I was travelling with my mobile phone’s slow GPRS link as my main connection to the outside world. So I seem to have completely missed the announcement of the Infosys Prizes for 2009.
I am familiar with the science names (and also the mathematics name — that prize is awarded separately this year but will be merged with the others from next year), and they are all obvious and deserving choices. (There are other deserving choices, who, I am sure, will be honoured in future years.) But I am particularly familiar with the winner of the Life Sciences prize, K VijayRaghavan of NCBS. And I liked the concluding line of his citation: “He appears fearless in the incorporation of new methods when needed to tackle new biological questions.” I know that for a fact since he was very eager to use my new computational methods when I first returned to India. At the time I was reasonably well known in sections of the physics community, but a total unknown in the biology community. We first met at a seminar on developmental and evolutionary biology where he was speaking and I was attending; we struck up a collaboration that, though certainly not the world’s most active and vigorous (the fault is mine), continues to this day. I am perennially astonished at how he finds time for everything. At the same time that he has been doing outstanding science, he has, as director, built up NCBS (admittedly already an excellent place when he inherited it) into easily one of the best and most competitive biology centres in the world. And, on top of all that, he’s a great guy personally.
The other scientist winners, Ashoke Sen and T Padmanabhan, are also outstanding and world-renowned figures, though I don’t know them personally. Read their citations on the Infosys site for more. The mathematics winner, Manindra Agrawal, has made contributions that shook up the field — a thing you can say for very few Indian scientists. I am not familiar with the work of the social science winners but, based on the evidence of the other selections, I am sure they are deserving winners too. As Abi points out, it is odd that they found nobody deserving in the engineering sciences this year; but that apart, it is a good start for these prizes.
Inder Verma points out in this article that “in India, seniority often trumps innovation or achievements.” This year’s winners are senior and deserving, but the list in that category will run out rather quickly, I suspect. Meanwhile, some younger scientists are carrying out truly innovative research today, and publishing in journals (like Cell) that had never seen contributions from India before. So it will be interesting to see the choices in future years, and I hope the prizes won’t fall into the trap that Verma bemoans, of rewarding seniority only.