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Dalton Conley Becomes First Sociologist to Receive the National Science Board’s Prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office and Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

Washington, DC, May 25, 2005—The National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports much of the nation’s fundamental research across nearly all fields of science, recognized sociology professor Dalton C. Conley, New York University (NYU), as one of the country’s top young scientists. The 35-year-old Conley received the 30th annual Alan T. Waterman Award, named for NSF’s first director, at a formal, black-tie event, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC. It is the first time a sociologist has received this honor. Befitting the award’s historic significance, the ASA Council issued an official public statement shortly after NSF announced the award in late April (see www2.asanet.org/public/
conleystate.html
).

Council stated, “That Conley is the first sociologist to receive this honor is testament to the increased recognition of sociology within the scientific community. A vital segment of the discipline is engaged in the scientific study of human social organization and social behavior. This in turn, is of central importance to the development of basic knowledge to inform decision-makers, policymakers, legislators, and the public about how our social institutions affect national well-being. Conley’s empirical research demonstrates how certain social and economic conditions (i.e., levels of family wealth) are the basis of persistent racial differences in key areas of life—from educational success to the likelihood of relying on welfare—and are essential to understanding how race persists in determining wealth. Conley’s works clearly and creatively explain how income, gender, health, and birth order result in inequalities that create pecking orders even within families.”

Established to commemorate NSF’s 75th anniversary, the annual Waterman award has been bestowed on a sociologist for the first time in the same year the ASA celebrates its 100th anniversary as the nation’s professional association for the discipline of sociology, the Council statement noted.

The award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by NSF. In addition to a medal, the awardee receives a grant of $500,000 over a three-year period for scientific research or advanced study in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, engineering, social, or other sciences at the institution of the recipient’s choice.

More than 200 senior-level science policymakers, scientists, and science press attended the elaborate event at which the Vannevar Bush Award and National Science Board (NSB) Public Service Award were also presented. Also in attendance were Conley’s parents (Ellen and Steve), Lawrence Wu, Chair of the NYU sociology department, and friends and associates of the event’s other awardees: Robert W. Galvin, retired CEO of Motorola, Inc., who received the Vannevar Bush Award; Ira Flatow, National Public Radio, who received an NSB Public Service Award; and the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research, which also received a Public Service Award. (See www2.asanet.org/public/conley.html to access Bement’s award presentation statement). The ceremony venue, the stately Diplomatic Reception Rooms, exhibit numerous significant artifacts and paintings of U.S. history.

“As a Waterman awardee, Conley will join a long line of distinguished scientists,” said ASA Executive Officer Sally T. Hillsman, “but he will blaze at least one trail in this path by being the first sociologist and only the second behavioral/social scientist to have received the award. The Association also feels a certain sense of validation, because ASA recognized Conley’s scientific promise early in his career by awarding him the ASA’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in 1997.” Conley had received the dissertation award for his research on “Being Black, Living in the Red: Wealth and the Cycle of Racial Inequality.”

“Dalton Conley is one of the most creative and productive sociologists at work today,” said Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council. “His work is reshaping how sociologists think about inequality—and also building bridges to economics, public health, and vital policy debates.”

“Sociology is among the hardest sciences of all—harder than the proverbial rocket science,” Conley stated upon receiving the award and after thanking his relatives, friends, and the NSF and NSB. “Imagine a science where you can’t do controlled experiments—the . . . staple of most bench science,” perhaps implicitly explaining why this is only the second Waterman Award recognition of a social scientist. Commiserating with zoologists and paleontologists, whom he said “share the difficulty of having to piece together observational data without . . . experiments,” Conley explained that sociologists are forced to “impute causal processes, not just describe or classify the world” all while accommodating the multiple levels of analysis that constantly and integrally interact.

An additional thorn in sociologists’ professional lives is “the complication that . . . reality changes as you study it, and by virtue of the fact that you study it,” analogous to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, said Conley. “Our basic units of analysis, like the family, and our conceptual frameworks, like race and class, are ever-shifting as we study them.” To top off sociology’s formidable list of investigational obstacles, Conley noted that “many of the topics we study (e.g., gender and sexuality, race and class, family life) are, by design, the most politically charged and most personally sensitive topics one could address. That doesn’t make research easy. When you’ve got all those together then you’ve got the challenges of sociology….”

Conley is Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at New York University and Director of NYU’s Center for Advanced Social Science Research. He is also Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His research focuses on how socioeconomic status is transmitted across generations and on the public policies that affect that process. In this vein, he studies sibling differences in socioeconomic success; racial inequalities; the measurement of class and social status; and how health and biology affect (and are affected by) social position.

Last year, Conley published The Pecking Order, a book the Washington Post called “lucid and provocative” in its explanation of how the forces of income, gender, health, and birth order in families result in “a tangled web” of inequalities that create a family’s own pecking order. An NSF Faculty Early Career Award supported Conley’s four-year study upon which the book, and related papers, is based. Conley has written numerous papers and articles and several other books, including Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances, and Honky.

For more information, see the National Science Foundation website at www.nsf.gov.