Recently, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research announced the winners of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) awards for 2022. The announcement was highly anticipated not only due to the nearly year-long delay in declaring the results but also because it came amid the government’s plans for a major revamp of the structure of science and medicine awards.
2. Rashtriya Vignan Puraskar (RVP)
The new initiative, named the ‘Rashtriya Vigyan Puraskar’ (RVP), features a range of accolades: Vigyan Shri, Vigyan Yuva-Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, Vigyan Team, and Vigyan Ratna.
The government aims to elevate the RVP to the same level as the Padma and other national awards.
These fresh accolades will be accessible to a broader spectrum of “scientists, technologists, and innovators (or teams)” operating within government, private entities, or independently.
The RVP will encompass 13 scientific domains, spanning basic and applied sciences, medicine, and engineering. The announcement ensures inclusivity across domains and strives for gender parity.
Like the Padma awards, nominations for the RVP awards will be open for a specified period and assessed by an RVP Committee consisting of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, Secretaries of Science Departments, members of Science and Engineering Academies, and distinguished science/technology experts.
3.How different is RVP from the previous ones?
The proposed restructuring of the RVP holds significant importance for various reasons. It marks a positive departure from the tradition of primarily recognizing scientists within conventional academic roles, now extending acknowledgment to innovators, technologists, including those in industry, and individuals with diverse and unconventional affiliations.
These new awards boast broader eligibility criteria, encompassing not just discovery-based research but also technology-driven innovations or products. Moreover, the RVP introduces team awards (Vigyan Team) to honor the collaborative, interdisciplinary, translational, and multifaceted nature of scientific exploration.
One notable aspect is the absence of age restrictions for most RVP awards, except for the Vigyan Yuva-SSB award, specifically meant for scientists up to 45 years old. It explicitly pledges to ensure fair representation of genders, a noteworthy stride in addressing ageism and gender biases prevalent in Indian science discussions.
The RVP awards extend their reach beyond India, welcoming Persons of Indian Origin abroad, and recognizing the substantial contributions of the Indian scientific, engineering, and technological diaspora in the global scientific landscape.
Finally, a significant change in the new award system involves the removal of cash prizes, replacing them with certificates and medals as recognitions.
4. Procedure to select Awardees
As India undergoes a transformation in its approach to acknowledging commendable scientific work, it's an apt moment to evaluate the intentions, execution, and the processes of selection and assessment. This evaluation is crucial to ensure that the new system reflects both the aspirations of scientists and the contemporary practices in Indian science, while also addressing the challenges faced by the previous awards.
Firstly, to uphold the notion that the RVP system acknowledges exclusively "remarkable and influential contributions," the award descriptions should specify that the contributions surpass the standard duties of a scientist/technologist. They should not merely be incremental tasks or integral to their job description.
Secondly, as these awards serve as national recognition for exceptional work, it's noticeable that they lack specific recognition for teaching, mentoring, science communication, public engagement, outreach, leadership, and administration—roles previously acknowledged by science academies. Scientists involved in these initiatives often manage these alongside their primary responsibilities. Hence, these contributions need inclusion in the new award structure—ideally as distinct categories or at least considered during the selection process.
Thirdly, the age limit of 45 years for the Vigyan Yuva-SSB award poses a challenge to the new system's commitment to ensuring gender equality. The previous version, with the same age limit, was criticized for inadequate gender representation, particularly impacting women due to relocation, childcare responsibilities, and career breaks. Therefore, redefining the criteria for a 'young scientist' based on years since a candidate held an independent position or offering eligibility extensions based on personal circumstances, similar to the EMBO Gold Medal, is crucial to prevent creating systemic barriers to gender parity.
Fourthly, during the implementation of the RVP award process, adherence to predetermined timelines, publication of a public list of shortlisted candidates, inclusion of gender-balanced and diverse selection committees, international jury members, and potentially a non-partisan jury member—preferably a non-scientist—is essential to ensure fair selection.
Fifthly, the new award system should actively strive, beyond gender parity, to ensure proper socioeconomic and demographic representation among recipients. It should recognize contributions made despite significant systemic social challenges or workplace considerations.
Lastly, while some debate the necessity of awards for scientists, India lacks adequate data to make an informed decision. Continuously assessing the impact of the new award system on subsequent scientific work, the evolution of disciplines, the influence of role models on diversity and inclusivity in Indian science, and the scientific temperament nationwide will be beneficial
5. Way forward
With these aspects in place, this is an opportunity for the RVP awards to become a blueprint for an expansive, inclusive, and transparent award system that can be adopted by scientific ecosystems in other countries as well