The Infosys Prize turns 15 this year and shows that science in India is developing in many interesting directions and reaching a certain level of ‘cool’
“I don’t like the term science communication. It is a term that creates a kind of one-way street in information sharing,” says Dr Jahnavi Phalkey, founder and director of Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) and a science historian. “I prefer the term ‘public engagement with science’ because that is what we are trying to do with SGB, through models, lectures, labs, exhibitions and exploring the spaces at the intersection of science and art /culture.”
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Phalkey is one of six recipients of the recently announced Infosys Prize 2023, awarded by the Infosys Science Foundation to leading researchers in the sciences. It is a prestigious, unique prize that recognizes achievements in the natural sciences and humanities. The prize is awarded each year in six categories: engineering and computer sciences, humanities, life sciences, mathematical sciences, natural sciences and social sciences. a gold medal, a citation and a prize money of US$100,000 (or its equivalent in INR).
Besides Phalkey, the list of recipients also includes another Bengaluru-based scientist, Dr. Mukund Thattai, Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Bioinformatics, National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), recognizing his contribution in the field of evolutionary cell biology and understands what the Infosys Prize jury has called ‘the physics of life’. There seems to be a clear tendency this year to reward people who not only do great science, but also communicate it well. Dr. Thattai is a well-known science writer and lecturer who regularly engages with the public to create better dialogue around science. For example, in 2018, Dr. Thattai was involved in a rather unique initiative started by NCBS to foster deeper interests in science – called Science and the City. The project encouraged apartment complexes to host lectures on popular science topics on their premises, at no cost – and gained significant popularity in Bengaluru before the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to this.
More recently, Prof. Thattai speaking to folks at the Center for Cellular And Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) in Bengaluru at one of the monthly seminars called ‘Sugar Rush With Science’ – by definition a casual, chatty interaction between a scientist and entrepreneur working on related working areas.
“It is an interaction between academic science and innovation science,” explains Dr. Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director of C-CAMP. “Programs like these are a response to a much more developed understanding and engagement with science among the general public, and people like Dr Thattai are at the forefront of this,” says Dr Saiyed, clarifying that the Infosys Prize promised. awarded to Dr. Thattai, not for his efforts in science, but for his groundbreaking academic research into how complex cellular organization emerged from microscopic disorder from an evolutionary perspective.
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Yet it is interesting to note that institutions in India such as the Infosys Science Foundation seem to recognize the importance of individuals and organizations that encourage a scientific temperament, as well as curiosity and wonder among young people. “The Infosys Prize has always strived to be the first to recognize world-class scientists, which is why the award is specifically targeted at mid-career researchers. There are two goals behind this: we want to discover scientists doing interesting, cutting-edge work, and we hope to provide them with a degree of financial stability that will allow them to continue their world-class work,” says Kris. Gopalakrishnan, chairman of the Infosys Science Foundation, told Lounge during a phone call.
This is objectively true: the Infosys Prize laureates have won international awards including the Nobel Prize (Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), the Fields Medal (Manjul Bhargava and Akshay Venkatesh), the Dan David Prize (Sanjay Subrahmanyam), the MacArthur ‘genius’ Grant (Sunil Amrith), and the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (Ashoke Sen). Several laureates have been elected Fellows of the Royal Society, including Gagandeep Kang, who became the first Indian woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
“If there is anything that this year’s winners, selected by an independent jury from 244 nominations, indicate, it is that many new fields in science are emerging. It shows that there is some very interesting, multidisciplinary work happening in India, and that if scientists continue to work in these ‘white spaces’ (largely unexplored areas of science and its interfaces with society and culture), real scientific leadership will emerge . from India,” says Gopalakrishnan.