On India’s new ‘Vigyan Puraskar’ awards

The Government of India has replaced the 300 or so awards for scientists it used to give out until this year with the Rashtriya Vigyan Puraskar (RVP), a set of four awards with 56 laureates, The Hindu has reported. Unlike in the previous paradigm, and like the Padma awards to recognise the accomplishments of civilians, the RVP will comprise a medal and a certificate, and no cash. The changes are the result of the recommendations of a committee put together last year by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The new paradigm presents four important opportunities to improve the way the Indian government recognises good scientific work.

1. Push for women

A note forwarded by the Department of Science and Technology, which has so far overseen more than 200 awards every year, to the MHA said, “Adequate representation of women may … be ensured” – an uncharacteristically direct statement (worded in the characteristic style of the Indian bureaucracy) that probably alludes to the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Awards, which were only announced last week for the year 2022.

The SSB Awards are the most high-profile State-sponsored awards for scientists in the old paradigm, and they have become infamous for their opaque decision-making and gross under-representation of women scientists. Their arbitrary 45-year age limit further restricted opportunities for women to be nominated, given breaks in their career due to pregnancies, childcare, etc. As a result, even fewer women have won an SSB Award than the level of their participation in various fields of the scientific workforce.

According to The Hindu, to determine the winners of each year’s RVP awards, “A committee will be constituted every year, comprising the Secretaries of six science Ministries, up to four presidents of science and engineering academies, and six distinguished scientists and technologists from various fields”.

The SSB Awards’ opacity was rooted in the fact that candidates had to be nominated by their respective institutes, without any process to guarantee proper representation, and that the award-giving committee was shrouded in secrecy, with no indication as to their deliberations. To break from this regrettable tradition, the Indian government should publicise the composition of the RVP committee every year and explain its process. Such transparency, and public accountability, is by itself likely to ensure more women will be nominated for and receive the awards than through any other mechanism.

2. No cash component

The RVP awards score by eliminating the cash component for laureates. Scientific talent and productivity are unevenly distributed throughout India, and are typically localised in well-funded national institutes or in a few private universities, so members of the scientific workforce in these locales are also more likely to win awards. Giving these individuals large sums of money, that too after they have produced notable work and not before, will be redundant and only subtract from the fortunes of a less privileged scientist.

A sum of Rs 5 lakh may not be significant from a science department’s point of view, but it is the principle that matters.

To enlarge the pool of potential candidates, the government must also ensure that research scholars receive their promised scholarships on time. At present, delayed scholarships and fellowships have become a tragic hallmark of doing science in India, together with officials’ promises and scramble every year to hasten disbursals.

3. Admitting PIOs

In the new paradigm, up to one of the three Vigyan Ratna awards every year may go to a person of Indian origin (PIO), and up to three PIOs may receive the Vigyan Shri and Yuva-SSB awards, of the 25 in each group. (PIOs aren’t eligible for the three Vigyan Team awards.)

Including PIOs in the national science awards framework is a slippery slope. An award for scientific work is implicitly an award to an individual for exercising their duties as a scientist as well as for navigating a particular milieu, by securing the resources required for their work or – as is often the case in India – conducting frugal yet clever experiments to overcome resource barriers.

Rewarding a PIO who has made excellent contributions to science while working abroad, and probably after having been educated abroad, would delink the “made in India” quality of the scientific work from the work itself, whereas we need more awards to celebrate this relationship.

This said, the MHA may have opened the door to PIOs in order to bring the awards to international attention, by fêting Indian-origin scientists well-known in their countries of residence.

4. Science awards for science

The reputation of an award is determined by the persons who win it, illustrated as much by, say, Norway’s Abel Prize as by the Indian Science Congress’s little-known ‘Millennium Plaques of Honour’. To whom will the RVP prizes be awarded? As stated earlier, the award-giving committee will comprise Secretaries of the six science Ministries, “up to” four presidents of the science and engineering academies, and six “distinguished” scientists and technologists.

These ‘Ministries’ are the Departments of Science and Technology, of Biotechnology, of Space, and of Atomic Energy, and the Ministries of Earth Sciences and of Health and Family Welfare. As such, they exclude representatives from the Ministries of Environment, Animal Husbandry, and Agriculture, which also deal with research, often of the less glamorous variety.

Just as there are inclusion criteria, there should be exclusion criteria as well, such as requiring eligible candidates to have published papers in credible journals (or preprint repositories) and/or to not work with or be related in any other way to members of the jury. Terms like “distinguished” are also open to interpretation. Earlier this year, for example, Mr. Khader Vali Dudekula was conferred a Padma Shri in the ‘Science and Engineering’ category for popularising the nutritional benefits of millets, but he has also claimed, wrongly, that consuming millets can cure cancer and diabetes.

The downside of reduction and centralisation is that they heighten the risk of exclusion. Instead of becoming another realm in which civilians are excluded – or included on dubious grounds, for that matter – the new awards should take care to place truly legitimate scientific work above work that meets any arbitrary ideological standard.