National Science Board Honors Chemistry Professor William Jackson for Public Service

Quick Summary

  • Recognized for critical contributions in laser chemistry
  • Also cited as an advocate for more diversity in science
  • Co-founded society for Black chemists and chemical engineers

The National Science Board, which advises the National Science Foundation and establishes its policies, today (April 27) announced William Jackson, distinguished researcher and emeritus professor of chemistry at UC Davis, as a 2021 recipient of the board’s Public Service Award.


The award is given to individuals and groups in recognition of contributing substantially to increasing public understanding of science and engineering. The National Science Board, or NSB, recognized Jackson as both a leader in the field of chemistry and a mentor and advocate for increasing minority participation in science.

Jackson has made critical scientific contributions to the field of laser chemistry by developing cutting-edge laser technology to study in the laboratory the atoms and the reactive free radicals that he and others observe with ground and satellite telescopes in astronomy. He has also had an exceptionally active career in mentorship, through his publications, his service on committees for equal opportunity, and his personal interactions with hundreds of chemists and chemical engineers.

‘Determination and passion’

William Jackson headshot

Jackson was one of the founders of National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, or NOBCChE, in 1973, which has helped to increase participation of minority students in the sciences.

“His determination and passion for both science and the education of more minorities to pursue degrees in science has had a marked impact on the field of chemistry,” said Maureen Condic, chair of the 2020 NSB Honorary Awards Subcommittee. “Many African Americans, Latinos and women who are making important contributions to government, industry and academia do so because of Jackson’s sustaining vision. Three generations of minority scientific professionals and students are indebted to the efforts of this man.”

Jackson grew up in a segregated society in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a Ford Foundation Scholar in the program’s first class at Morehouse College. He did graduate work at The Catholic University of America, where he studied chemistry, physics and mathematics, and completed his doctoratal research at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

A 1st observation in space

After his Ph.D. he worked for private industry and did postdoctoral research at the National Bureau of Standards before becoming a staff scientist with the Goddard Space Flight Center at the peak of the space race in the 1960s. There he led the U.S. team that made the first observation of a comet with the telescope and spectrograph on the International Ultraviolet Explorer observatory satellite.

In the 1970s, while serving as a professor at Howard University, Jackson became a co-founder and inaugural treasurer of NOBCChE. He is the recipient of the organization’s Edgar E. Lilienfeld Prize.

He testified several times before congressional committees that fund the National Science Foundation, advocating for increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

He secured funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to increase the underrepresented minority population of the graduate student cohort in the UC Davis Department of Chemistry.

Keys to success

“I am deeply honored by this award,” Jackson said. “Throughout my career I have worked to increase diversity in science because I truly believe that creativity and hard work in science — and, in fact, in all human endeavor — are the keys to success. These traits are not limited to any particular race, sex, or country and it is imperative that we let all of the talent we have flourish for the benefit of our country and the world.”

He is a fellow of the American Chemical Society, American Physical Society) and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of the Edgar E. Lilienfeld Prize from APS and Science Lifetime Mentor Award from AAAS. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded him its Arthur B.C. Walker II Award and the Planetary Society named asteroid “4322 Billjackson=1081 EE37” after him.

Later this week, the NSB will announce additional 2021 awardees, and on Tuesday, May 18, will hold a special online ceremony that will include a video showcasing the work of Jackson and other awardees. The public is invited to attend via YouTube. Starting time is 1 p.m. PDT.

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