The Bhatnagar Prizes are courting irrelevance

Tin cans erected on each other as a pyramid tumbling down, against a red-painted wall.

On September 27, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced the winners of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes, considered to be India’s top state-sponsored awards for contributions to applied science. But as vice-president Venkaiah Naidu asked CSIR to be agile and “contribute to the larger good of humanity”, it is impossible to see how given the Bhatnagar Prizes continue to recognise and reward mostly men. This year’s winners, in fact, are all men.

  • Engineering sciences – Depdeep Mukhopadhyay, IIT Kharagpur
  • Mathematical sciences – Anish Ghosh (TIFR), Saket Saurabh (IMSc)
  • Medical sciences – Jeemon Panniyammakal (Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute), Rohit Srivastava (IIT Bombay)
  • Physical sciences – Kanak Saha, IUCAA Pune
  • Biological sciences – Amit Singh (IISc), Arun Kumar Shukla (IIT Kanpur)
  • Chemical sciences – Kanishka Biswas (JNCASR), T. Govindaraju (JNCASR)
  • Earth, atmosphere, ocean and planetary sciences – Binoy Kumar Saikia

We give a damn about awards because, like volcanoes spewing lava, they highlight scientific achievements and their originators by drawing them up from their relative obscurity and throwing them thousands of feet into the air, where everyone can see them.

Awards are also not just awards – that is, they don’t just commemorate important achievements. Awards are susceptible to being elevated or demoted. For example, it is to the Nobel Prizes’ credit (however minimal) when they actively look out for and recognise women’s achievements. When Abdus Salam won the physics Nobel Prize in 1979, it was a triumph for the latter, not the former. Similarly, when the Nobel Committee overlooked Chien-Shiung Wu or Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the committee suffered – not the women.

We are well-past starting to recognise the importance of women’s contributions, and are also aware of the need to identify, and celebrate, the ideas of people of other gender identities, as well as of people of other castes – the vast minority, so to speak. (There is even something of a geographical skew: Binoy Kumar Saikia is the first recipient of the award from Assam in 20 years.) At this time, the Bhatnagar Awards will fall by the wayside if they continue to fail to provide society with a way to recognise its members’ achievements without conforming to a view of science that became dated decades ago.

Second, this year’s winners, as well as the winners of years past, have contributed in important ways to science in India. The fact that CSIR and the prize-giving committee didn’t make the pool of laureates as diverse as they could have does not in any way subtract from the scientists’ work. The male scientists still deserve to win the Bhatnagar Prizes. The problem is that others also deserve to win the prizes, but never seem to do so.

Now, CSIR may respond saying that there are just no women or people of any other gender or caste denominations to pick from. In that case, two simple questions arise.

First, is CSIR – or the country’s science administration more broadly – doing anything to change that as quickly, as efficiently and as sufficiently as it can? Because if we find the answer to be ‘no’, the prizes will have effectively been rigged in favour of (non-trans) men, and in which case they will not really be prizes at all. If the answer is ‘yes’, where the fruits of these programmes, or when we can we expect to see them?

On the flip side, by not doing more to make the awards more inclusive, and more representative of the sort of achievements the scientific enterprise most benefits from, demanding the laureates be diverse for diversity’s sake will increasingly become both the most prominent and most illegitimate argument we can direct at them.

Second, if there are not enough women and others to choose from, what exactly are the prizes commemorating?

For example, the Olympic Games invite the participation of thousands of sportspersons from around the world in different sports that are each carefully administered. When someone wins a medal here, it is a recognition of their grit and determination, and the skills each sport prizes. But if someone wins a medal at a competition in which half the eligible people couldn’t participate because they were unable to travel to the venue or didn’t have the time or money to purchase the requisite equipment, the medal will not say that the winner is the best among all their peers.

Similarly, there is no meaning for the Bhatnagar Prizes to continue to recognise science-related achievements at a time and in a context in which the science is moving along fine – while the science-adjacent things remain broken. So CSIR should consider redefining or expanding science-workers’ eligibility for the prizes, and start recognising work that helps science as well as the scientists who do it.

Next, it should recognise that while the existing crop of laureates are worth lauding, it is unfair, ugly and lazy to keep awarding only, or even mostly, men. To this end, CSIR shouldn’t just bank on nominations by institution and department heads, as it currently does, and also initiate efforts to recognise potential candidates of its own initiative, in a continuous, year-long process while regularly refreshing the prize-giving body, and also allow science-workers to nominate themselves.

