Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Oscars of Indian science

In the sciences, and at the international level, Nobel is the most prestigeous of all prizes and awards, because (a) it is a recognition from peers, (b) it is rare (just one award per year in each field), and (c) it comes with a big pot of money. India instituted last year its version of the Nobel -- the India Science Prize that comes with 2.5 million ruppes. This prize went to Prof. C.N.R. Rao in 2005.

Many awards retain a very high level of prestige even if they offer little or no money. To the winners of these awards, peer recognition and rarity count for much more than the money. In the Oscars, for example, money -- if there is any -- is completely irrelevant.

What are the equivalent of the Oscars in India in the fields of science and engineering? The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes, awarded by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to scientists under 45. These prizes do come with some money; but, at about a hundred thousand rupees, it is not much (but nice!).

The SSB Prize winners for 2004 and 2005 received their awards in a New Delhi function today. Many of you probably saw the huge CSIR ads in today's newspapers, with photographs of all the Prize winners. Congratulations to them all!

The list of those who received their SSB Prizes today includes two colleagues from IISc:   Prof. S. Umapathy (2004) and Prof. S. Ramakrishnan (2005) in the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry. The 2004 list also features a friend, Prof. Madan Rao from the Raman Research Institute, just a kilometer from IISc. Special contratulations to them!

Read this Current Science editorial (from 1998?) on awards for Indian scientists (particularly the young ones).

Next in the ladder of prestige would be the Fellowship of the science academies; but there are more per year in a given field (after all, there are three science academies!) than the Bhatnagars, and they are of a different character -- they are meant more as lifetime achievement awards.

There is one other set of awards that the media go gaga over: the 'Padma' awards. In spite of their rarity (every year, just a handful of scientists/engineers get it), they command a much lower level of prestige than the Fellowships or the Bhatnagar Prizes. This is because of two reasons: (a) politicians' involvement, and (b) some controversy or the other that erupts every year (usually in the fields of arts and sports).

Back to the Bhatnagar Prizes. In spite of the high prestige they carry with the scientists and engineers, it is a pity that the mainstream media missed covering the CSIR announcement of this year's awards a few weeks ago. Sigh! When I tried Google news this morning, I found only one site: Chennai Online. Now that the Prime Minister participated in the awards ceremony this morning, I am sure all the newspapers will carry it tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Nice piece, Abi. In fact, I came to know about the Bhatnagars this year via Chennai Online. (I knew by campus mail that a colleague in EE got it this year, so searched for it in Google to see the other awardees.)

  2. Anonymous said...

    Even the Bhatnagars have their share of politics. There is a professor in Physics (either Rahul Pandit or Sriram Sastry) who had his award rescinded after complaints from others that most of his work was done outside India.

  3. Anonymous said...

    now....what we are waiting for is for you to win it, soon :-)

    The Bhatnagars are less politicized, but there is some of that here as well...

  4. Abi said...

    Anand, anon and Sunil: thanks for your comments.

    Anon: First of all, I have to say that what you did (mentioning some unspecified allegations at specific persons in a forum where they are not able to respond) is rather unfair.

    Having said that, I think I can defend my broader point about the prestige of the Bhatnagars. Yes, they have had a few hicups, but they aren't due to 'politics' or 'politicians'.

    I do remember the event you mentioned, but in a completely different way. It was Sriram Shastry's award; as I recall, someone pointed out a technicality that would make him ineligible for the award, and he returned it. To my knowledge, the matter was resolved without any rancour. In any event, I will do some fact-checking, and come back if any further clarification is needed.

    Sunil, thanks for your kind words; if an award does come my way, it is certainly a nice thing. In the meantime, I am perfectly happy blogging about the awards my colleagues win. And, boy, do they win big awards! At one time, in our apartment complex (we live on campus) with just 25 apartments, we had some four or five Bhatnagar awardees!