A question about India’s new science prizes

really deserving candidates

In a meeting chaired by Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla on September 16 and attended by senior members of the various science departments of the national government (DST, DBT, etc.), the Union government eliminated hundreds of awards given to the country’s scientists for achievements on various fronts and fields. Governing a country the size of India is bound to result in bloat, so it wouldn’t be possible to dismiss this move by the government out of hand. However, the three words above make an appearance among Bhalla’s many utterances in the meeting and they are worthy of suspicion.

The Indian government under Narendra Modi has regularly used vague adjectives to accommodate a diversity of possibilities instead of committing to one course of action over another. Perhaps the best known example is its use of the “national security” excuse to refuse answers to questions under the RTI Act, such as what the scientific payloads of the Chandrayaan 2 and 3 missions were or why the FCR Act was amended. Other examples include any assurance made by Prime Minister Modi, such as on the occasion he was forced to repeal the regrettable farm laws.

In December 2019, physicist Brian Skinner uploaded a preprint paper to the arXiV server in which he quantified the effect of a “prestige bias” on the professional trajectories of scientists who are subjected to multiple rounds of evaluation. I’ve had occasion to return to this analysis on multiple occasions because, to me, it arrives at an essential, irreducible truth of the world: that keeping the conditions of entry to some space vague doesn’t just allow for arbitrary decision-making but inevitably causes such decision-making. As Skinner wrote:

For example, two applicants for graduate school may have similar grades and exam scores, but if one candidate comes from a more prestigious university then their application will, in general, be evaluated more highly. This ‘prestige bias’ arises naturally, since metrics like grades and exam scores are imprecise measures of a student’s ability, and thus the evaluator looks for any other information available to help with their decision. Belonging to a prestigious group suggests that the candidate was ranked highly by some other evaluator in the past, and this provides a prior expectation (like a second opinion) that biases the decision in their favor.

Vagueness when the stakes are high can’t be innocent, especially once it has been identified, because the more powerful can and will use the resulting uncertainty to their advantage. Here as well, when Bhalla has determined that a small number of new prizes should replace the plethora of the now-extinct prizes and that they ought to be given to “really deserving candidates”, it brings to mind the “really deserving” corporations that are winning contracts for mines, ports and defence manufacturing, the “really deserving” businessmen whose wealth has increased disproportionately to that of their peers, and the “really deserving” ministries and departments that are receiving an increasing fraction of the Union government’s budgetary allocations.

Granted, drafting and holding a fixed definition of the term ‘deserving’ can only be bad for the people and the government both. But when any doubts or uncertainties about its ambit are likely to be abused by the government – awarding India’s top honour for scientific work to, say, Appa Rao Podile or M. Jagadesh Kumar over Gagandeep Kang or Rakesh Mishra – our options are limited to a meaningless science prize that represents, above all else, the BJP’s successful subversion of another science-related space (after the IITs) for the nationalist project versus a prize that is much more meaningful but whose terms are rigid and unresponsive to the times.