more recognition to female scientists.

"That would be paying attention to gender," said Professor Kenneth Young - in reference to the prize's mission to be neutral and without care for the scientist's personal background - at the announcement of this year's laureates yesterday. "The issue has to be addressed elsewhere, starting with education, role-models etcetera. Not at the end."

"I imagine it'll be another 10-15 years before we see women [more well-represented among Shaw laureates]", said Professor Ching Pak-chung, Shaw Prize Council member and electronic engineering professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "I have more and more female students on my research teams."

Last year's Shaw laureate for astronomy Jane Luu was the first woman to have won the prize, which awards US$1 million to scientists in the fields of astronomy, life science and medicine and mathematics, for their contributions to the advancement of science and humanity.

This year the Shaw Prize for Astronomy went to Professors Steven Balbus and John Hawley for their work on magnetorotational instability, which explains turbulence and where energy goes when objects spin in space.

The prize for Life Sciences and Medicine is shared by Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for their work on identifying molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms - showing how humans have an internal clock that moves in approximately 24-hour cycles.

And the Mathematics prize was awarded to David Donoho for his work on data compression and removing noise from data.

"He's one of the most well-known and influential mathematical statisticians alive today," said Tony Chan, president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Chan said he was speaking as a professional mathematician and not as a member of the Shaw Prize selection committee. "He's had a huge impact on medical imaging."

"Imagine if you could go into an MRI machine, which usually takes about 30 minutes, and be there for a tenth of that time, but get the same result. That's what his algorithms help do."

Chan described the process as akin to taking a low-resolution image on a digital camera, and being able to reconstruct all the extra missing information to create a higher-resolution image.

The Shaw prize was established by film mogul Run Run Shaw in 2003.