A Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize is known to be a significant boost not just to the scientific career of the winner, but also to the profile of their institution. But there’s another thing that the prize is known for: Its consistent failure to recognise women scientists.
Instituted in 1958 by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), about 12 scientists under the age of 45 years win this prize every year. The prizes cover seven domains of science — physical, chemical, biological, medical, engineering, mathematics and atmospheric.
When Asima Chatterjee won it in the Chemical Sciences category in 1961, she probably would not have imagined that it would be a 14-year-long wait for the next woman laureate, and a 48-year-long wait for a woman to win it in her category. Chatterjee passed away three years before Charusita Chakravarty won the Chemical Sciences prize in 2009.
This week, the latest set of winners was announced and for the second time in a row, CSIR could not find a single woman scientist who had made a sufficiently “outstanding contribution to science and technology”. The 23 winners across disciplines in 2021 and 2022 are all men. This means that only 19 out of the almost 600 awarded Bhatnagar prizes have gone to women scientists.
Women make up around 14 per cent of India’s working scientists. While this figure is concerning, it renders the argument “there aren’t enough women” moot.
In 2018, Aditi Sen De, a quantum information and computation scientist, became the first woman to win a Bhatnagar Prize in the Physical Sciences category. When we interviewed her for our book Lab Hopping, she told us that along with pride, she also felt “embarrassment”, knowing that she had won, while so many of her worthy predecessors and contemporaries remained unrecognised.
The Nobel Prizes have a similarly pathetic gender ratio. Only 24 of the 343 science prizes have gone to women. However, for all its faults, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prizes, has indicated that they are conscious of the gap. Encouragingly, 31 of the 61 prizes for women (across all categories) came since the year 2000. There are no comparably encouraging signs from the Bhatnagar awards.
The answer to why so few women win awards usually lies in the selection process, and in this case, it is completely opaque. A scientist stands a chance at a Bhatnagar only if they are nominated by those at the very top, including vice-chancellors, directors, presidents of academies, deans, members of the governing body of CSIR, as well as former winners. All of these are predominantly men — men who are failing to nominate their women colleagues. The composition of the Advisory Committee, tasked with picking the winners, has always been wrapped in secrecy, making them immune to public accountability. This is in contrast to the Infosys Science Prize, which lists and even celebrates its jury chairs on its website.
The Nobel Prizes are hardly better when it comes to transparency. Their statutes prohibit the names of nominees from being revealed until 50 years after the awards are announced. However, once this embargo lifts, all information about who nominated whom and when is released into an archive that is publicly accessible. Thanks to this, we know that French biologist Gaston Ramon, who developed the diphtheria vaccine, did not win a prize despite being nominated at least 155 times. Closer to home, we now know that Meghnad Saha was nominated seven times (notably, never by C V Raman).
A recent news report claims to have insider information that a revamp of the Bhatnagar awards is underway and the updated version is expected to be more transparent. One can only hope that CSIR will finally open up to the possibility of making information about nominations and advisory committees public. Without this, there is no possibility for a study of nomination patterns and a subsequent data-led strategy to improve the gap.
As the largest R&D organisation in India employing over 4,000 scientists, CSIR cannot afford to be agnostic to the issue of women’s underrepresentation in science. Indeed, they have made some significant steps to address it. In 2022, electrochemical engineer N Kalaiselvi was appointed as its chief; she is the first woman to hold this role. The same year it also conducted a gender parity survey, which revealed that less than 20 per cent of its scientific staff were women and disclosed that the share of funding received by women was not commensurate with this.
In light of this, CSIR’s continuing track record when it comes to the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize is disheartening. More so is their failure to publish any public statement of intent to address the issue despite receiving criticism year after year.
The women-in-science discourse has spiked in recent years but almost never do we see anyone taking accountability for the issues affecting the careers of women scientists. Ageism, casteism, sexism and the hegemony of old boys’ clubs need to be questioned if we want to achieve any form of inclusivity in the Indian science community.
Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra are independent science journalists, co-founders of TheLifeofScience.com, and authors of Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science