The deceptive ignominy of being the first to win an award

Kamaljit Bawa is the first Indian to receive the Linnaean Medal in the 140-year old history of the Society awarding the medal.

This line is from a press release I received this morning from a PR person at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, where Bawa works. I’ve never heard of a Linnaean Medal but I’m not surprised there’s some kind of famous prize named for Carl Linnaeus.

I’ve also not heard of Bawa or his work but I’m thankful for both of them, and I’m sure they deserve their plaudits. However, my concern is about whether any prestige should also accrue with Bawa because he is “the first Indian recipient” of a 140-year-old prize. By all means, let’s celebrate Bawa for having won the prize but let’s not celebrate that Bawa is “the first”. I say this because there are two aspects of one’s scientific career that must fall in place for one to receive widespread recognition, and both aspects are centred on one characteristic: visibility.

The first aspect is easily illustrated by an example. To win a Nobel Prize, the following conditions must be met on a scientist’s part:

  • Their papers must be published in “premier” journals like Nature, Science, PRL, Cell, etc.
  • (Follow-up) Their papers must be written in English
  • They must be affiliated with a university that is already prestigious
  • They must be located in tier I cities of their respective countries
  • They must have been able to afford international travel to speak and collaborate with scientists abroad

… among others. Each of these conditions acts like a screen, filtering scientists out of consideration for a big prize even if their work deserves to paraded on the world’s stage. At the end of this checklist, a pool of scientists much smaller than it should be is leftover, the pool from which some international awards committee will pick its nominees. And when someone from this pool wins, all the fame and wealth is showered on this person, further aggravating the lack of resources at the bottom of the pyramid. The easiest way to confirm this is the case in reality is to look for winners of prestigious prizes who have bucked the trend vis a vis most of the checklist items at the same time.

The second aspect kicks in from the award committees side. It is not enough that scientists put themselves on display, so to speak; those awarded the prizes must also look in your direction. As a result, a second set of filters comes into play, this one more multi-cultural, and often giving disproportionate importance to factors like gender and race.

When the constituting members of award committees are scientists themselves, then it’s likely that they will be more aware of the accomplishments of those whose work they can access more easily – especially due to institutional or geographical proximity. (We already have empirical proof that this is the case with the editors of scientific journals.) They will also know little, if at all, about how foreign research labs apportion responsibilities as well as credit, among other things.

Effectively, we can see how difficult it is to “make it big”, as they say, as a scientist. A stupendous number of things must fall in line – not the least of which is the lottery of birth: where you’re born and to what kind of parents. In this Age of Reason, or at least an age in which sensible and culturally sensitive reasoning must be applied to all decision-making, it’s possible to see awards as being given to certain people for good work but it’s impossible to conclude that a scientist’s work is not good if it has not received an award.

The sense of humility that this line of thinking brings is what we must hold at heart before we write about Kamaljit Bawa. Kudos to him for winning the Linnaeus Medal (for his work in plant biology) but no kudos to him for being the first to do so. That’s a vacant achievement. Bandying it about – as the ATREE press release seems to do – is to buy into the discrimination and elitism inherent in winning any of these awards.

Those prizes regarded the most prestigious in each field award scientists whose work towers over all of their peers’. For example, the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Lasker Award, the Priestley Medal, etc. These same prizes also carry a lot of historical baggage; in fact, much of their prestige is the result of their having been awarded to the most famous scientists of the early 20th century.

I find these prizes easier to put up with than those instituted in the late 20th century because we should have, by the latter period, recognised the futility of instituting international prizes, especially those that reward scientists towards the end of their research career and divert large, unqualified sums of money towards a few individuals. Most of all, these prizes are detrimental because they encourage people to think of laureates as institutions in and of themselves. (One of the more insidious ways in which this happens is when we first hear about these scientists when they win an award, not earlier.)

Even the Nobel Prizes and others like it are guilty of these effects. However, they are harder to dislodge from their pedestals than the others, and so they persist.