Doing so could be worthwhile for two reasons. The Bhatnagar Awards have, and have had, the important opportunity to be more remarkable than they currently are. A swift way to achieve this outcome is to highlight outstanding science work from all parts of the country, by people belonging to all groups – not just a few. The CSIR’s direct involvement in the prize-giving enterprise could also help to overcome the institute heads’ biases, if any.

In addition, by allowing people to nominate themselves, arbiters will be able to consider a larger pool of candidates than one limited to those who have caught the attention of institute directors, ministries’ department heads, vice-chancellors, etc. In fact, asking people to nominate others at the same institute can also disprivilege women and people of other gender identities. This is because, as a consequence, the latter will have had to first penetrate male-dominated networks and working groups.

Second, CSIR keeps the composition of the prize-giving committees – one for each category – confidential. This is likely to protect the committees’ members from being prejudiced by external influences, or vice versa. But this also means there is no way to say if the committees’ members are also full of men, what their deliberations are and how they pick winners. As an alternative, CSIR could constitute committees for each prize for each year, and once it is announced, also reveal the committee’s constituent members. There are enough scientists to staff committees for many years on end without having to repeat them, considering the award categories are so broadly defined.

But if the Bhatnagar Prizes continue to operate as they are, they will only become more irrelevant.

The Wire Science
September 27, 2021

Featured image credit: Skitterphoto/pixabay.

The March for Science, ed. 2018

K. VijayRaghavan, India’s new principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, has brought a lot of hope with him into the role as a result of his illustrious career as a biologist and former secretaryship with the Department of Biotechnology. Many stakeholders of the scientific establishment are already looking to him for positive changes in S&T policy, funding and administration in India under a government that, on matters of research and education, has focused on applications, translational research and actively ignored the spread of superstitious ideas in society.

In a recent interview, VijayRaghavan was asked about R&D funding in India. His response is worth noting against the backdrop of a ‘March for Science’ planned across India on April 14. As the interviewer reminds the reader, the 2018 Economic Survey bluntly acknowledged that India was underspending on research. This has also been one of the principal focus areas of the ‘March for Science’ organisers and participants: they have demanded that the Centre hike R&D spending to 3% and education spending to 10%, both as fractions of the GDP, apart from asking the government to stop the spread of superstitious beliefs.

Q: Getting funding for research is widely considered to be a prickly issue. The 2018 Economic Survey stated that India underspends on R&D. Is this a concern at the administration level?

A: These are wrongly posed questions, because it says that should magically the amount of funding go up, then science’s problems would be solved. Or that this is the key impediment. There’s no questions that there’s a correlation between increased R&D funding and innovation in many economies. South Korea is a striking example how high-tech R&D has resulted in transformation in their industries… Have we analysed, bottom-up, what Korea’s spending goes into and what we can learn from that and do afresh? Have we analysed our contest and learnt? …

Now interestingly, top-down this analysis has been done long ago. We as scientists, individuals and as journalists need to see that. The DST, and the DBT, the CSIR, the ICMR all have their plans should they get more resources. You can’t have a top-down articulation of how the resources can come and be used, unless that is also dynamically connected bottom-up.

When I look at 100 cases of why fund-flow is gridlocked, in about 70 cases, it’s poor institutional processes.

March for more than science

After the first Indian ‘March for Science’ happened in August 2017, the government showed no signs of having heard the participants’ claims, or even acknowledged the event. This was obviously jarring but it also prompted conversations about whether the march’s demands were entirely reasonable. Most news reports, include The Wire‘s, had focused on how this was the first outpouring of scientists, school-teachers and students, particularly at this scale. Scrutinising it deeply was taboo because there was some anxiety about jeopardising the need for such a march itself. However, ahead of the second march planned for April 14, it’s worth revisiting.

Sundar Sarukkai, the philosopher, had penned an oped the day after the 2017 march, asking scientists whether they had thought to climb down from their ivory towers and consider that the spread of superstitions in society under the Narendra Modi government may have been because of sociological and cultural reasons, and wasn’t simply a matter of spending more on R&D. Following a rebuttal from Rahul Siddharthan, Sarukkai clarified in The Wire:

Whenever ideal images are constructed (like ideal of woman, ideal of nation, etc.), one should be wary, since any such act is often driven by considerations of power. This ideal image of science too is used to establish science as a powerful agent within modern societies. The use of this ideal image to solve social problems related to caste, religion or hatred of any kind is a red herring. It is like using a hammer to fix a bulb. When we do that, it only means that we are not really interested in solving the problem (fixing the bulb) but more invested in using the method (the hammer) – irrespective of whether it is suitable for the task or not.

