Manipulating Research

Private funding has given a new meaning to scientific research today. With rising corporate research budgets, academic institutions are leaning more on industry sponsorship and less on government or charitable foundations. A major fallout of this alliance is compromise on independence and objectivity. On the other hand, government-funded research has seldom yielded the desired results. With government failing to deliver the goods and corporate bodies stepping in to further personal interests, research-funding has today become a contentious issue

Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

-- (Credit: Illustrations: Kumar) PUSHPA M BHARGAVA
Former director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology
Manipulating research is not a new phenomenon. Earlier, the reason for manoeuvring the results of scientific research was professional rivalry. But for the last four decades, it has been economic gain and power, which could be personal, corporate or political. This is primarily because science and technology have become enmeshed with life to such an extent that one would like to create a fabric of choice by controlling research. Moreover, the number of scientists has gone up dramatically in the last five decades but the legitimate resources for carrying out research has not increased proportionately. Earlier, there was enough money for every scientist but today the existence of far too many competitors, including second and third rate scientists, has led to a resource crunch. So there is a lure of manipulating research to gain access to money. Even the needs of scientists have changed. A scientist is no longer a person driven by quest for truth without worrying about the comforts of life. Today, they are men and women of the world, prone to desires and needs just like any other section of human society.

Another reason is that there is a tendency to judge merit in science and technology on the basis of highly superficial parameters such as publications and patents. Scientific accomplishments as these have a greater weight now and few today are bothered about quality of the paper or whether the patents are used or not. Also, science is now so complex that public understanding of its advantages, disadvantages and implications has not kept pace with scientific progress. Earlier, the rate of research was slow enough for the people to assimilate the results of science and technology but now the rate is too fast for the common people to understand their implications. Public evaluation of such results is based on parameters, which are superficial and would be unacceptable to the scientific community at large. But a particular industry, for furthering its economic interests, can get something unscientific accepted by the public by getting some scientist to endorse it in return for power and money. Clearly, this is a result of nexus between unscrupulous scientists, industry and the government. In this everyone gains, except the public.

There have been quite a few examples of manipulating results. The result of the field trials for Bt cotton marketed by multinational agribusiness conglomerate Monsanto have never been made public even though these have been presented to department of biotechnology and Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) Even the minutes of these meetings were not available. With more than seventy per cent of the country depending on agriculture, the common people have the right to know what the implications are of introducing these genetically modified (GM) products. We have reasons to believe that GM product such as Bt cotton would not give the desired results when the farmer grows it but the permission has still been given.

This is not the only case where the government has been implicated. During the 1980's there was an attempt to market a product called cytozyme by an American company. This product was claimed to be a panacea for all agricultural ills - for example it would reduce the input of fertilisers. When we asked for the results, the company showed us results from an Indian agricultural university and we could make out that these were completely faked. Finally, we were able to prevent the marketing of the product. It is obvious that a group of scientists had been bribed to manoeuvre science. These scientists had been asked to produce data, which the public would believe to be an honest one, coming as it was from an agricultural university. Had this product been used we would have been in the same position as before the green revolution - our yields would have gone down and we would have become dependent on other countries for food. Their motive was to market the product and make the money and in the process reduce the food production and make us dependent on other countries.

There is the case in which we were not successful. There was evidence in the 1970's that oral polio vaccine was not working in India. It was suggested that as oral vaccine has not worked, we should go in for modified, two- dose Salk vaccine. This is more expensive but in the long run, it turns out to be much cheaper. However, the Indian government succumbed to WHO pressure and accepted its contention that developed countries should use the new Salk vaccine while the developing countries could use the oral vaccine. This is despite WHO itself stating that oral polio vaccine has not worked in developing countries. The entire exercise was aimed at finding a market for the oral vaccines which the developed countries were producing. Prior to this, India had decided to set up a plant for making the Salk vaccine for which Rs 90 crore had been sanctioned. After spending Rs 40 crore, the plant had to be closed. Though the government claims that the incidence of polio is going down, orthopedics in Hyderabad say that it is not true. These are the examples of how research can be manipulated. Similar practices are there in other countries also but, unlike India, there are checks and cross checks. Here the situation is made worse because people do not have the courage to report. For example, Monsanto's track record is extremely bad but even then the Indian Institute of Sciences allowed it to function in their premises. Obviously, the concerned scientists obtained certain advantages for this.

professor, department of molecular reproduction, development and genetics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
Many think of the pursuit of science, and scientists themselves, as other-worldly and uninfluenced by external demands. Perhaps this view had some merit in the past. But even then the picture of science that it sought to convey was misleading. At one time science could be practised or supported only by those who were independently wealthy - or at any rate did not have to work either inside or outside the house for a living. All, or essentially all, such people were men. The fact that by and large there were no women scientists meant that economics, combined with social demands, decided who could do science and who could not. Even if we restrict our attention to people engaged in these pursuits today, the picture of science as an unsullied search after truth could not be more wrong. There are two causes for this dispiriting conclusion.

