About the Award

The NAS Public Welfare Medal is the Academy’s most prestigious award and is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. Nominations are being accepted now for the 2025 Medal.

The Academy presented its 2024 Public Welfare Medal to molecular biologist and women’s equality advocate Nancy Hopkins for her courageous leadership over three decades to create and ensure equal opportunity for women in science.

During her time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where she worked as a professor of biology in the Center for Cancer Research for 40 years before her retirement in 2014 — Hopkins brought national attention to obstacles facing women in the scientific workforce. She joined the center as one of its first faculty members in 1973, and over the next two decades, she became aware of differences in the experiences and opportunities of tenured male and female professors. In 1994, Hopkins and 15 other tenured women joined forces to present the problem to MIT’s dean of science, describing it as marginalization and possibly undervaluation of women compared to men of equal or lesser accomplishment.

The dean formed a committee — chaired by Hopkins and consisting of women faculty and several male department heads, one a Nobel laureate — to study the problem. The committee used a data-driven approach and extensive interviews to examine the professional experiences of women over the course of their careers in multiple fields and six departments of science at MIT. The analysis revealed discrepancies in compensation, rewards, research resources, lab space, teaching assignments, and key administrative opportunities between men and women of equal accomplishment. Using the committee’s detailed confidential report, the dean corrected documented inequities. At the request of the chair of the MIT faculty, a short summary of the findings was made public in 1999 and was endorsed by MIT’s president.

The report was covered by national media outlets and shined a spotlight on the unequal treatment of women in science. An overwhelming public response revealed that the problems were widespread in STEM and other fields in academia as well as other professional settings. MIT’s president and provost requested similar studies be done in all academic departments of MIT. Based on the findings, the university implemented changes in hiring practices, built day care facilities on campus, revised family leave policies, and revisited pay equity reviews and other areas to improve the status and working environment of its women faculty. In addition, the presidents of eight other research universities met at MIT to compare data and relevant policies from their schools. Hopkins also advised the National Science Foundation on designing data-driven studies to ensure equity for women faculty and help women in science and engineering realize their potential.

2024 Public Welfare Medal, Hopkins social

Recognizing the impact of her work on equal opportunity for women, MIT tasked Hopkins with co-chairing a new diversity council at the university with MIT’s provost. Hopkins advocated for extending the council to examine obstacles faced by faculty of color, specifically including women faculty of color, and solicited recommendations on how to improve hiring practices and retention among diverse faculty.

“Nancy Hopkins did not intend to be a trailblazer — she just wanted to be a scientist,” said Nancy Andrews, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the selection committee for the award. “But she recognized that women faculty weren’t receiving the same resources and opportunities as their male peers. Her leadership in revealing discrimination at MIT, and MIT’s courage in acknowledging it, were giant steps towards leveling the playing field for women in science.”

“In her use of evidence to ferret out inequality in opportunity, Nancy Hopkins has helped create pathways to success for women and minorities in science — not only for those of her own generation, but for generations to come,” said National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt. “The scientific enterprise thrives when it employs the best and brightest minds from all quarters of society, and Nancy’s work has done much to ensure that all talented scientists are given the opportunities they deserve to reach the highest echelons of scientific achievement.”

Watch Hopkin’s acceptance speech.

Award History

Over the past 100 years the NAS Public Welfare Medal has continued to recognize those individuals who have worked tirelessly to promote science for the benefit of humanity. Previous recipients of the medal include Alan Alda, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anthony S. Fauci, Bill and Melinda Gates, Ismail Serageldin, Neal Lane, Norman Borlaug, William T. Golden, Maxine F. Singer, C. Everett Koop, and Carl Sagan.

The first NAS Public Welfare Medal was presented in 1914 to George W. Goethals and William C. Gorgas for their distinguished services in connection with the building of the Panama Canal. Goethals was the chief engineer of the canal project, which was completed two years ahead of schedule. Gorgas acted as chief sanitary officer on the canal project, and implemented far-reaching sanitary programs that were instrumental in permitting the construction of the Panama Canal, as they significantly prevented illness due to yellow fever and malaria.

Previous recipients of the NAS Public Welfare Medal continue to achieve outstanding advancements in their fields. Seven recipients have been honored with a National Medal of Science, and two recipients have received a Nobel Prize in Physics (Rabi 1944), and Peace Prize (Borlaug 1970).

Most Recent Recipient
Nancy Hopkins, 2024 Public Welfare Medal
Nancy Hopkins
Call for Nominations

Awards will be presented in a variety of fields including biophysics, astronomy, microbiology, medical sciences, and more.

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Award Types

Previous Award Recipients

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
John P. Holdren
Anthony S. Fauci
Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Agnes Matilda Kalibata