The science of change

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Turning 15 this year, The Infosys Prize shows that science in India is evolving in many interesting directions and attaining a certain level of ‘cool’



“I don’t like the term ‘science communication’. It’s a term that evokes a kind of one-way street of sharing information,” says Dr Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) and a historian of science. “I prefer the term ‘public engagement with science’, because that’s what we are trying to do with SGB, through models, talks, labs, exhibitions and exploring the spaces at the intersection of science and art/culture.”

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Phalkey is among six recipients of the recently announced Infosys Prize 2023, conferred by the Infosys Science Foundation to leading researchers in the sciences. A prestigious, one-of-its-kind award that honours achievement in science and humanities, it is awarded in six categories each year — Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences — and includes a gold medal, a citation, and a prize purse of USD 100,000 (or its equivalent in INR). 

Along with Phalkey, the list of recipients includes another Bengaluru-based scientist, Dr Mukund Thattai, Professor, Biochemistry, Biophysics and Bioinformatics, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), recognizing his contribution to the field of evolutionary cell biology and understanding what the Infosys Prize jury has called ‘the physics of life’. There seems to be a distinct leaning this year towards awarding people who not only do great science, but who also communicate it well — Dr Thattai is a well-known science writer and educator who regularly engages with the public in creating better dialogue around science. In 2018, for instance, Dr Thattai was involved in a rather unique initiative started by NCBS to stoke deeper interests in science — called Science and the City, the project encouraged apartment complexes to host lectures on popular science topics on their own premises, at no cost — and gained considerable popularity in Bengaluru before the covid-19 pandemic put a halt to it. 

More recently, Prof Thattai was seen addressing folks at the Centre for Cellular And Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) in Bengaluru during one of its monthly seminars called ‘Sugar Rush With Science’ — by its very definition, a casual, chatty interaction between a scientist and an entrepreneur working in allied fields. 

“It is an interaction between academic science and innovation science,” explains Dr Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director of C-CAMP. “Programmes like these are a response to a much more evolved understanding of and engagement with science among the general public, and people like Dr Thattai are at the forefront of it,” says dr Saiyed, while making it clear that the Infosys Prize has been awarded to Dr Thattai not for his efforts towards science engagement but his pioneering academic research into how complex cellular organization emerged from microscopic disorder from an evolutionary perspective.

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Still, it is interesting to note that institutions in India like the Infosys Science Foundation seem to be recognizing the importance of individuals and organisations that encourage a scientific temperament, as well as curiosity and wonder among young people. “The Infosys Prize has always sought to be the first to recognise world-class scientists, which is why the prize is specifically aimed at mid-career researchers. There are two aims behind this: we want to discover scientists doing interesting, cutting-edge work, and we hope to be able to provide them with a certain amount of financial stability that will allow them to continue their world-class work,” Kris Gopalakrishnan, President – Infosys Science Foundation, told Lounge over a call. 

This is objectively true — Infosys Prize laureates have gone on to win international accolades, among them 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, among them Gagandeep Kang, who became the first Indian woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. 

“If there’s anything this year’s recipients, selected by an independent jury from 244 nominations, indicate, it’s that many new fields are emerging in science. It shows that very interesting, multi-disciplinary work is happening in India, and that if scientists continue to work in these ‘white spaces’ (largely unexplored areas of science and its intersections with society and culture), we will have true scientific leadership emerging from India,” says Gopalakrishnan. 

 

 

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