Some science prizes are only for men

Say Someone has won the Nobel Prize for physics, perhaps the most prestigious honour (as awards go) for a physicist. What would it mean for all the future awards given to this Someone?

One thing that a Nobel Prize does, and which many past laureates have acknowledged, is turn a laureate into an institution. The Nobel Prizes are also glamorous, involving the Swedish royalty and whatnot. Finally, when the prizes are announced, almost all major news outlets carry a headline or two on the frontpage or homepage. The effect is that every year, when the Nobel Prizes are handed out to new Someones, billions of people around the world find out their names. If you’re a scientist, there are few other ways in which you can become more famous.

One effect of this peak notoriety is a before/after split in terms of Someone’s laurels. Before winning the Nobel Prize, Someone is likely to have been much less well-known, especially outside the community of their peers, and therefore the awards they won are likely to have been characterised by two features: 1) the award is well-defined and the award-givers took pains to identify specific potential winners and evaluate them closely; 2) winning such an award contributed to the winner’s reputation more than the other way around. But after winning a Nobel Prize, Someone is now a famous institution unto their own, and the prizes they win in future are likely to want to themselves become notorious by association, rather than add to Someone’s laurels, and are likely to be loosely defined (e.g. recognising good work in general, as certified by some other institution, rather than specific contributions in a niche field of study).

I used the example of the Nobel Prizes as an illustration of a more generalised concept: of scholars who have already achieved peak notoriety through other routes, and who elevate the stature of the prizes they win in future as a result. These post-peak-notoriety (PPN) prizes are interesting because there are several of them in India. They’re also interesting because some PPN prizes appear to act in bad faith (I don’t have proof) when they 1) are awarded in recognition of a very generic notion of success or achievement, and 2) are awarded almost exclusively to scholars who have received broad-based recognition for a specific and significant contribution to science.

A case in point: On February 19, the Twitter account of the SASTRA Deemed University announced the conferment of its ‘Annual Science Day Awards’ to five scientists. All five were men, which drew the attention of @biaswatchindia, which documents “women’s representation” and combats “gender-biased panels in Indian STEM conferences” (run by Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan and Shruti Muralidhar). @biaswatchindia tweeted:

This is fair and deserving criticism. I think it can also be expanded to include one more point. Had you heard of SASTRA’s ‘Annual Science Day Awards’ before? I hadn’t; I suspect few others have. In addition, it’s not clear what sort of recognition the prize brings to the table, other than a purse for each laureare of Rs 5 lakh and a citation. But read together with an invitation to deliver lectures on National Science Day at its Thanjavur campus, the award seems like a vehicle for SASTRA to give these individuals – already well-feted individuals, to be sure – a large sum of money and have them talk to its students.

I couldn’t find any sort of discussion of each laureate’s accomplishments and their scientific work on the SASTRA website. The only result dated 2023 for a search for “Science Day Award” was a page displaying the same poster the university’s Twitter account had tweeted (as of 9.25 am IST on February 22, 2023).

Is this a PPN prize?

Consider: M.S. Valiathan won the Padma Vibhushan in 2005. S. Ramaswamy won an Infosys Prize in 2011 and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016. Samir K. Maji was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2021. Srinivasan Natarajan was elected to the same body in 2013, and is also a member of all three Indian science academies. T. Pradeep was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2018 and won the Padma Shri in 2020. All these individuals have also won several other noteworthy prizes. (That one of SASTRA’s prize categories is also named for a living individual smells funky, but that’s a separate matter.)

So the ‘Annual Science Day Award’ looks very much like a bad-faith PPN prize because it apparently seeks to bolster its own reputation, and by extension that of SASTRA, using the work and achievements of others. I don’t claim to know why all the prize-winners are men; that they are would make sense if they’re the winners of a PPN prize, and all PPN prizes will only magnify the biases and prejudices that other, more celebrated prizes maintain, or used to. The reason is simple: If a PPN prize is going to fete people who have already been feted, and most of those feted in the past were men, the rosters of PPN prize laureates are inevitably going to be sausage fests.

To think the award could have been just as notorious if all the laureates had been women…