Talent and recognition: On reducing number of science awards

Awards in science are a source of encouragement, and should not be cut down 

September 29, 2022 12:10 am | Updated 12:56 pm IST

The Centre has decided that awards, prizes and fellowships by various ministries and departments need a wholesale relook. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is executing this directive, has moved much beyond its usual remit of awards for police officers and gallantry medals and irrupted into the world of scientific and medical research. India’s scientific ministries recently made presentations to the Union Home Secretary, Ajay Bhalla, on awards given to scientists at different stages of their career. They also had to list out which were ‘National Awards’ and which were funded out of private endowments. Though a final call is yet to be taken, the quorum — and this consisted of the Secretaries, or the heads of each of these ministries — was of the opinion that most awards ought to be done away with and ministries could either retain only some of the National Awards or institute one or two ‘high status’ awards. The rationale for pruning, Mr. Bhalla has said, follows from a “vision” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding “Transformation of the Awards Ecosystem”. In 2018, Mr. Modi had said that his government had modified the system of the Padma awards and ensured it recognised ordinary people doing selfless work rather than well-known personalities who repeatedly bag them. The awards, Mr. Bhalla has said, ought to be restricted, and have a transparent selection process.

Awards and prizes recognise achievement, but in science and medical research, they are also meant to spur younger scientists towards loftier, imaginative goals. Unlike in sport — or even gallantry awards — where it is relatively easier to define a set of benchmarks and confer medals on achievers, scientific research is open ended, circuitous and — as the history of science reveals — punctuated by lucky breaks. It is possible to train talented youth to be Olympians or international cricketers but impossible to create an Einstein or a Chandrasekhar. Almost every Nobel Laureate in the modern era has won various secondary prizes and recognition in their early career and every year; there is as much debate on who was omitted as on the person who won. Recognising early career potential will remain fraught with subjectivity and, with fewer awards on offer, could provoke increased discontent. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s vision, fewer awards may actually miss many more promising talents and amplify epaulettes to the already decorated. Awards cost ministries money but the meeting did not discuss whether cutting costs was a factor in the rationalisation. As it is unclear what existing problem the new scheme solves, the Centre should reconsider the merits of its proposal.

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