President Barack Obama’s Friday announcement of this year’s recipients of the National Medal of Science included, among nine others, University Prof. Robert Axelrod. The award is “our Nation’s highest honors for achievement and leadership in advancing the fields of science and technology,” according to a White House press release.
The President will honor Axelrod and his fellow medal recipients with an Oval Office ceremony and dinner.
“These scholars and innovators have expanded our understanding of the world, made invaluable contributions to their fields, and helped improve countless lives,” Obama said in a White House press release. “Our nation has been enriched by their achievements, and by all the scientists and technologists across America dedicated to discovery, inquiry, and invention.”
In a Friday interview, Axelrod said he was informed of the award by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy earlier this week. He added he was especially excited to be the first political scientist to be honored with the award.
Axelrod is currently spending the academic year at the U.S. State Department as a Jefferson Science Fellow, a program that promotes cooperation between scientific experts and the government. His areas of focus are national security policy and mathematical models of politics, making his work very interdisciplinary.
He encouraged students to branch out and take classes across the University to get a truly interdisciplinary and well-rounded education.
“Don’t settle on a focus for your career or your major too early,” he said. “Look around at all kinds of stuff at the University … Find a good teacher and take a course almost regardless of what they’re teaching. Follow your nose in terms of what interests you. You don’t have to explain those interests to anyone else — that’s something that’s exciting to you and you don’t even have to know why.”
Axelrod received a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1964 and completed his Ph.D. with distinction at Yale University in 1969. Prior to coming to University, he was an assistant professor in the University of California, Berkeley Department of Political Science.
He came to the University in 1974 and holds joint appointments in the Department of Political Science and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. In 2006, he became the Mary Ann and Charles R. Walgreen Professor for the Study of Human Understanding, and received the Regents’ Award for Distinguished Public Service in 2011.
If given the chance to speak with the President, Axelrod said he had a couple areas he would be interested in addressing.
“I’d like to talk to him about America’s role in the world,” Axelrod said. “About how we can contribute to international peace and global prosperity, without … disrespecting other cultures.”
He added that he’d also like to talk about the U.S. economy, especially in regards to income inequality and the distorting effects of money in elections.
“I know the economic difficulties we’ve had in the Great Recession have somewhat undermined our own self-confidence, but as the economy gets better I think we’ll restore our sense of valuing our own potential at home and abroad.”