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Over 50 per cent of the 113 scientists who received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology between 2007 and 2017 have been from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), or one of the five oldest Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Of the 113, only seven have been women scientists.
The awards, first constituted in 1958, are the country’s most coveted recognition for scientists and are given annually by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). They are awarded to scientists below the age of 45 who have made “outstanding contributions to human knowledge and progress — fundamental and applied” in the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, medicine, physics and environmental science. This year, 10 young scientists, including two working in the field of cancer, were selected for the awards.
An analysis by The Indian Express of the awards shows that 58 of the 113 winners over the last decade have been from the IISc (25 winners), TIFR (16) and the five IITs (17) — a testament to the fact that these institutions remain the leaders when it comes to nurturing research and attracting talent. There has been at least one winner each year from IISc in the last decade, with as many as four in 2009 alone.
This year, there were two winners from IISc – Aloke Paul and Neelesh B Mehta. Paul’s work on materials engineering and Mehta’s on next-generation wireless communication systems were awarded in the engineering sciences category. The remaining 55 scientists represented 32 institutions some of them CSIR institutes, central universities or private research facilities.
Among the IITs, scientists from IIT-Kanpur were awarded seven times over the last decade, followed by IIT-Madras (4), IIT-Delhi (3), IIT-Kharagpur (2) and IIT-Bombay (1). None of the other 18 IITs have ever made it to the list. While scientists from TIFR-Mumbai bagged 11 awards over the last decade, those from TIFR-Pune and TIFR-Bengaluru won five awards.
CSIR, however, categorically states that only “science” is discussed when the advisory committee meets to discuss nominations. “The advisory committees for each year’s award are constituted with the approval of the Chairman of the governing body of CSIR. The committees consist of at least six experts, including at least one former Bhatnagar awardee in the respective discipline,” states the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award website.
CSIR’s principal scientist Dr Inderpal Singh, who has been associated with the awards since 1999, said, “Once we scrutinise each nomination, it is often peer-reviewed and then we seek comments from national and international referees. The nominations are then circulated to members of the advisory committee. There is a healthy discussion during meetings. There is no discussion on which institution the scientist works at or who is his or her mentor. Only science is discussed.”
Bharat Ratna recipient Professor C N R Rao, who received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award in 1969, and subsequently served on the committee that vetted nominations said, “The selection of awardees over the years reveals that we have not searched for talent all over India. I think the committee should be more careful and objective while choosing scientists.”
Only 16 women have won the award since its inception in 1958 and seven of those in the last decade. The first award given to a woman scientist was in 1961, after which, over a span of 46 years, only nine women received the award. Three women won in 2010: Subha Tole from TIFR-Mumbai in the biological sciences category, Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata in the engineering science category and Mitali Mukerji from the Delhi-based CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in the medical science category.
President Ram Nath Kovind, who spoke at CSIR’s platinum jubilee celebrations on Tuesday, where the 2017 awardees were announced, also pointed to the “distressingly small” participation of women in science. “Less than two of every 10 scientific researchers in Indian are women. Of those who join the Indian Institutes of Technology each year, just about 10 per cent are women,” he said. Kovind had appealed to the scientific community to take “accelerated steps” to promote participation of girl students and women in science and technology. “These numbers are simply not acceptable” he said.