National Medal of Science

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National Medal of Science

The National Medal of Science, also called the Presidential Medal of Science, is an honor given by the President of the United States to individuals in science and engineering who have made important contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the fields of behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and physics. The Committee on the National Medal of Science under the National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for recommending medal candidates to the President. As of 2006-02-13, there have been 425 recipients of the medal.


The National Medal of Science was established on August 25, 1959, by an act of the United States Congress under Public Law 86-209. The medal was originally to honor scientists in the fields of the "physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences." The Committee on the National Medal of Science was established on August 23, 1961 by U.S. President John F. Kennedy through executive order 10961.[1] This committee is administered by the National Science Foundation.

On January 7, 1979, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) passed a resolution proposing that the medal be expanded to include the social and behavioral sciences.[2] In response, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced the Science and Technology Equal Opportunities Act into the Senate on March 7,1979, expanding the medal to include these scientific disciplines as well. President Jimmy Carter's signature enacted this change as Public Law 96-516 on December 12,1980.

File:Theodore von Karman.jpg
Theodore von Kármán

In 1992, the National Science Foundation signed a letter of agreement with the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation that made the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation the metaorganization over both the National Medal of Science and the very similar National Medal of Technology.

The first National Medal of Science was awarded on February 18, 1963, for the year 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to Theodore von Kármán for his work at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The citation accompanying von Kármán's award reads:

For his leadership in the science and engineering basic to aeronautics; for his effective teaching and related contributions in many fields of mechanics, for his distinguished counsel to the Armed Services, and for his promoting international cooperation in science and engineering.[3]

Although Public Law 86-209 provides for 20 recipients of the medal per year, it is typical for approximately 12-15 accomplished scientists and engineers to receive this distinction each year. There have been 6 years where no National Medals of Science were awarded between 1962 and 2004. Those years were: 1985, 1984, 1980, 1978, 1977, 1972 and 1971. As of February 13, 2006, there have been a total of 425 individuals recognized.

Award Process

Each year the National Science Foundation sends out a call to the scientific community for the nomination of new candidates for the National Medal of Science. Individuals are nominated by their peers with each nomination requiring three letters of support from individuals in science and technology. These nominations are then sent to the Committee of the National Medal of Science which is a board composed of 12 scientists appointed by the President.

According to the Committee, successful candidates must be U.S. citizens (or permanent residents who are applying for U.S. citizenship) that have done work of significantly outstanding merit or that has had a major impact on scientific thought in their field. The Committee also values those who promote the general advancement of science and individuals who have influenced science education, although these traits are less important than groundbreaking or thought-provoking research. The nomination of a candidate is effective for three years; at the end of three years, the candidates peers are allowed to renominate the candidate. The Committee makes their recommendations to the President for the final awarding decision.


As of February 13, 2006, when U.S. President George W. Bush announced the 2004 National Medal of Science laureates, there have been 425 individuals recognized. Summarized here is an incomplete list of eminent laureates, along with their citation in the NSF database of National Medal of Science laureates. There is also a full list of all National Medal of Science laureates available.

Notable Laureates of the National Medal of Science, 1962-2004
Year Laureate Citation
1987 James Van Allen "For his central role in the exploration of outer space, including the discoveries of the magnetospheres of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn."
1975 Wernher von Braun "For his work in making the liquid-fuel rocket a practical launch vehicle and for individual contributions to a series of advanced space vehicles, culminating in the Saturn series that made the Apollo program possible."*
1974 Kurt Gödel "For laying the foundation for today's flourishing study of mathematical logic."
1974 Linus Pauling "For the extraordinary scope and power of his imagination, which has led to basic contributions in such diverse fields as structural chemistry and the nature of chemical bonding, molecular biology, immunology, and the nature of genetic diseases."
1973 Carl Djerassi "In recognition of his major contributions to the elucidation of the complex chemistry of the steroid hormones and to the application of these compounds to medicinal chemistry and population control by means of oral contraceptives."
1973 Earl Sutherland "For the discovery that epinephrine and hormones of the pituitary gland occasion their diverse regulatory effects by initiating cellular synthesis of cyclic adenylic acid, now recognized as a universal biological second messenger, which opened a new level of understanding of the subtle mechanisms that integrate the chemical life of the cell while offering hope of entirely new approaches to chemotherapy."
1970 John Archibald Wheeler "For his basic contributions to our understanding of the nuclei of atoms, exemplified by his theory of nuclear fission, and his own work and stimulus to others on basic questions of gravitational and electromagnetic phenomena."
1969 Ernst Mayr "For notable contributions to systematics, biogeography, and the study of birds, and especially for great work on the evolution of animal populations."
1968 B.F. Skinner "For basic and imaginative contributions to the study of behavior which have had profound influence upon all of psychology and many related areas."
1966 Claude Shannon "For brilliant contributions to the mathematical theories of communications and information processing and for his early and continuing impact on the development of these disciplines."
1964 Harold Urey "For outstanding contributions to our understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system and the origin of life on Earth and for pioneering work in the application of isotopes to the determination of the temperatures of ancient oceans."

Note: *The National Science Foundation reports that the actual citation for Werhner von Braun is not available. This citation is the one proposed by the NSF and entered at von Braun's entry at the NSF National Medal of Science laureate database.