Will an Indian win an Ig Nobel by 2035?

The 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony concluded yesterday, handing out 10 prizes to 38 recipients with institutional affiliations in 26 countries. There is one recipient with an affiliation in India, though I doubt anyone is keeping track. They should (John Barry for the reproductive medicine prize, see below). In fact, instead of endorsing the view that an Indian will a Nobel Prize by 2035, the Government of India should aspire to have an Indian win an Ig Nobel Prize within the next two decades (if the intent is to target a prize at all).

Although there is an apparent sense of ridicule in the prizes’ premise, it is gentle and in fact uplifting. A government should aspire to help its country’s scientists win an Ig Nobel Prize because the government, at least some department of it, has tremendous influence on the national research culture and research priorities. In this framework, to win an Ig Nobel Prize would mean being able to work on what scientists deem worth their while. This in turn would require the presence of a research evaluation scheme that is fair, efficient and not very exacting, allowing scientists the time to work on projects that catch their fancy without consequence for their career advancement or other responsibilities.

This is, of course, a lofty ambition and requires changes in the resource makeup of Indian academia as much as the demographics and structural factors like evaluation schemes. Most of all, this requires time. But as I said, if the intention is to point the R&D guns of Indian scientists towards the achievement of winning a specific prize, it should be the Ig Nobel Prize. Nothing makes the case better than the citations for this year’s winners, so without further ado:

  • Medicine – “for using roller coaster rides to try to hasten the passage of kidney stones”
  • Anthropology – “for collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees”
  • Biology – “for demonstrating that wine experts can reliably identify, by smell, the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine”
  • Chemistry – “for measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces”
  • Medical education – “for the medical report ‘Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy’”
  • Literature – “for documenting that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual”
  • Nutrition – “for calculating that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets”
  • Peace – “for measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile”
  • Reproductive medicine – “for using postage stamps to test whether the male sexual organ is functioning properly”
  • Economics – “for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses”

It is not that scientists should or shouldn’t work on these kinds of studies alone. There should definitely be a modicum of accountability in terms of what the funds, a limited resource, earmarked for R&D are used for. But that said, being able to work on these kinds of studies shouldn’t be rendered entirely impossible either, at least in some centres of the country. For example, it would be questionable to require every research institution to undertake blue-sky research, but those centres that are equipped for it shouldn’t be disincentivised from doing so.

More generally: The ideas that win the Ig Nobel Prizes may not be the ones that change the world but they certainly stand for the even more important super-idea that changing the world shouldn’t be our sole imperative.

The Wire
September 14, 2018