The terrible cases of lynching, hatred, oppression and misuse of religion must be unequivocally opposed. For those who are serious about that task, the solution is more important than the method used to achieve it. The categories of the ideal notion of science are applicable primarily to non-human systems. So even if they work well within such systems, there is no reason why they should do so within human systems.

A physicist said something similar to me around the time: that the old uncle preaching the benefits of homeopathy in his living room is doing so not because he doesn’t have access to scientific knowledge. That may be true but what’s more conspicuous by absence is someone in the same room challenging his views, communicating to him without being intimidating or patronising and having a discussion with him about what’s right, what’s wrong and the methods we use to tell the difference. Instead, focusing on making it easier for scientists to become and remain scientists alone will not take us closer to achieving the outcomes the ‘March for Science’ desires.

Sarukkai echoed this point in a comment to The Print: that scientists who march only for science are not doing anything useful, and that they must march against casteism and sexism as well (and social ills outside their labs). Without real change in these social contexts, it’s going to be near-impossible for those deemed less powerful by structures in place in these contexts to challenge the beliefs of those afforded more social authority. Ultimately, effecting such change is not going to be all about money – just as much as more money alone won’t solve anything, just as much as imploring the government to “fix” all these issues by itself will not work either.

This is where VijayRaghavan’s comments about R&D spending fit in. Before we throw more money in the general direction of supporting R&D, its Augean stables will have to be cleaned out and inefficiencies eliminated. One example, apropos VijayRaghavan’s comment about 70% of funds being gridlocked due to “poor institutional processes”, comes immediately to mind.

Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist, wrote in 2008 that when he had been a member of the faculty at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, his station afford him a variety of privileges even as there was “no clear statement of our responsibility or duty to perform, and no consequences for failing to do so”. While he has since acknowledged a potential flaw in his suggested solution, the fact remains that many researchers often laze in prized research positions at well-funded institutes instead of also having to grapple with the teaching and mentorship load prevalent at state universities and colleges.

Additionally, though most people have directed their ire at the government for underfunding R&D, 55% of our R&D expenditure is from the public kitty. Among the ‘superpowers’, China is a distant second at less than 20%. So the marches for science should also ask the private sector to cough up more.

One for all

When the government pulled the financial carpet out from under the feet of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 2014 and asked its 38 labs to “go fund themselves”, many scientists were aghast that the council was being handicapped even as more money was being funnelled into pseudo-research on cow urine. But there were also many other scientists who said that the CSIR had it coming, that – as a network of labs set up to facilitate applied and translational research – it was bloated, sluggish and ripe for a pruning. Perhaps similar audits, though with ample stakeholder consultations (not the RSS) and without drastic consequences, are due for the national scientific establishment as a whole.

As a corollary, it is also true that every march, protest or agitation undertaken against casteism, sexism, patriarchy, bigotry and zealotry can work in favour of the scientific establishment since what ‘they’ are fighting against is also what scientists, and science journalists, should be fighting against. Access to bonafide scientific ideas should not be solely through textbooks, news articles and freewheeling chats on Twitter. Instead, and irrespective of whether they become available, they should have the option to be availed through the many day-to-day interactions in which we confront structures of caste and class.

For example, there is no reason the person who cleans your toilet should not also cook your dinner. To institute this dumb restriction is to perpetuate caste/class divisions as well as to reject science in the form of hand-wash fluids. For another, there is no reason an employer shouldn’t let their domestic help use the toilet when they need to. However, the practice of expecting those who work in our homes to use separate toilets or be fired still persists, even in a society as ostensibly post-caste as West Bengal’s, demonstrating “the extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste” – as well as the extent to which we falsely attribute different human bodies with irrational biological threats.

These problems are also relevant to scientists, and must be solved before we can confront the bigger, and more nebulous, order of scientific temper in the country. However, such problems can’t be fixed by scientists and science alone.

It is worth reiterating that the ‘March for Science’ tomorrow is not a lost cause; far from it, in fact. The demand that 3% of GDP be spent on R&D is entirely valid – but it also needs to be accompanied by structural reforms to be completely meaningful. So the march, in effect, is an opportunity to examine the checks and balances of science’s administration in the country, the place of science in society, and introspect on our responsibility to confront a protean problem and not back down in the face of easy solutions. If the solution was as easy as ramping up spending on R&D and education, the problem would have been solved long ago.

The Wire, 13 April 2018.