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Analysis Op-eds Science

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.

Categories
Op-eds Science

Would you take Epstein’s money to fund your research?

Note: Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, 2019. The following post was written before news of his death emerged.

In 2016, I attended a talk by a not-unknown environmental activist in Chennai (not Nityanand Jayaraman, before you ask) who had spent many years stitching together community efforts to restore water bodies around Tamil Nadu. His talk covered the various challenges of his work as well as the different ways in which he overcame them. The one that stood out was his being absolutely okay with receiving donations to support his work from any and all sources, irrespective of their rectitude. He encouraged others to not shirk from any opportunity to accrue wealth because, to rephrase him, you never know why you are going to need it or when it is going to dry up.

This particular activist was a man of simple means but one thing he did have, and arguably needed to have, was the conviction that his work was useful and necessary. Notwithstanding his personal character (only because I didn’t know him that way), most people in the audience that day judged his work — or what they had been told of it — to be important and, of course, good. Most of us are not so lucky. We often have to be very careful about the way we view our work — as a public good or, more precariously, the ‘greater good’, for example — and the things we are prepared to do to justify working on.

Recently, scientists have been in the news in connection to this question thanks to an unlikely cause: Jeffrey Epstein. On August 5, STAT News published an interview of George Church, the noted American geneticist, biologist and teacher, where he apologised for having “contacts” with Epstein “even after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution”. The interview has so many parts about the behaviour of scientists around billionaires worth chewing on; consider the following example:

Universities are supposed to vet potential donors who ask to meet with a faculty member, especially if they want to fund research. Epstein made a donation to Church’s lab for “cutting edge science and education” from 2005 to 2007. “My understanding is this [vetting] is the responsibility of the development office, which is yet another reason why scientists are a little bit more relaxed,” Church said. “They feel they have administrators, who in theory do the difficult job of figuring out who’s legit.” Epstein’s donation went into what Church called “a general account used to get new projects going before we have enough preliminary data to warrant a formal grant application.”

Later, the article continued:

As for whether Epstein’s 2008 conviction gave Church (a father and grandfather) pause, he said, “I did read a couple of news articles” a decade ago, he said, “but they weren’t clear enough for me to know there was a serious problem.” (The full extent of Epstein’s crimes came out in an investigation by the Miami Herald in 2018; in the New York Times, a 2006 story [described] Epstein’s not-guilty plea … and one in 2008 characterized the allegations as “involving massages with teenage girls”). “But that is still no excuse for me not being abreast of the news.”

How much can you blame scientists for receiving money from tainted sources? I am not sure of the answer. Receiving and using money from corrupt individuals, and certainly those as morally and ethically corrupt as Epstein, is a problem because doing so:

a) Allows the corrupted to claim a form of redemption, especially when they can exploit a shortage of funds required for risky projects

b) Encourages the scientist to harbour an exceptionalism: that she gets to define what ‘good’ is through her work, and

c) Creates the demand, so to speak, that sustains the problematic supply, but this is an admittedly weak contention in this particular case.

At the same time, funding for research has been hard to come by. How often would a scientist stop to check if money sourced through a different department in her university came from a convicted sex offender – money that would ensure she and her students would get paid for the next few months, and possibly provide a way for her to produce research to further ingratiate herself with the university? Not very, possibly because she hasn’t been habituated to check.

This said, the scientist doesn’t get off the hook because the larger argument to be made, or problem to be solved, here is that scientists shouldn’t assume their responsibilities are restricted to their labs. They ought to be as aware of whoever is funding them as, say, journalists are expected to be if only because the same standards should apply to everyone, or at least to every community that prizes independence and self-regulation. This is necessary beyond considerations of one’s relationship with the rest of society, and towards eliminating the imbalance of power that is sure to erupt between a donor who knows how consequential their wealth can be and the researcher who stands to be manipulated by it. For example, she could be tempted to design future projects in ways that are likelier to attract funding and, of course, ruffle fewer feathers.

(I am aware of the difficulties of working scientists, so I don’t say that the solution – such as it is – is to berate them until they make better choices as much as large-scale reform over many years.)

Notwithstanding (important) questions of financial independence, the use of tainted money for a self-proclaimed ‘good’ would at the least form a moral shield for the corrupt funder to hide behind. However, the extent to which this should concern the scientist is doubtful, especially if she is able to insulate herself and the products of her intellect from the influence a sizeable donation is likely to carry. Another argument could be that we should frame these narratives around those who do ‘good’ instead of obsessing over how they render those who do ‘bad’.

