Quantum Leap

India needs to celebrate its scientists with glitz and glamour

Everything about the third Breakthrough Prize ceremony held last week was mega. We must take cue from the event.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   17-11-2015
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Celebrity hosts, glittering trophies, onstage performances, live telecast and gala dinner are usually associated with Oscar, Grammy and other such award functions that celebrate achievers in the world of entertainment. Achievers in other spheres of activity, too, have their fair share of award ceremonies but without the glitter and glamour seen at "red carpet" events. Award ceremonies for scientists are even more sombre and sanitised. But the givers of Breakthrough Prize — currently the richest prize in science — are trying to change this perception.

Everything about the third Breakthrough Prize ceremony held last week was mega. The event was held at NASA’s Hangar 1 in Mountain View, California, which is the home of the space agency’s Kepler Mission designed to find planets capable of supporting life. Host Seth MacFarlane was joined by actors Kate Beckinsale, Cameron Diaz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Hamm and Eddie Redmayne, who presented the prizes with technology icons including Laurene Jobs, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner.

The evening opened with a video message from Stephen Hawking and closed with a tribute to Carl Sagan, and included a video link-up to astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station, besides performances by Hollywood celebrities. The theme of the prize ceremony was “Life in the Universe” and all of it was televised live over Discovery, Science and BBC World News channels. The awardees included those working in fields as diverse as neutrino oscillation to evolutionary anthropology. The prize money for awards in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics totalled a whopping $22 million.

Many countries globally are facing the challenge of declining interest in STEM — science technology, engineering and mathematics — education.

In India too, we often talk about diminishing interest in fundamental research and the government has been trying to attract young people to research through many schemes and projects. One of the ways to generate interest in science is to talk more and more about it. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) realised this with its mission to the moon — Chandrayaan. With its public outreach, the agency successfully generated interest among students and the number of applications for vacancies in ISRO increased manifold.

In the same way, the Breakthrough Prizes aim to celebrate scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

In India, there are several science prizes such as the Bhatnagar award for young scientists, but we never celebrate the winners, and most of times we hardly hear about them. We fail to notice even India’s richest science prizes currently — Infosys Science Prizes given in six categories (including humanities and social sciences) that carry a purse of Rs 65 lakh each.

As a nation, we keep complaining about Indians not winning a Nobel and about lack of world class research. Why don’t we start celebrating whatever good work Indian scientists are doing so that young students get inspired to do science? Perhaps the Breakthrough Prize ceremony can be a right template to begin with. Purists may hate at the idea but it may be worth trying.

Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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