High value awards turn spotlight back on science

What do big monetary awards do to science and scientists? Richa Malhotra finds out from some scientists who made headlines recently when their science was recognised with not just citations and plaques but some high-value cash awards and ample media attention.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.176 Published online 30 November 2012

Science, like most other forms of human endeavour, seeks encouragement once a while. Awards bring recognition, merit, and not to mention, a celebrity status for scientists and their science. Though awards are not what most scientists work and aim for, years of work does pay off — sometimes, quite literally — when a scientist is honoured.

In 2009, Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, was conferred the Infosys Prize, which has a cash award of close to 50 lakh rupees. Sen made headlines earlier this year too for receiving the inaugural USD 3 million (close to 163 million rupees) Fundamental Physics Prize prompting the media to label him "India's million dollar scientist". Sen says the value of research comes from recognition by other scientists and that is independent of any award.

"However, prizes like the Infosys Prize or the Fundamental Physics Prize reflect recognition by the society that science is important," Sen told Nature India. "This may motivate young people to come into science. Often people, who are otherwise interested in science, get discouraged due to pressure from the society. Recognition of scientists' work by the society in general could change that," he says.

Satyajit Mayor

© Manoj Sudhakaran

Satyajit Mayor, winner of the Infosys Prize 2012 for life sciences, is a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. He has been working at the institute after returning to India 16 years ago to set up his laboratory. The basic understanding of cellular processes that his work has laid down might apply to understanding certain diseases, Mayor says.

According to him the Infosys Prize focuses attention on scientists, and brings recognition to an area of basic research. "This is much needed in today's world, where the young talented mind is immediately grabbed in by the ever growing demands of industry, as professionals." To Mayor, the monetary benefit is simply a reminder that there is more to do.

Ayyappanpillai Ajayaghosh, winner of the Infosys Prize 2012 for physical sciences, is currently at the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram, where he works on organic functional materials. He sees the use of these materials in sensing other molecules and for imaging of biological systems, and in the future as a diagnostic tool for the early detection of certain diseases.

Ayappanpalli Ajayaghosh

Ajayaghosh believes that scientists need appreciation of what they do and such awards will help science as well as scientists. "Science as a profession needs to be respected by the public for attracting bright people."

Canada-born mathematician of Indian descent Manjul Bhargava, who has worked at IIT-Bombay and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, was also an Infosys Prize awardee this year in the mathematical sciences category. Bhargava thinks that such awards help develop an atmosphere in which a scientist can feel proud of what he/she has done, where he can be motivated to do more, and where more young people can learn about these subjects and be attracted to scientific research.

According to Bhargava, "Such recognition motivates not only the recipients to continue their work but help science and the next generation of scientists."

Manjul Bhargava

© Denise Applewhite, Princeton Univ.

But if there's so much incentive for science and scientists, what drives students in India away from science? Bhargava, who is presently at the Princeton University, points to cultural problems. "In India, there is often the attitude that if a child is good at mathematics, then he should be pushed into engineering because that's where the money is. Too many talented young Indians do not get to pursue their true passion due to such myths, and in the long run that is a mistake."

"The salary structure of scientists today is comparable with any other highly paid job in this country. In addition to the normal salary, an accomplished scientist can earn an additional 20–30% of the salary through incentives," Ajayaghosh agrees.

Mayor says it's just a perception that science is a grind and not well paid. A researcher enters a career in science to do research and not for monetary benefits. He says if the desire is to make huge amounts of money, research is the wrong choice of career. "But if the desire is to make new discoveries, this is a reward that no amount of money can buy."

Ajayaghosh says private endeavours to recognise science, such as the Infosys Prize, will help promote research in India, where funding is not much of a problem. "It's really great that the private sector is coming up to support science in this way and to increase the public face of science".

But at the same time, it is also important for the government to have a long-term vision for development of basic science research, Bhargava says. Otherwise, a private fund such as the Infosys Science Foundation needs to "take the necessary trouble to institute a prize that will have global recognition", Mayor adds.

Richa Malhotra is a freelance science writer based in London.