For a tangential example, India’s National Green Tribunal recently slapped Volkswagen with a hefty fine of Rs 500 crore ($71 million) for cheating on emission tests, up from the Rs 171 crore recommended by a special panel. This was because, to quote the tribunal’s principal bench:

… the measure of damages has to be fixed taking into account not only the actual damage but also the magnitude and the capacity of the enterprise so that compensation has deterrent effect. … [The] worth of the company is stated to be $75 billion. Thus, apart from actual damage by a conservative estimate, deterrent element has to be considered, specially in view of international unethical practice.

Let us ignore for a moment that the Supreme Court has stayed this order and assume that Volkswagen deposited Rs 500 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board. We would have considered this a great victory, since Rs 500 crore would have increased India’s environment budget for 2019 by 15%, and expected the board to put the money to good use. Similarly, if rich people commit crimes and are convicted, their punishment could carry a big fine in addition to a prison sentence and commensurate to their personal wealth, to be deposited with an independent body staffed by experts from different fields who decide how that money is spent.

This said, it might also be worth asking if the research project is so important or so urgent that its stewards can’t look beyond the first available source of funds, towards less controversial options. Think of it as a contest between the kind of example we want to set as a society about the foundations of our knowledge systems and if it matters that the funds are directed towards studies that are unlikely to be undertaken through other means. For example, on July 11, Peter Aldhous reported for BuzzFeed that between 2012 and 2014, Epstein donated to projects on melanoma, Crohn’s disease, consciousness research and one to develop open source software for AI. Is it possible to appreciate these contributions while condemning the enormity of Epstein’s crimes at the same time?

It might be useful to draw a line here between the likes of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the one hand and, say, community colleges on the other. The former already boast of multiple donors and don’t stand to lose much by forgoing $250,000. However, the latter don’t have nearly enough and even $50,000 to a single institution could make a big difference. It would be a tragedy if there are no alternatives to Epstein’s money, but when there are, it becomes harder to justify the need for it. It is also not lost on any of us that ties between professors at these privileged universities and Epstein run even deeper, to the extent that they fly on his private jet to attend TED talks and then defend him in public using “empirical evidence” shorn of all social context.

All of these questions disappear if government sources pay more for R&D; put another way, such are the questions that raise their heads when private sources of funding overshadow public ones. However, the early 21st century has been characterised by, among other things, an increasingly pervasive mistrust of experts, if not expertise. Leaders of large nations like India, Brazil, the US, the UK, the Philippines and Australia have consistently placed business interests above safeguarding their natural resources, flying in the face of scientific consensus and protest. Public investment in higher education, healthcare and R&D has stagnated or has fallen in the last few years, increasing researchers’ reliance on the private sector. (In India, the government has on occasion expressed interest to the point of dictating which questions researchers should and shouldn’t pursue.) At this time, what is the right thing for a scientist to do?

The answer isn’t necessarily a blanket policy that says ‘accept the money’ or ‘don’t accept the money’. Instead, what is okay and what is not has to be negotiated by those who receive it, with knowledge of their specific circumstances, the relative importance of their work, what they think the consequences could be, and inevitably informed by their personal moral compasses. So the first thing scientists ought to do is step out of the neatly organised lab and into the messy real world, and not leave their public image to be mediated by a university press office with potentially divergent priorities. To paraphrase Church, there is no excuse for not being abreast of the news.

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Scicomm

Research funding in India

After Vidya Krishnan of The Hindu broke the news of the ‘Dehradun Declaration‘, which imposed a startling funding restriction on the Centres for Scientific and Industrial Research, multiple perspectives on the issue came to light for me. One was about the tensions between funding curiosity-driven research and funding research conducted in the national interest (assuming for a moment that they’re mutually exclusive). Based on conversations I had with friends, I realised that for five questions – listed in the survey form below – the answers varied a lot (especially for questions 1, 2 and 5). So before I write anything, I’d like to know what other researchers have to say as well.

Please read the brief intro in the form below and fill it – it shouldn’t take more than five minutes of your time. I’ve a feeling we’ll all learn something from it. I’ll share the results once I have enough (>5-10) responses.