India’s Nobel: the Infosys Prize

I had missed the announcement of Infosys Prize in media. It was a chance surfing that revealed the news in Indian Express. Rs 50 lakh is pretty good an amount as prize money. Any higher amount as near to Nobel would have been certainly better. But I think the more important will be the perception of the Prize among the scientific community that will matter.

The Infosys Prize covers five disciplines- physical sciences, mathematical sciences, engineering sciences, life sciences, and social sciences and economics. The jury chairs this year consisted Prof. Amartya Sen. for Social Sciences and Economics, Prof. Shrinivas Kulkarni for Physical Sciences, Prof. Srinivas Varadhan for Mathematical Sciences, Prof. Subra Suresh for Engineering Sciences and Prof. Inder Verma for Life Sciences.

And the Infosys Prize 2009 went to Thanu Padmanabhan of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune for physical sciences, Ashoke Sen of Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad for mathematical sciences, and K. VijayRaghavan of National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bangalore for life sciences. Under social sciences and economics the recipients were Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the economic theory of development, and for his pioneering work in the empirical evaluation of public policy; and Upinder Singh of the University of Delhi, in recognition for her contributions as an outstanding historian of ancient and early medieval India. Surprisingly for a country so proud of its IITs and other technical institutes, the jury didn’t find a suitable candidate for engineering sciences in accordance with the statutes of the Infosys Prize.

Few stray thoughts made me a little nervous about the perception aspect of the Prize. I remember a story that appeared in media shortly after Late Lal Bahadur Shastri had become the Prime Minister of India after the death of Pandit Nehru. One of his sons was working in Ashok Leyland. He wrote a letter to his mother, Lalita Shastri. “My company has given me a special increment.” She passed on the news to Shastriji on dinner table. Early morning next day, Shastriji dictated a letter for his son. “Has the increment come because of your outstanding contribution or as because your father has become now the Prime Minister of the country? If the answer is the later one, please refuge to accept it politely.”

I liked history as subject in my school days. The story and the personality of the great history teacher of Presidency College that used to hear every day from my roommate Samir made me madly interested in the subject. I had also read two of Upinder Singh’s books about the ancient India, beside many by Indian historians such as Romilla Thapar, DD Kaushambi, RS Sharma, Radha Kumud Mukherji and Irfan Habib. To be frank, I don’t know if the Infosys Prize has gone to Upinder Singh as she is the best in her subject or because she is the daughter of the present Prime Minister.I felt bad to see her referred again and again as the daughter of the Prime Minister on her web page. I wish some historian friends confirm that Upinder is the best choice and her selection was not a favour of a Nobel laureate friend or a gift of a sort from a successful business man.

My second worry is regarding for the media not covering this news and the achievements of these scientists extensively. Why should it not be done in the same way as ET Award the other day? Why don’t the media cover the work being done in the scientific and technical arenas of the country and waste all its resources on the politicians and bureaucrats? Is it not its task to let the people of India know who are the scientists that Indians can take pride in. One listing in Telegraph of Kolkata was certainly pretty interesting. It listed the name of a set of scientists who were toasted in Indian academia in the decade gone by or should be watched in the decade ahead. The Telegraph list includes Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thanu Padmanabhan, Sankar Chatterjee, Mrigank Sur, Raghavendra Gadagkar, Shubha Tole, Pulickel M. Ajayan, and Anindita Bhadra.

It is unfortunate that India is so far behind in engineering sciences and this requires a serious review and some actions too. Can it be because Narayana Murthy is himself an engineer? Shouldn’t he take his counterparts in the tech firms of the country in confidence and try a way out to improve upon the R&D in engineering sciences that takes India to a height comparable to the global best? Narayana Murthy can only do it in the best way.

Let Infosys Prize be the inspiration for the younger generation to join pure science streams.

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