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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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Science

Veblen cars and useless concerns for the climate

Lexus has an ad on the jacket of today’s The Hindu for its new premium hybrid electric vehicle, the LS 500h. The product description states that the car “extends relentless innovation to environmentally conscious engineering with a performance-centric Multi Stage Hybrid System. Crafted with luxury in mind and engineered with the environment at heart” (emphasis added).

This is first-class crap.

Obviously, as a Veblen good (priced at Rs 1.77 crore), the LS 500h is pandering to the self-indulgence of India’s upper class. The car allows the highfalutin to be able to claim that they’re riding around in a vehicle that’s environmentally friendly. It’s not. Aside from the specifics of how it combusts its fuel, the LS 500h measures, in metres, 5.2 × 1.9 × 1.4 (l, b, h). That’s a lot for a carrying capacity of five persons. So the car’s design is quite effectively symptomatic of a belief that pro-environmental engineering is only about rethinking or retooling the car’s central source of power as opposed to redesigning it to take up less space on the roads as well.

We all know the public transport system in urban India is far from ideal. Buses are ill-maintained and don’t ply well-optimised routes. Auto-rickshaw fares are regulated but rarely, if ever, enforced. Trains always run at full capacity, are subject to frequent breakdowns and the associated infrastructure is unclean and, in many cases, unsafe. Overall, public transport options are always in high demand and the commute experience they provide is often stressful. So those who can afford private transportation exercise the option (esp. in the form of two-wheelers). Ultimately, given that most parts of India’s tier I and II cities are unplanned formations, roads are often overcrowded, jammed and/or unnavigable.

So improving this situation needs policymakers and citizens alike to assume an interdisciplinary approach, particularly since transport emissions also have to be mitigated to meet both climatic and health targets. In this multivariate context, one of the variables to be optimised for, among accessibility, affordability, etc., is space. Specifically, it becomes desirable for more people to occupy less space while commuting so that time spent traveling and fuel use efficiency are reduced and increased, respectively.

For five people to occupy a ground area of 10 sq. metres in the LS 500h is ridiculous in the specific context of Lexus claiming that the car was “engineered with the environment at heart”. Let’s be honest: this is a fancy car that’s like any other fancy car. Even the greenness of the electric power it consumes – using electric and V6 engines plus a Li-ion battery – is limited to lower emissions; the power itself, in India, is predominantly generated in thermal power plants. So the car in effect aspires to mitigate its own emissions but does nothing else that’s environmentally friendly. This may be cutting-edge innovation but it is not environmentally productive in the least.

Whether this singular contribution will make a difference is also doubtful. For the upper class to be able to claim they’re being ‘green’ requires them to implement those claims at scale – particularly since possessing the car itself would require capital accumulation to the tune of a few tens of crores. Such wealth can be better redistributed to help those who can’t yet afford to live green but aspire to; in the long-term, sustainable living has the potential to be cheaper, but in the short-term, it is bound to be quite costly. Without redistribution, affirmative pro-climate action through the production and utilisation of Veblen goods will remain an oxymoron.