Abolishing science awards is demotivating : The Tribune India

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Abolishing science awards is demotivating

The MHA has decided to abolish nearly 300 awards and fellowships given by eight scientific departments and ministries. It marks a brutal attack on the autonomy and decision-making structures of the topmost scientific agencies. Besides being motivators for scientists to excel, awards spur growth of science in many ways.

Abolishing science awards is demotivating

BOOST: Awards given for R&D were instrumental in India showing its vaccine prowess. PTI



Dinesh C. Sharma

Science Commentator

THE Indian scientific community anxiously anticipates this time of the year as it is not only the festival season but also the award season for it. On September 26 every year, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announces the winners of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, given to scientists below the age of 45 for outstanding contributions to science and technology in India. The announcement is the centrepiece of the council's Foundation Day celebration.

The winners for this year weren’t declared by the CSIR on the appointed date. Instead, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) ‘leaked’ the minutes of a meeting about the ‘transformation of awards and decorations’, including the Bhatnagar Prize.

At this meeting of all scientific departments, presided over by the MHA’s top bureaucrat, it was decided that nearly 300 awards and fellowships given by eight scientific departments and ministries would be abolished.

The only silver lining is that the Bhatnagar Prize is among the few that has been spared the axe, for now. It will continue, but with different terms. Meanwhile, the suspense about this year’s winners continues.

Public recognition of scientific work through awards and prizes acts as an incentive to scientists and technologists who often work under challenging circumstances. Scientific research needs perseverance and patience. As it is, the life of researchers in Indian universities and research laboratories is constrained due to delays in funding and other issues. If scientific departments are going to discontinue most of the awards and fellowships as decided at the MHA meeting, it will be further demotivating. The Home Secretary simply conveyed to the scientific departments that the ‘number of awards and awardees should be very restrictive’ in line with the Prime Minister's directive on the ‘transformation of the awards eco-system.’

Many current scientific awards have a rationale and legacy. The Bhatnagar Prize, instituted in 1958, recognises the work of young and mid-career scientists to enable them to continue to pursue their research goals.

The list of Bhatnagar laureates from 1958 to 1991, published by the CSIR in 1992, is a veritable who's who of Indian science. It includes KS Krishnan, Vikram Sarabhai, Raja Ramanna, V Ramalingaswamy, MGK Menon, MK Vainu Bappu, JV Narlikar, Obaid Siddiqi, UR Rao, VS Arunachalam, CNR Rao, RA Mashelkar, Madhav Gadgil and Samir Brahmachari. In the early parts of their careers, they contributed to their respective areas of science and turned out to be leaders of science in later years.

The government awards are also given to boost R&D in the private sector. The first two recipients of the National Technology Award, founded in the 1990s by the Technology Development Board, are Shantha Biotech and Bharat Biotech — today the poster boys of India’s vaccine prowess.

While the Bhatnagar Prize will continue, the Dr BR Ambedkar Centenary Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research — the highest one for medical research carrying a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh — has been abolished. This is ironic given the contributions medical scientists have made during the pandemic.

Many awards which have been abolished may not have a legacy similar to the Bhatnagar Prize, but they were all instituted for specific purposes. For instance, the Dr Anna Mani Award for Women Scientists was started by the Ministry of Earth Sciences to boost the participation of women in earth sciences research. It also helped highlight the work of an unsung hero like Anna Mani who contributed greatly to meteorological instrumentation. The dozens of ‘private endowment’ lectures and fellowships to be discontinued, without any reason cited, also served a purpose: that of celebrating the memory and lives of people who have made significant contributions but are little known.

The Major General Sahib Singh Sokhey Award given for contributions made in communicable diseases research is, perhaps, the only award that bears the name of a forgotten medical hero of the twentieth century. Yet another Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) award commemorates the memory of Dr Subhash Mukherjee, the ‘test tube’ pioneer who never got his due for his work in reproductive science. The Prime Minister recently lamented that India does not celebrate the contributions of scientists. Abolishing existing awards given in their memory is certainly no way to celebrate science. Some innocuous ones have also been abolished, like the ICMR award given to encourage the research work of medical and dental students.

The brusque manner in which the MHA has directed an appraisal of science awards is shocking. It marks a brutal attack on the autonomy and decision-making structures of India's topmost scientific agencies. The very reason scientific departments are headed by scientist-secretaries, and not IAS officers, is that they should not be cowed down by the general bureaucracy. Also, scientific agencies like the CSIR and ICMR are supposed to be autonomous bodies with internal governance structures. And for coordination among scientific departments and agencies, there is the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA).

But the way the MHA has conducted itself on this issue makes even the PSA appear subservient to the Home Ministry. At the end of the meeting, the MHA Secretary simply gave 10 days to all scientific departments to submit an ‘action-taken report’.

In addition to the erosion of the autonomy of scientific agencies, the decision smacks of the urge to centralise the decision-making related to all scientific departments. The Secretary has suggested that one ‘Nobel Prize-like award’ could be instituted for scientists, and it may be open to all scientific disciplines. He even suggested a name for it — Vigyan Ratna. (He is, perhaps, unaware that an award with the same name is given by the Uttar Pradesh Government).

Besides being motivators for individual scientists to excel, awards help the growth of science in many ways. Award winners become role models for students and aspiring scientists. For instance, Nobel laureates become ambassadors of science. Awards and prizes recognise new research topics and may bring attention to neglected fields of research.

Science awards and prizes have a societal impact that extends beyond the scientific community. They should be kept above politics. 


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