News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 25, 2017


Academy Honors Four for Major Contributions in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Criminology

WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences will honor four individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in neuroscience, psychology, and criminology.

Daniel S. Nagin, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, will receive the 2017 NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing, presented this year in criminology.

A leader in criminology and related fields, Nagin has spent more than 30 years upending long-held beliefs about criminal justice. His reviews of the scientific literature, focusing on the crime-prevention effects of criminal and social sanctions, have shown that the crime-prevention benefits of lengthy prison sentences are not sufficient to justify their social and economic costs, incarceration appears to increase -- not decrease -- the likelihood of re-offending, and research on the deterrent effect of the death penalty is so flawed that it provides no useful information on its impact on homicide rates. He has also concluded that research evidence shows that increases in police numbers and also their strategic deployment can materially affect crime rates.

Throughout his career, Nagin’s reviews have altered the course of criminological theory and empirical research and have greatly informed analysis of public policy, arguing that efforts should be shifted from corrections to policing in order to lower crime rates and reduce incarceration. He is the 2006 recipient of the American Society of Criminology’s Edwin H. Sutherland Award and in 2014 was awarded the Stockholm Prize in Criminology. Nagin has also served on the Academies study committee that wrote the 2014 report The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, and as committee chair for the 2012 Academies report Deterrence and the Death Penalty.

The NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing has been presented annually since 1979 to recognize authors whose reviews have synthesized extensive and difficult material, rendering a significant service to science and influencing the course of scientific thought. The field rotates among biological, physical, and social sciences and carries with it a $20,000 prize. The NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing was established in 1977 by the gift of Annual Reviews and the Institute for Scientific Information in honor of J. Murray Luck. The award is currently sponsored entirely by Annual Reviews.

Karel Svoboda, group leader, Janelia Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will receive the 2017 Pradel Research Award.

A pioneer in the field of neurobiology, Svoboda developed technologies for visualizing both cellular and synaptic structure and activity in the brain. He used these imaging methods to obtain insight into how the brain represents and stores information about sensory stimuli and transforms that information through motivated behavior into action.

Svoboda was the first researcher to employ high-resolution two-photon microscopy to study synapses and dendrites in the intact brain, providing key insight into how synapses work while also setting the standard for use of this imaging technology. He expanded on this work by developing techniques to image biochemical signals inside of neurons, revealing how synaptic input causes changes in synaptic strength during learning.

Later, Svoboda turned his attention to how the brain’s sensory cortex responds to stimuli, and how that stimulation produces learning and behavior. His work also identified the anterolateral motor cortex, the portion of the brain related to the relationship between stimulus and movement for a reward, providing insights into how the brain holds information in short-term memory and makes decisions.

More recently, Svoboda has continued to implement new microscopic methods applied to the brain, allowing multiple portions of the brain to be imaged at the same time.

The Pradel Research Award is presented annually to recognize mid-career neuroscientists whose work is making major contributions to our understanding of the nervous system. The recipient is presented with a $50,000 research award to an institution of his choice to support neuroscience research.

Tim Behrens, professor of computational neuroscience at the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain, University of Oxford, and Sian Leah Beilock, the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology at The University of Chicago, will receive the 2017 Troland Research Award.

Behrens’ work combines the fields of computer engineering, neuroscience, and psychology to provide a better understanding of how the functions of various parts of the brain lead to behavior. He pioneered the use of non-invasive diffusion weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DW-MRI) in order to understand images of the movement of water molecules along axon nerve cells, providing insight into how the different parts of the brain communicate with each other. The software package he devised for analyzing DW-MRI data has since become the standard for human brain and behavior investigation.

Behrens has also advanced understanding of the mechanisms of decision-making and learning in the prefrontal cortex. His work has addressed questions such as how important new information is learned and irrelevant old information is forgotten at the appropriate rates; how neurons encode relationships between items in the world, allowing modeling of what will happen in the future; and how these models extend to complex situations such as social interactions.

With nearly 150 papers to his credit, Behrens’ work has already been cited more than 33,000 times, an indication of his leadership in the field.

Beilock’s research focuses on how even highly skilled individuals can “choke” under pressure. More specifically, her research focuses on the underlying psychological, physical, and neurological mechanisms that explain how anxiety and high-stress situations compromise our ability to learn and execute complex skills, such as mathematics during school tests or athletics on the field. This examination of performance anxiety has resulted in more than 100 scientific papers and two critically acclaimed books, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To” and “How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel.” It also has tremendous implications for how to educate students, how athletes perform, and how businesses train their workforces. By increasing our understanding of how and why people become anxious, Beilock’s research is developing pioneering techniques to help people perform better during complex and stressful tasks in every aspect of daily life.

Two Troland Research Awards of $75,000 are given annually to recognize unusual achievement by young investigators (defined as no older than 40) and to further empirical research within the broad spectrum of experimental psychology. The Troland Research Award was established by a trust created in 1931 by the bequest of Leonard T. Troland.

The winners will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, April 30, during the National Academy of Sciences' 154th annual meeting.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail
Twitter: @theNASciences

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