March 27, 2023
Indian scientists shocked as government scraps nearly 300 awards

Indian scientists shocked as government scraps nearly 300 awards

Researchers say scrapping the awards will discourage the scientific community.Credit: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty

Indian scientists were stunned to learn that the government plans to scrap nearly 300 science awards. While many researchers acknowledge problems with the way prize winners are chosen, they say the decision to stop them without explanation is discouraging and won’t fix the problems.

The government has yet to announce the decision, but minutes from a meeting chaired by home minister Ajay Bhalla and attended by senior officials from the science and health ministries last month reveal details. For example, the country’s main science and technology funding agency, the Department of Science and Technology, will retain only four of its 207 awards. the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research will abolish or merge six of its seven awards. and the Department of Earth Sciences will cancel three of its four awards, according to the minutes. The departments of atomic energy, space and health will withdraw all their awards, 45 in total, and introduce new awards for research in atomic energy and space. The prizes to be killed are not named, but can be inferred in some cases.

The government is also planning to introduce a new award, the Vigyan Ratna Award, which will be the Indian version of a Nobel Prize, the details of which are yet to be released.

Researchers say that kill prizes, many of which come with small cash prizes or grants, are important for the motivation and recognition they provide. Scientists worry about the message the decision to ax them will send to young scientists. “Removing these will discourage the scientific community and weaken the pursuit of science in India,” says Soumitro Banerjee, a physicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, and secretary general of the Breakthrough Science Society.

Without explanation

Scientists say they are in the dark about the movement. “Since the rationale for reducing the number of existing awards so drastically is not publicly known, it is not clear what problem he had to face,” says biophysicist Gautam Menon at Ashoka University near Delhi.

“We need to understand the rationale behind the abolition of the awards, as well as the proposed vision of how the grant and award system will be reformed,” says Vishwesha Guttal, a mathematical ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

A former senior science secretary said the government decided to overhaul the science awards more than four years ago. But there appears to have been little, if any, follow-up to the original discussion, which explains scientists’ surprise at the move. Nature contacted several heads of scientific departments about the rationale for abolishing the awards, but none had responded in time for publication.

Adding to scientists’ worries was the absence of any announcement for the country’s highest scientific honour, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award — which is awarded by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and is usually awarded on September 26 by the prime minister.

Biased choices

Many scientists acknowledge that there are flaws — such as a lack of exclusivity and transparency — in the process of selecting some science prize winners. For example, of the 97 recipients of the Bhatnagar Award in the last 10 years, only 5 were women. Those selected are often male candidates from the “so-called best institutes in the country,” says CP Rajendran, a geologist at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.

Tapasya Srivastava, a geneticist at the University of Delhi South Campus, says that in some cases scientists in senior positions or on prize selection committees choose researchers because of their institutional ties rather than merit.

Rajendran says the system needs to be reviewed, but that it should have been undertaken by “a competent body of independent observers” after careful discussions with all stakeholders, including researchers. The way forward is to make the process fairer and more transparent, eliminating conflicts of interest on the part of selectors and encouraging self-nominations and team awards, he says.

“This is an opportunity to bring tangible changes to the award system,” adds Srivastava.

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