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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.

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Scicomm

Why do we cover the Nobel Prize announcements?

The Nobel Prizes are too big to fail. Even if they’ve become beset by a host of problems, such as:

  1. Long gap between invention/discovery and recognition,
  2. A large cash component given to old scientists,
  3. Limiting number of awardees to three,
  4. Not awarding prizes posthumously,
  5. Not awarding prizes to women, especially in the sciences, and
  6. Limiting laureates to those who had published in English or European languages*

… they have been able to carry over the momentum they accrued in the mid-20th century, as an identifier of important contributions, into the 21st century. The winner of a Nobel Prize gets his (it’s usually ‘his’) name added to a distinguished list, and has the attention of the world’s press turn towards him for 12-24 hours. The latter in particular is almost impossible to achieve otherwise. As a result, the Nobel Prizes, for all their shortcomings, still stand for a certain kind of recognition that is not easily attainable through other means.

Any other prize instituted today with the same shortcomings as the Nobel Prizes will struggle to be taken seriously (unless the cash component is overwhelmingly high). It is thanks to these qualities of its legacy that even those who write against the Nobel Prizes and their import can at best hope to fix the prize, and not have it cancelled. And this is also why people continue to lament problems #3 and #5 instead of neglecting the Nobel Prizes altogether.

I personally wish the Nobel Prizes stopped being important – but it’s a conflicted desire because of two reasons:

  1. It’s an opportunity – even only if it’s for one week of the year – to talk about pure science research instead of having to bother with what it’s good for, and still be read. Otherwise, there’s a high cost attached to ‘indulging’ in such articles.
  2. The Nobel Prizes are not going to drop in value among the people if only I abstain from covering them. Either all journalists have to stop giving a damn (they won’t) or the Nobel Committee itself will have to rethink the prizes (so far, they haven’t).

So if only I sit out and not write about who won which Nobel Prize for what, only I – rather, The Wire – loses out. I’d much rather make a bigger deal of homegrown awards like the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize, specialised prizes like the Wolf, the Abel and the Lasker, and the international – and more au courant – Breakthrough Prizes.

*I’m speaking only about the science prizes.