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Vest awarded Abelson Prize for service to science and society

Charles M. Vest
Charles M. Vest
Photo / Justin Knight

Charles M. Vest, MIT president emeritus, has been awarded the 2006 AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Prize for his outstanding contributions to public policy, education and university research.

Vest is a "leading voice in the ongoing conversation about the future of American research universities and has offered sound counsel to policymakers on some of the toughest issues confronting the nation," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science.

While serving as president of MIT from 1990 to 2004, Vest worked to strengthen government-university-industry relations and helped bring education and research issues to broader public attention. He put special emphasis on undergraduate education in science and engineering and also stressed the importance of racial and cultural diversity among faculty and students at MIT, AAAS materials stated.

Vest, who has been nominated to be the next president of National Academy of Engineering, chaired the President's Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station and serves on the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. He chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Task Force on the Future of DOE Science Programs, was vice chair of the Council on Competitiveness for eight years and is a past chair of the Association of American Universities.

Vest also served as a member of the Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and on the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Education. He now serves on an advisory committee on transformational diplomacy for the U.S. Secretary of State and on the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Abelson Prize was inspired by Philip Hauge Abelson, who served as long-time senior adviser to AAAS. "Chuck Vest has epitomized Phil Abelson's view of the citizen-scientist," said Leshner.

Vest earned his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University in 1963 and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan in 1964 and 1967, respectively. He is the recipient of 10 honorary doctoral degrees.

Vest, whose academic specialty was applied optics, says he enjoyed teaching and doing research. But he took the post of associate dean of the University of Michigan's College of Engineering at the behest of a colleague and found that he liked administrative work.

Asked by an interviewer in 2005 whether his background in engineering prepared him for his 14-year tenure as MIT president, Vest answered that an analytical approach can be helpful in defining and breaking down a problem. "But frankly," he said, "fostering the careers of young people is a thrill."

Vest also spoke of the changes for MIT and other institutions in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, with much more attention focused on scholars and students from abroad who seek visas to live and study in the United States. "My view is that it is the government's role to decide who comes to this country as an employee or scholar or student, but once they are admitted we should be able on our campuses to treat everybody exactly the same way," Vest said. He said it is essential that "we keep filling the bucket of new knowledge and new technology."

The Abelson Prize is awarded annually to either a public servant in recognition of sustained exceptional contributions to advancing science, or to a scientist whose career has been distinguished both for scientific achievement and for other notable services to the scientific community. The prize was established in 1985 by the AAAS board of directors and consists of a plaque and an honorarium of $5,000.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2007 (download PDF).

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