View from India: Science and research celebrated with The Infosys Prize 2020

The Infosys Science Foundation (ISF) has awarded the winners of the Infosys Prize 2020 for their outstanding contributions to science and research in a virtual awards ceremony on 2 December.

The pandemic has altered physical working conditions, yet technology has aided professionals to work from home. As well as this, the pandemic has urged us to stretch the frontiers of science and research to scale up safety measures and make India a safe and healthy nation. “The last one year has shown the exponential importance of the role played by science and technology to solve problems. It is obvious from the fact that a vaccine is being rolled out in less than a year before the pandemic began to spread across the country,” said Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the board, co-founder, Infosys Limited. 

The immediate concern is to produce a vaccine and make it accessible to everyone. It’s a mammoth and daunting task. Considering Covid has proliferated into the length and breadth of the country, it’s understandable that people turn to life sciences and molecular biology for solutions. “There’s a race for vaccine production. The more we have vaccines coming from different streams of science, the more it will benefit people from different strata of society. These vaccines will undergo field trials to elicit people’s feedback, which is important to evaluate the situation,” said Dr Rajan Sankaranarayanan, who won the Infosys Prize 2020 for Life Sciences. 

Dr Sankaranarayanan, from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, is credited for understanding one of the most basic mechanisms in biology, which is the error-free translation of the genetic code to make protein molecules. His insight has potential applications in the design of drugs such as antibiotics and immune suppressants. 

“Coming to the Covid vaccine, technology needs to be leveraged to reach out and communicate to the people about the vaccine,” pointed out Dr Prachi Deshpande. Dr Deshpande, from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) Kolkata, won the award in the Humanities category. She is singled out for her nuanced and sophisticated treatment of South Asian historiography. She has authored 'Creative Pasts', which provides an insight into the evolution of modern history writing in Maharashtra from the Maratha period onwards, and offers a perspective on the history of Western India.  

The pandemic has impacted research. “Today work operations happen online. Conferences are conduced virtually, so everything is recorded for posterity. To that extent it is a good result of the pandemic. This will change the culture on academia and research,” said Professor Sourav Chatterjee, awarded for Mathematical Sciences. Chatterjee, from Stanford University, was honoured for his groundbreaking work in statistical physics. His collaborative work has played a critical role in areas such as the emerging body of work on large deviations for random graphs. 

“The manner in which the world has reacted to the pandemic is amazing, propelling the production of vaccines,” commented Professor Hari Balakrishnan from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Infosys Prize 2020 in Engineering and Computer Science was awarded to Balakrishnan for contributing to computer networking, and seminal work on mobile and wireless systems. “Smartphone is an extension of our bodies. People speak on the phone while driving and this leads to accidents,” said Balakrishnan. That was reason enough for Balakrishnan to use the phone as a solution; his research finds applications in the commercial use of mobile telematics to improve driver behaviour and make roads safer. 

“The pandemic outbreak has brought a greater thrust on making India Self Reliant,” said Professor Arindam Ghosh, from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, who was awarded in the Physical Sciences list. He is recognised for his development of atomically thin two-dimensional semiconductors to build a new generation of functional electronic, thermoelectric and optoelectronic devices. 

“This is more to do with applications in imaging especially in very dark conditions where cameras in devices may not produce accurate images,” explained Ghosh. There are companies that commercially produce light-vision cameras. Ghosh has taken a different stance: his creation of a new platform for light-matter interaction impacts quantum technologies and sensing in a fundamental way. 

Professor Raj Chetty from Harvard University iwas the winner in the Social Sciences segment. Chetty has done pioneering research to identify barriers for economic opportunity, and for developing solutions that can help people to come out of poverty. Chetty’s research and ability to discern patterns in large data have the potential to induce major shifts in economics.  

When we look at the research scenario in India, the time is ideal for pursuing research. It becomes appropriate when research touches the lives of people. “There’s a lot of movement from everywhere including the government to foster an environment for pursuing research, encouraging entrepreneurship and startups. In fact, the entire value chain of science and research is getting a boost,” said S. Gopalakrishnan, co-founder, Infosys Limited, co-founder, Axilor Ventures Private Limited. 

The ISF prize consists of a pure gold medal, citation and a purse of US$100,000. Professionals in six fields – Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences – have been recognised. The winners were announced by the eminent chairs of the jury and felicitated by the chief guest, Professor SR Srinivasa Varadhan – Abel Prize winner and Professor, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York, USA. 

Varadhan thanked the trustees of ISF for their service towards the research community through the Infosys Prize. “The last 75 years have seen extraordinary changes in the way we live. As the research efforts of most of our scientists impact our daily lives it places an ethical responsibility on them. The primary responsibility however, rests collectively with societies, governments and international organisations to regulate and control harmful side effects of scientific research and discovery,” observed Varadhan. 

Over the years, ISF has recognised work done in diverse spheres that touch our lives such as the education system and climate change, among other concerns. “The trustees of the Infosys Science Foundation dream of an India where the poorest children can have reasonable access to nutrition, education, healthcare and shelter, and have confidence in a better future. For that, we need well thought out and impactful ideas that are speedily executed without corruption,” explained Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys and president, Board of Trustees, Infosys Science Foundation. 

Developed countries have succeeded mainly by improving their higher education and research systems. The Infosys Prize contributes to this mission in India by honouring the best scientists and researchers, whose work has the potential to improve our world. “Good quality research requires an environment of openness to ideas, which need to be made available to the masses,” added Murthy. 

The winners of the Infosys Prize 2020 were handpicked from 257 nominations by an accomplished jury comprising renowned scholars and professors from around the world. The Infosys Prize 2020 Event was held virtually.  

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles