How Does the Packard Fellowship Pick its Winners?

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering is short on paperwork and long on cash. For the right faculty members, tenured not more than three years in the fields of "physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, astronomy, computer science, earth science, ocean science, and all branches of engineering," the Packard Fellowship offers $175,000 a year over five years for a grand total of $875,000. That number includes an annual $175,000 kickback to the university of their employment for administrative overhead.

The idea here is to support

unusually creative researchers early in their careers; faculty members who are well established and well funded are less likely to receive the award. It is further the intent of the Foundation to emphasize support for innovative individual research that involves the fellows, their students, and junior colleagues, rather than extensions or components of large-scale, ongoing research programs.

With a total of $316 million invested thus far, Packard has been doling these things out since 1988. In that first year, David Packard explained his thought process: ''young scientists and engineers often are discouraged from university careers because there are better opportunities in the commercial world. These fellowships will make university research careers more attractive by providing substantial unrestricted funds to the recipients."

Maybe they are all like this but, reviewing the nomination process for these fellowships at this moment, modifiers like "highly ritualized," "epic," and "Free Mason-ish," are coming to mind. Presidents at 50 pre-selected research universities submit as many as two nominations each, "which should not include any written comments," to Packard's advisory panel. The advisory panel then confers with the board of trustees.

Nominees must then find the tallest mountain in their village and stand on top of it, holding two pails of water for two days and two nights. Should they manage not to spill a single drop, the now deceased Mr. Packard visits them in the form of a talking cat who will award them the fellowship.

Not really. Fellows do, however, give "an oral presentation on their work in their first and fifth years and are encouraged to make poster presentations in other years," at the annual Packard Fellows Meeting.