by Kamal Pratap Singh
In a recent meeting held September 16, 2022 government of India has decided restricting the number of Science awards and awardees and scrapping of cash reward which was given earlier. Home secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla louded it as the Prime Minister’s vision of transforming India’s award ecosystem. Secretaries and officers of various departments under the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Earth Sciences and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare attended the meeting.
A total of 56 awards will be given in four categories covering 13 domains of science namely physics, chemistry, biological sciences, mathematics, computer science, earth science, medicine, engineering, agricultural science, environmental science, technology & innovation, atomic energy and space science.
The new set of awards i.e. Rashtriya Vigyan Puraskar will have four categories. Vigyan Ratna will recognise the lifetime achievement of scientists, Vigyan Shri will recognise distinguished contributions to a field, Vigyan Yuva Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar will encourage young scientists who have made exceptional contributions in their field, and Vigyan Team will recognise teams of three or more. The awards will commence in 2024. There will only be three Vigyan Ratnas awarded yearly: 25 Vigyan Shri, 25 Vigyan Yuva, and 3 Vigyan Team. Only Vigyan Yuva will have an age limit of 45 years.
A committee under the chairmanship of the principal scientific adviser will select the awardees. The awards processes will be carried out by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for the first two years and will be taken over by the newly instituted National Research Foundation.
Deccan Herald on 29 September 2023 published an article on their website under heading “Downgrading science, government style” in which they wrote, All important science awards in the world carry a financial component. It is an honour and an incentive, and the government is wrong to deny it to scientists.
The Centre has decided to do away with over 250 awards given to scientists and medical researchers and decided to do away with the cash component of the award for prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award which has been the country’s best-known and highly regarded awards for excellence in various fields of science since 1958.
Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award recipients currently receive a cash award of Rs 5 lakh and a special honorarium of Rs 15,000 a month for 20 years. This tenure may be reduced to 15 years, according to the minutes.
Upon asking why there will be no cash prize, the Director General Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) N. Kalaiselvi said, “Why do scientists need cash prize? There will be a medal and a citation,” Kalaiselvi said to ThePrint during a press interaction.
According to various sources, the reason for doing away with cash component is people do science for love and passion and not for money. But this logic seems fallacious because Scientists need robust support from the govt. Top science awards across the world like Nobel Prize use money as one way to honour the contribution of scientists, this information is itself available on Indian government news platform i.e. DD News.
Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, professor at IIT Kanpur, was surprised that the home ministry had an advisory role in deciding science recognitions.
So far we understand that the decision has been made and scientists need to suffer but how, let see now.
Firstly we know that India has very less spending on science and research as compared to other nations and this concern is not new. In 2018, Subash Lakhotia, a professor of zoology at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and editorial head of the journal Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy wrote “the current situation is greatly alarming since it is slowing down the momentum of resurgence in research output from various academic institutions.” Similar concerns were raised by Lingadahalli Subrahmanya Shashidhara, INSA Fellow and chair of Biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.
Though India’s Parliament approved a new research funding agency aimed at boosting the nation’s scientific standing. But some analysts are skeptical that the Anusandhan National Research Foundation—which aims to inject some $6 billion into basic and applied research over 5 years—will have a major impact. Critics fear that will open the door to political interference. And some wonder whether the foundation can realize its funding plan, which calls for industry to contribute some 70% of its budget.
Crunch of funds and low salary have always remain challenges for Indian scientists and reason for brain drain which refers to the emigration of skilled researchers. It is well known now worldwide that the Indian education system produces high quality students in science and technology disciplines. However, there is a major trend for the students to migrate abroad for higher studies, often never to return, resulting in a loss of skills for the Indian scientific community.
It is also a fact that in India investment in research is very little, and development of equipment in the country remains a hurdle. We have many examples like Prof S C Lakhotia who built biotech in India from scratch, made their own instruments, reagents and other facilities to advance research when they had no money to do so. Now scrapping meagre amount of award money can deprive such scientists doing good work because with this prize money they can buy equipment, reagents, chemicals, consumables, computers or fund travel to scientific conferences when they do not get project funds because of nepotism.
Now coming to India’s ambitious startup projects, it has been seen that a funding squeeze at Indian startups has already led to layoffs. Startups in India raised just $2 billion in the first quarter of 2023, 75% lower than the same period of last year, and the smallest quarterly number in nearly three years, figures from data firm CB Insights showed. At this run rate, startups may end up raising less than $10 billion this year, a far cry from the record $30 billion garnered in 2021 and $20 billion in 2022.
The slowdown is a setback for startups as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has lauded their success by calling such companies the “backbone of new India”.
Minister of State for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh on July 8, 2023 said that the number of biotech startups in the country has soared from 50 in 2014 to 6000.
So, we can see that India’s current secretaries of science departments have scrapped an important part of scientists’ motivation and earning without considering the facts that it can lead to disinterest in science research and might lead to more brain drain.
If we see, total 12 SSB awards were given in 2022 which amount to only 60 lakh Rs. prize money and this is much lesser than a single international visit of Prime minister or any single political rally arrangements.