Science in India is plagued by inequality and needs democratic reforms
Photo: Viktor Talashuk/Unsplash
- For the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award, the selection process and composition of winners suggests that the awards suffer from group bias.
- This award and other annual awards are mainly given to so-called “upper caste” male applicants from what are considered to be the best institutes in the country.
- The legacy of this award is emblematic of the inequalities in science in India – an injustice that most of the country’s science groups and societies have yet to address.
A few centuries ago, in the post-renaissance period in Europe, people driven by a passion for the search for truth, regardless of prestige, financial rewards or other forms of recognition, were attracted to the methods and science practices.
Today, the scientific enterprise is no longer a hobbyist concern but a lifelong competitive career option with a cohort of rewards and recognition, reflected in the number of PhDs, scientific journals and, perhaps most importantly, the rate and frequency with which articles are published in these journals.
The exponential growth in the number of scientists has profound implications for society and science. But alongside this proliferation of scientific research, we are also becoming increasingly aware of a growing inequality within science. Science has also created a problem of intellectual elitism. If the company is to continue to have a meaningful impact on people’s minds and lives, it must be open to everyone – for itself and for the lives of others.
India is a prime example of such inequalities. Consider the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize awarded each year: the selection process and composition of the winners suggests that the prizes suffer from group bias. This award and other annual awards are mainly given to so-called “upper caste” male applicants from what are considered to be the best institutes in the country.
Typically, awardees are empowered by a strong network of influential peers and mentors at these top institutes, and are also the recipients of the liberal munificence of funding agencies. And because the award selection system is nomination-based, those with the most power in scientific institutions can nominate their own associates, often to the detriment of the vast majority of talented but “orphaned” researchers who work already against all odds, and those of less well-endowed universities and institutes.
The size of the gap between the haves and have-nots in science is, among others, increasing in India, as much as it also exists between scientists in economically developing and developed countries. In India, this rot spreads in the case of academic awards and scholarships to the extent that in appointments to professorships, vice-chancellors and directors – most often based on the whims of the ruling political parties in the States or Union government.
In science, the burden of proving one’s courage begins with the ability to publish in prestigious journals, since publications and citations are the building blocks of status In science. Here, too, there are obstacles for ordinary scientists who lack the support of a powerful peer group and thus find their frustrating goals out of reach. This group also suffers a double whammy: its members rarely have as much money for their research as they should have hadand in addition to this financial inadequacy, they are also often in a position where they are expected to pay to publish their findings.
The exorbitant “article publication fees” charged by several scientific journals end up depriving these researchers of the fruits of their labor. Imposing publication fees will naturally drive less well-funded researchers to less reputable journals, turning them into children of a lesser god.
After analyzing a global sample of 4 million authors and 26 million scientific papers, a team of social scientists reported in February 2021 that only 1% of top scientists were able to increase their cumulative citation count by 14% 21% between 2000 and 2015. Citation count is the number of times an article has been cited in other articles and is considered a signal of the usefulness of its work. The fact that increases in citation counts are concentrated among the top 1% of scientists only reflects the inequalities among scientists.
The same study also found that citations as a metric are inherently biased against science workers in certain disciplines, women, people of color, and low-resource countries. An analysis published in December 2018, based on data from around 3,000 scientific awards and the career profiles of more than 10,000 winners, found that the awards were reserved for a “relatively small group of scientific elites” and that “the links between the elites are very grouped”. It also implies that knowledge production that pushes the boundaries of knowledge is confined to a small clique of scholars.
Obviously the production of knowledge in itself cannot be restricted. What is limited here is what scientists in general consider valid knowledge. And according to the study, the way they draw the lines excludes the vast majority of the world’s knowledge producers from their recognition and support.
Critics have characterized the widening gap between the rich and the poor in science using a metaphor that references a passage from the Bible: even what he has will be taken. This is called the Matthew effect. In today’s environment, this means that those who have reached the upper echelons of power and prestige in science continue to receive disproportionately more recognition than lesser-known scientists, even if the latter have made comparable or greater contributions. important.
Thus, elitism, by default, helps those who are already located on an exclusive island of excellence. Therefore, these individuals are free to perpetuate their early success by earning more awards, attracting more graduate students, and accumulating more financial resources in the later periods of their career. An article published in the journal Science in May 2014, called it “a winner-takes-all market.”
Such elitism works even in the case of the Nobel Prize winners, with their inherent bias against white male scientists; women and non-white people make up only about 1% of Nobel laureates, that too mostly in the literature, peace and economics categories. Many other science awards are fashioned after the Nobel Prize in their selection criteria – and thus perpetuate elitism and the myths that come with it.
One of them is the “solitary genius” – an idea that contradicts the modern conception of science, in which it is a collaborative enterprise involving teams of individuals with varied skills. Indeed, a community-based approach to science is becoming popular, in which non-professionals also participate in research and, thanks to social media, researchers, from aerobiologists to zymologists, can now use the interested public as partners. contributors.
However, by honoring a single person or a small number of people, these awards marginalize the contributions of multiple collaborators, including early career scientists who have more to gain from such recognition. In time, all of these prizes will inevitably prove onerous and daunting to an ordinary, potentially deserving scientist not supported by influential mentors.
Requiring nominations and references is a significant reason why the pool of candidates remains small. Unless a conscientious effort is made to change this and other similar standards, nominator and institutional biases will decide who gets what. This is even more important in India given its social, regional and ideological diversity and the systemic biases that persist in this direction. It is also necessary to check how the distributing bodies can constitute a jury of selectors that is more socially and intellectually representative.
One could argue that what we perceive as an inequality in science is actually a disparity that inspires scientists to produce bigger ideas and breakthroughs. Thus, as a profession, as in sport, what counts in science is merit rather than “externalities” such as gender, race, nationality, region or caste. If this is the case, we risk missing a crucial point: for a sport to be fair, there must be fair rules of the game, where everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding.
This same awareness has prompted some organizations to initiate reforms. The Institute of Physics now encourages self-nominations for the awards. The Royal Society of Chemistry has begun to emphasize science and not individual scientists, so graduate students and technicians are also in the fray. The American Geophysical Union convened a task force in 2017 to address the underrepresentation of women and minorities in its scholarships.
It is high time that the three Indian science academies and several scientific societies learn from similar initiatives and study the issue of inequality and elitism in science, and consider whether awards and scholarships are indeed more representatively distributed.
Transparency and accountability must be built into the reward system. As an antidote to the tendency for decisions made behind closed doors not to be in the interests of science, members of professional societies must be encouraged to challenge their own stereotypes and feudal ideas in their communities and make them more democratic. . As David Guston, professor of political science, currently at Arizona State University, wrote in 2004:
“To democratize science is not to settle questions on Nature by plebiscite, any more than to democratize politics is to fix the preferential rate by referendum. What democratization means, in science as elsewhere, is the creation of institutions and practices that fully integrate the principles of accessibility, transparency and accountability”.
CP Rajendran is an assistant professor at the National Institute for Advanced Study, Bangalore. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.