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The National Science Foundation has announced that Nicholas Carnes, the Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, has received this year’s Alan T. Waterman Award from NSF.

The Waterman Award is the U.S. government’s highest honor for an early career scientist or engineer. As part of this high honor, Carnes receives a five-year, $1 million research grant.

Carnes was one of only two scientists nationwide recognized by NSF with the Alan T. Waterman Award this year. He is honored alongside Duke alumna Melanie Matchett Wood, a mathematician at Harvard University. The award, established by Congress in 1975, is named for Alan T. Waterman, the first director of the National Science Foundation. This is the fifth year NSF has chosen to honor not one researcher, but two, with the annual award, which recognizes an outstanding early-career U.S. science or engineering researcher who demonstrates exceptional individual achievements in research in NSF-supported fields.

“This award is the greatest honor of my career,” Carnes said. “The Waterman Award will allow me to carry out research that has never been feasible before.”

With support from an NSF doctoral dissertation improvement research grant in 2009, Carnes’ research delved into how a person’s background affects whether they pursue public service.

“My most significant contribution has been helping to revive research on the obstacles that prevent lower-income and working-class Americans from serving their communities as political leaders,” Carnes said.

Carnes is the second recipient from Duke University to receive the Waterman Award. He is the fourth recipient of this award from the social sciences nationwide. In addition, Carnes is the first scholar of public policy or political science to earn this honor to date. According to the NSF, his “innovative contributions show the impact of increased opportunity and representation on our nation’s most important decisions.”

Duke President Vincent Price said the recognition of both a faculty member and alumna for this high honor in one year showcases the university’s impact and expertise.

“I congratulate faculty member Nick Carnes and alumna Melanie Matchett Wood on this prestigious honor. Both are bold thinkers who are tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges through scientific inquiry for the betterment of society, and we are proud to call them members of the Duke community,” Price said.

Carnes’ groundbreaking research in public policy and political science focuses on the causes and consequences of the social class composition of Congress and other political institutions in the U.S. and around the world. His work has helps explain who gets elected and why, why that matters, and what we can do about it, said Dean Judith Kelley of the Sanford School.

“Nick’s work had already gained significant notice within the academy – with Nick receiving an astonishing five awards from the American Political Science Association. It’s delightful to see this work now recognized with this prestigious NSF honor, the highest honor that Congress bestows on scholars. Nick’s work speaks directly to the functioning of our society, particularly important at a time when both democracy and scientific knowledge face increased challenges around the world,” Kelley said.

Carnes’ research has had wide influence, said Phil Napoli, senior associate dean at the Sanford School.

“Nick Carnes’ research and publication record is exemplary, and has established him as a leading scholar in political science and public policy. He has contributed to a crucial public policy relevant debate at a time when this scholarship is more important than ever,” Napoli said.

For example, Carnes’ research about policymakers’ backgrounds has been widely cited and led to public discussion about representational imbalance. Carnes’ findings that “only about 2 percent of members of Congress come from working-class professions … and only about 3 percent of state-level legislators come from the same” are regularly discussed in the media, Napoli said.

“He has been able to get people to think about this inequality as a real and defining feature of the political process that needs to be discussed alongside other important problems. His broadest impact is in elevating this problem from obscurity just a decade ago to public discussion covered by the media,” said Napoli.

Carnes is the author of two books, both of which center on the topic of working-class representation in policy making. White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making uses data on Congress, state legislatures and city councils to measure how the absence of working-class politicians in U.S. political institutions affects public policy. It argues that, like ordinary citizens, politicians from different social classes have different views about economic issues, and that leaders from the working class bring a more pro-worker perspective to public office. These differences, coupled with the virtual absence of politicians from the working class, ultimately skew the policymaking process towards outcomes that are more in line with upper-class economic interests.

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Carnes then explored the causes of underrepresentation by the working class in politics. His second book, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—And What We Can Do About It, examines the connection between government and privilege. It argues that workers seldom hold office because the practical burdens associated with running for office make it all but impossible for them to launch campaigns, and the political and civic leaders who could help them usually pass over qualified workers in favor of more familiar white-collar candidates. These obstacles aren't insurmountable, however, and The Cash Ceiling discusses some of the reforms that might help, like targeted programs that identify recruit, train and support working-class candidates.

Carnes has played a key role in moving the field to take economic inequality seriously as a factor in representative democracy. Noting a void, he co-founded the American Political Science Association Section on Class and Inequality (one of approximately 50 APSA sections). He also founded a class and inequality section within the Midwest Political Science Association.

Carnes is also co-founder of the Research Triangle Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), a fast-growing national association of engaged scholars.

Carnes received his doctorate in politics and social policy from Princeton University in 2011 and joined the faculty at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy the same year.

The Waterman Award will be presented during the National Science Board virtual meeting on May 18 and 19.

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The Extraordinary Search for Ordinary Politicians (with Nick Carnes)