Is Chulabhorn’s Windaus Medal deserved?

17 10 2009

Available in German here.

In the hullabaloo over the king’s health, when things settled down it followed Chulabhorn’s statement from Germany that daddy was okay. In one of those reports it was stated that the princess was in Germany to “to receive the Windaus Medal from the University of Georg-August Gottingen” (Bangkok Post, 17 October 2009).

PPT knows that the palace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs scours the world for awards and honorary doctorates for all members of the royal family and treats and uses them as evidence of greatness. It seems it isn’t hard to get most of the trinkets and honors awarded if you are a royal from just about anywhere and if you really want them.

The only controversy that we can recall on these things was when the king was refused an honorary doctorate by the Australian National University, way back in 1962 (search Google for The Sydney Morning Herald. – Aug 13, 1962). There were several small demonstrations against him and the military government in Thailand while in Australia (again, interested readers can Google this). The demonstrators accused the king of supporting the military, Sarit’s coup and authoritarianism. Nothing much has changed.

So we were interested in this award to Chulabhorn. A quick search around the web suggests that the Windaus Medal seems to be awarded to serious scientists and we know that the University of Georg-August Gottingen (or University of  Gottingen) is a reasonable German institution. So that got us to wondering what the princess had done to deserve this award.

Prof. Chulabhorn Mahidol with Prof. Lutz F. Tietze receiving the Windhaus Medal (from

Prof. Chulabhorn Mahidol with Prof. Lutz F. Tietze receiving the Windaus Medal (from Goettinger-Tageblatt)

The Siam Daily News reported that “Princesss Chulabhorn will be presented with the Windaus Medal from the University of Georg-August Göttingen on 15 October 2009 in recognition of her role as an outstanding scientist who has played an important role towards science and chemistry in Thailand. In addition, the Princess will give a special lecture on the occasion of the Centennial Anniversary of the Adolf-Windaus-Gedächtnis-Lecture.” PPT emphasized these points. The program of the day is here (it is a Word document).

By the way, there was also a small Hmong demonstration aimed at getting her attention reported. But back to Chulabhorn’s award and her science.

In a German newspaper report, the reasons for the award relate to her leadership as the founder of the Chulabhorn Research Institute. Professor Lutz F. Tietze, president of the German Central Committee of Chemistry said: “The social and societal relevance of their [CRI’s?] work, they are united with Windaus…”. That the CRI’s work will “enable the people in the Southeast Asian region to have a better life, and this was one of the reasons that make them a winner.” She is also reportedly the first female winner of the medal.

What kind of scientist is she and what is the reputation of the Chulabhorn Research Institute?

“Professor Dr. Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, President of the Chulabhorn Research Institute,” as the website for her personal institute has it, has styled herself as a great scientist and this award would tend to confirm this.

She studied chemistry at Kasetsart University and in 1985 she received her doctorate at Mahidol University. Her research interests are said to be in the chemical synthesis of natural products and how medicines might be produced from plants. It also mentions initiatives for scientific cooperation.

The Wikipedia entry on the princess list her as having 16 honorary doctorates, all from Thai universities (including two each from from Khon Kaen University, Suranaree University of Technology, Thammasat University, Kasetsart University, and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology) and one from the second-tier Wollongong University in Australia. She also has four scientific awards prior to this medal, including UNESCO’s Einstein medal that “UNESCO confers the Einstein medal on outstanding figures who have made a major contribution to science and international cooperation.” We don’t doubt the claim to the Einstein medal, but a search of the UNESCO site produces no information. Perhaps this is because the award was made in 1986, just one year after she received her doctorate. That was a year before she established (with considerable taxpayer funds involved), the CRI in In 1987. Her own claims to scientific accomplishment are here.

Readers can navigate around the CRI site and see what it does (although none of the publications appear available when we were linking to the pages). Don’t miss the “history” page. The website claims that the “ultimate goal of CRI is to utilize science and technology to improve ‘Quality of Life’, a concept first propounded and practice by His Majesty the King in the Royal Initiated Projects.” The CRI, which presumably receives a large amount of public funding (no details are available to PPT, but for an indication of public support, see here),  was recently criticized for long-term links to the tobacco industry (see the article “A good personal scientific relationship”: Philip Morris scientists and the Chulabhorn Research Institute, Bangkok” and a short report here and here).

What can we tell about Chulabhorn’s science from the public record? Often scientists measure their contributions through their scientific papers. PPT searched the ISI database (available on subscription) and Google Scholar (which is freely available). In both, it lists 45-55 publications. One thing is immediately striking. That is that the princess is rarely the first author on the publications that have her name on them. That science publications have several authors is not unusual, but some of the publications have up to a dozen co-authors.

Questions might be raised about publication ethics her real contribution to these works, given her poor health, her royal engagements and her constant international travel.

Another way to measure impact is through citations received for each publication and for authors/researchers. For Chulabhorn Mahidol, the princess’s name on authored articles, there are relatively few citations. This is not simply a subjective assessment. Science and medical science papers with high impact have citations numbering in the hundreds. None of her co-authored papers have this level of citation. Just for a moment, compare her with other scientists awarded the Windaus Medal. She doesn’t come close to these scientists in terms of citations.

For her first 4 articles listed at Google Scholar, there are 144 citations. PPT looked up other winners and found this: Steven Ley’s first 4 articles at Google Scholar have 1,299 citations. Kenneth D. Setchell has 1,061 for his first 4 articles. R.A. Lerner has 2,883 citations for the first 4 listed articles. Readers will see that comparisons are not even remotely close.

PPT is, frankly, staggered that this scientist receives such recognition. How is it that the legions of women scientists who are well cited and who work hard and seriously are not considered more worthy for this medal over a comparatively little cited colleague.

We might wonder if she gets the award for work done by her well-funded institute rather than for herself? Maybe, but that is not how it is shown to the outside world. Even if we compare CRI with other institutions in Thailand, CRI is not at the top of the table for citations per indexed article. If PPT were being cynical, we might point to the long links between CRI  and Germany, and suggest that this is an example of continuing support.For this link, see the document here, linking tobacco, CRI and GTZ.

But doesn’t all of this devalue the award?

Maybe we are missing something and we’d welcome readers corrections and additions. At present our conclusion is that being a princess from Thailand helps a great deal in gaining recognition even for minor contributions, in any field.


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12 responses

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[…] supposes that if the Chulabhorn Research Institute can take Philip Morris’s loot for “research,” then some of the sweet sweetness of […]

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[…] Readers may want to see some of our earlier posts on this person. In one we briefly mention the queen and Chulabhorn being attracted to Mormons and, like many evangelical Americans, Chulabhorn claiming a special bond with Israel. We had several posts on her politics, including her very odd interviews with Woody, letters (here and here) that were the basis of the Army’s lese majeste accusation against Somsak Jeamteerasakul. More relevant to this particular “report,” we posted on Chulabhorn’s academics. […]

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[…] Readers may want to see some of our earlier posts on this person. In one we briefly mention the queen and Chulabhorn being attracted to Mormons and, like many evangelical Americans, Chulabhorn claiming a special bond with Israel. We had several posts on her politics, including her very odd interviews with Woody, letters (here and here) that were the basis of the Army’s lese majeste accusation against Somsak Jeamteerasakul. More relevant to this particular “report,” we posted on Chulabhorn’s academics. […]

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Royal accolades still concocted | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] FAO, some foreign governments, especially those with royal families, a range of universities from the serious, which are made to look ridiculous, to the barely known, hoping for a market opportunity in Thailand, and many […]