Firstly, there is the problem of what one might call getting to deep-lying ores. The analogy is to mining: ores at the surface are easily exploited, but once they stop yielding returns, one has to search ever deeper. Similarly, as science has progressed, it has made it that much more expensive to unearth unknown facts about nature. The degree of expense involved in the experimental sciences may not be easy for an outsider to appreciate. For example, to set up and equip a single very modestly-sized laboratory as part of an already functioning department one would need a substantial amount today. One can begin with interesting observational work or field research with comparatively little, but an in-depth search could make the costs shoot up. That apart, building laboratories and furnishing them does not come cheap. Sophisticated pieces of equipment can run to about a crore of rupees each. Scientific research today involves big money, whichever way one looks at it.

If the source of the money is private industry, the research is quite often commissioned research. An implicit aim of such research can be to justify prior expectations: 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. In such cases, while assessing the value of what is going on, one is on guard right from the outset. That is because the general belief is that private sources have little more than their narrowly defined self-interest at heart. The disinterested philanthropist who subsidises pure research is either insignificant or a figment of the imagination - at least in India. But in general, really large funds are unobtainable on a long-term basis except from governments or government-supported agencies. One's expectation is that the fact that the source of funding is public guarantees that the research will be carried out as it should be - with no strings attached. However, this need not be so. To begin, let us reiterate a point that has been made already. Scientific research is no longer driven by the curiosity of individuals who have the means of satisfying their curiosity. Instead, it depends on committees appointed by funding agencies being convinced that proposals put up for their consideration fall one, within the ambit of what is considered appropriate and two, appear likely to deliver promised results within the stipulated period of time. Who decides what the correct parameters are for assessing the appropriateness of a piece of research? Obviously, the government and its agents (many of whom are, admittedly, scientists themselves). It is not difficult to see that this runs the risk of finding ourselves in a situation in which research proposals are tailored to fit what is acceptable. At worst, funding can get diverted into areas that the government thinks are important, even if the intrinsic merits of the underlying science are dubious. Even is things are not bad, fashion may decide what sort of research gets done; quite often the fashion is determined in the US or Europe. Both outcomes can be seen in our country. A bigger disaster may be in store. A publicly funded research enterprise can lead to the employment for many years of large numbers of people on intellectually sterile and unproductive tasks, all at enormous expense to society.

It is often said that science is universal. In one sense this is obviously true. Whether one is studying physics, chemistry or biology, matter has the same properties all over the world. Physical laws or biological phenomena are independent of who is analyzing them or where the analysis is being carried out. But, however much one might like to believe otherwise, scientists are men and women living in a particular society and belonging to a particular culture. By and large, they have the same values and the same prejudices as any person who is raised in the same environment and is part of the same social class. They are as susceptible to external influences as anyone else. Therefore, what they think of as appropriate goals for them to pursue as scientists has as much to do with their own reasoning as it has with what their cultural value system thinks of as important. If job security is rated highly by a culture, scientists will hanker after it too, even if attaining it might require one to compromise with facts. If a conformist attitude and harmonious functioning define a cultural norm, a scientist too will tend to avoid contradicting others - especially a superior - and instead go along with everyone else. If getting a 'frequent-flyer' bonus is socially prized, one will do what it needs to get the bonus, irrespective of whether they are scientists or not. To be sure, all this spells havoc for the integrity of any intellectual or professional enterprise, and not just scientific research.

To conclude, the practice of science is more subject to external pressures and influences today than it was in the past. For some time now, the practice of science in India has become more and more subject to external influence and control. To some extent this is inevitable. Long ago, being a scientist meant being curious about some aspect of the working of nature, to investigate that aspect in depth and to communicate the results of the investigations to those with similar interests. Occasionally the outcome could be put to practical use. However, that situation could last only so long as scientists were people of independent means and experimentation was a relatively inexpensive affair. As higher education became organised in universities, formal teaching also became a part of being science and scientists became employees - sometimes of the state, at other times of whoever ran the university. This applied even more strongly to people who worked for research laboratories, whether publicly funded or privately. Inevitably, their independence was compromised to some extent.In part this has come about because doing modern science often needs large sums of money, and people (and governments) do not like to spend money unless they get something in return. But in part it has also come about because independent thinking and non-conformist points of view are considered by us as equivalent to 'rocking the boat'.

central vigilance commissioner
SCIENCE is basically a quest for truth about the nature of the physical world around us. It is the innate curiosity of human beings to find out what makes the world tick that lies at the root of scientific research. Thanks to the Greek tradition, science has accepted the basic principle of the empirical approach. Provability of fallibility is the principle on which scientific research has progressed. What is said is more important than who is saying it, so far as science is concerned.

