Indian scientists shocked as government cancels nearly 300 awards

Indian scientists shocked as government cancels nearly 300 awards

Employees wearing white lab coats and face masks working in a research lab in India

Researchers say removing rewards will demoralize the scientific community.Credit: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty

Indian scientists were surprised to learn that the government planned to scrap nearly 300 science awards. Although many scholars recognize the problems with the selection of winners, they say the decision to discontinue them without explanation is demotivating and will not solve the problems.

The government has yet to announce the decision, but the minutes of a meeting chaired by Home Minister Ajay Bhalla and attended by senior officials from the science and health ministries last month latest reveals details. For example, the country’s main science and technology funding body, the Department of Science and Technology, will retain only four of its 207 awards; the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research will eliminate or merge six of its seven fellowships; and the Department of Earth Sciences will rescind three of its four awards, according to the minutes. The Departments of Atomic Energy, Space and Health will remove all of their awards, 45 in total, and introduce new awards for atomic energy and space research. The rewards that will be eliminated are not named, but may be deducted in some cases.

The government also plans to introduce a new prize, the Vigyan Ratna Prize, which will be India’s version of a Nobel Prize. Details are yet to be provided.

The researchers say elective awards, many of which come with small cash prizes or grants, are important for the motivation and recognition they provide. Scientists are concerned about the message that the decision to remove them will send to young scientists. “Removing them will demoralize 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 in Kolkata and secretary-general of the Breakthrough Science Society.

Without explanation

Scientists say they are in the dark about the decision. “Since the reason for such a drastic reduction in the number of existing fellowships is not publicly known, it is unclear what problem this was supposed to address,” says biophysicist Gautam Menon of Ashoka University near Delhi.

“We need to understand the rationale behind the removal of rewards, as well as the proposed vision for how the granting and awarding system will be reformed,” says Vishwesha Guttal, an ecological mathematician at the Indian Institute of Science. Bangalore to Bengaluru.

A former principal science secretary said the government decided to review its science awards more than four years ago. But there appears to have been little to no follow-up to the initial discussion, which explains the scientists’ surprise at the decision. Nature contacted several heads of scientific departments about the reason for the removal of the awards, but none had responded in time for publication.

The absence of any announcement regarding the country’s highest scientific honour, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, awarded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and usually awarded on September 26 by the Prime Minister, adds to scientists’ concerns.

Biased selections

Many scientists acknowledge that there are flaws – such as a lack of inclusiveness and transparency – in the process of selecting some science award winners. For example, of the 97 Bhatnagar award winners over the past 10 years, only 5 were women. Those selected are often male applicants from “so-called top institutes in the country”, says CP Rajendran, a geologist at the National Institute for Advanced Study in Bangalore.

Tapasya Srivastava, a geneticist at the University of Delhi’s South Campus, says that in some cases, scientists in leadership positions or serving on award selection committees choose researchers because of their institutional affiliations rather than on the basis of of merit.

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

“This is an opportunity to make tangible changes in the rewards system,” says Srivastava.

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