Research today, however, is not restricted to the loner in research of truth. Technology has today changed the world. In fact, we are living today in a world dominated by technology. In one kilogramme of steel is ninety per cent material and 10 per cent steel technology. On the other hand, in software like Windows, 95 per cent is technology and five per cent is material.

Intellectual property rights have become critical in the global economy today. Research, therefore, has become a multi-billion dollar exercise. It is, therefore, natural that in today's world scientific research also can get influenced by who pays the piper. For instance, in sensitive areas like smoking, it is known about research being done with a view to prove that smoking may not be that harmful. Naturally, the tobacco industry will welcome it. Perhaps now the world opinion has come round to consider smoking as being basically dangerous to health. When it comes to environment issues, again there could be different approaches between the industry and the eco fundamentalists. This could affect scientific research. Scientific research had also built for itself healthy traditions like peer review to ensure that there is fairness and objectivity in reporting. Nevertheless, one finds that research could get affected by the agencies sponsoring the research. Let us not underestimate the impact of prejudice. On the issue of global warming, there are diametrically opposite views all based on a selective approach to scientific data available.

With the world becoming a knowledge economy and the significance of the intellectual property rights increasing, another dimension adds to the high stakes involved in research. Sometimes, the research can also become a race, like the race to decode the human genome with a very strong economic motivation. The strategy adopted by the private sector perhaps proved to be more effective than that of the government-funded research. Ultimately some face saving formula was adopted when the results of decoding of the human genome was announced jointly in Britain and in the United States.

There is, therefore, a great need for vigilant groups for ensuring that the highest standards of objectivity are maintained in research. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price for liberty. Perhaps in this age of knowledge economy we have to add that eternal vigilance is also the price for objective research and scientific progress.

former director general, Aeronautical Development Agency
It is time that a formal code for practice and management at the level of science and technology agencies is brought into existence as soon as possible with an Office of Research Integrity (ORI) under central vigilance commissioner (CVC) treated as ultimate appellate authority. Our academies and other professional bodies must recognise formally that unethical actions in the practice and management of science and technology are numerous and also actively help CVC create an ORI and set up systems and procedures to ensure compliance with an honour code formulated by them. The need for protecting ethics in the practice and management of science is the responsibility of all scientists in our country and recognising this, Society for Scientific Values (SSV), a voluntary organisation, was brought into existence about one and a half decades ago by a group of concerned scientists. In recent times, this fraternity has pleaded for setting up an ORI for assuring compliance with the code at the lower levels.

Such an ORI already exists in the US. According to Irving Lerch, Head of International Relations of the American Physical Society, the US ORI was originally established by the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to deal with complaints concerning breaches of ethical conduct in the wake of a few high-profile scandals. He further states that "NIH realized that research misconduct was indeed a serious issue, but that ORI was being misdirected and used improperly and abusing its discretion through the employment of questionable investigative tools." This is a situation not unfamiliar to the Indian scientific community, which cares to ascertain the facts. ORI apparently then "began a campaign to inform the research community, government, the public and corporations of the problems inherent in biomedical research. But the emphasis concerning scientific ethics was turned back to the learned and professional societies, which have traditionally dealt with such matters." It should be noted with some concern that similar bodies in India do not seem to have cared to face up to the problem of individual malpractices and examine them through ad hoc committees with the sincerity the issue deserves.

Lerch went on to state, "within the US system - which is highly variegated and quite complex - responsibility is shared among professional and learned societies, funding agencies, institutions and individuals. But most important is the role of the peer review in the examination of research proposals and manuscripts submitted for publication. Without a community of scholars zealous of its standards and devoted to research integrity, there can be no solution to the problem." This is the crux of the issue in India too. Even after proof of scientific misconduct beyond reasonable doubt has been established, insititutions seem to be reluctant to take deterrent disciplinary action against such scientists and instead prefer to exonerate them.

The issue of scientific misconduct was then taken up at the level of the US President. Richard M Jones of the Public Information Division of the American Institute of Physics in his letter of December 12, 2000, states: "More than four and one-half years after discussions began about a research misconduct policy, the Clinton administration last week issued a final 'Federal Policy on Research Misconduct'. According to it, "A finding of research misconduct requires that: there be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and the misconduct be committed intentionally or knowlingly or recklessly; and the allegation be proven by a preponderance of evidence." This government-wide policy was to be implemented by December 6, 2001, with the assistance of a National Science and Technology Council Implementation Group (NSTCIG)."

The contrast in India is striking. The best thing that could happen would be that the Indian ORI under CVC would have no work as scientific misconduct would be nipped in the bud at the agency and institutional levels. Conduct of scientific research in India is replete with instances of malpractices. It would appear that an ORI is more urgently needed in India than its counterpart, NSTCIG in the US. By being unwilling to create such a body, we are implicitly stating that our research scientists are either pure as driven snow or that the system has become too rotten to be amenable for any corrective action.

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