The scientist as a babu

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

imageIndia may have very competent scientists but they lack scientific temperament

Activists who have been campaigning against the genetically modified (GM) Bt brinjal—and these include many leading scientists—tell me that they follow a standard procedure when they get documents extolling the virtues of this engineered vegetable. They look for citations and if they are missing, as they invariably are, they immediately run a check on the paper to find the sources for the claims it makes. That is how they uncovered the dishonourable practice of what is loosely termed “plagiarism” by those who should know better: the cream of our scientists in the top six academies. The cynicism of the activists is a sad reflection on the ethics of the scientific community.

It is not very long ago that one of our most distinguished scientists was similarly embarrassed. A group headed by R A Mashelkar, then the director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the largest group of publicly funded laboratories in the world, was found to have lifted a crucial paragraph from the submission made to them by a campaigning lawyer. Since a keen eye had spotted the incriminating passage, the Report of the Technical Expert Group on Patent Law was withdrawn by an apologetic Mashel kar. In contrast, M Vijayan, the president of the Indian National Science Academy who steered the infamous Inter- Academy Report on GM crops, has been less contrite about the plagiarism. He dismisses it as a “glitch in the drafting process”.

In both instances the reports would have had a significant bearing on policy in key areas: on the way patent laws are interpreted, and on the future course of Indian agriculture. Here, the issue is not essentially of plagiarism but of deliberate fudging. Here, it is a case of reputed scientists acting as rubber stamps for the government or for industry lobbies or for both since the interests of the two often converge in India.

There is, of course, the serious problem of plagiarism that is threatening to become the hallmark of Indian science. Just last week Biotechnology Advances, a prestigious international scientific journal, retracted three papers of Indian scientists for plagiarism. Two of these papers were presented by scientists from no less than the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Worse, some of the information in the papers was copied from Wikipedia! It should make us cringe.

Is there a crisis of morality in the science establishment? It would appear so. For long we have been used to hearing about the shortage of high-quality scientists in India, but not much is said about the lack of ethics in the fraternity. Or is it the case that lack of quality has some correlation to lack of integrity?

One question that comes up repeatedly is the reluctance of our boffins to look at reports that present a contrarian view— contrarian to what industry or the government is pushing for. As such reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists that warn of the clear dangers of GM crops or a report drafted by around 400 scientific and social science experts from around the world, titled International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, are ignored.

Counter-views appear to make the scientist babu nervous as they crawl up the alphabetic ladder of seniority from Scientist A to Scientist F and G or wherever the hierarchy terminates. Richard Jefferson, one of the leading molecular biologists of the world, gave me an insight into what ails our science. In an interview earlier this year, the pioneering founder of Cambia, the open source model of biotechnology development, told me that Indian science is primarily about dogmatism, turf wars, guild membership and hierarchies. Jefferson has been interacting with the science network in India since the 1980s and finds the core problem with Indian science is its absolutism, its dogmatism, and what he terms “its inability to engage in the truly empowering part of science: to be wrong”.

That might seem like a quirky view but if you think about it Jefferson has put his finger on the nub of the matter: science does not proceed by proving things right; it allows things to be proved wrong. Tie this in with what the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has identified as the major causes of the crisis in Indian research and you get a fairly clear picture of what is holding up this country. The NKC says it is the rigid compartmentalisation of natural and social sciences; lack of long-term vision; lack of differential remuneration (we don’t reward scientists who perform or pull up those who do not, much less penalise the plagiarists); and, most telling, lack of scientific methods.

Our teaching methodology even at the university level does little to inculcate the scientific temper in students. Instead it merely turns out babus with a science background; it doesn’t make for good scientists. Good science is about independent thinking, professional and personal integrity and courage of conviction. It’s also about listening to the other view and amending one’s own if evidence demands it. We have few scientists of this calibre.

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  • I could not agree with you

    I could not agree with you more. As a member of one of the six hallowed academies and reseach council member of one of the CSIR labs, I get opportunities to see (and mourn) the loss of the scientific temperament. Research projects are sometimes a rehash of old studies done elsewhere and there is almost a proclivity to mediocrity. When someone is exposed, everyone goes into a huddle to smother the adverse report.
    We have the talent. We simply need to build an atmosphere which encourages original work and is incompromisingly harsh on borrowed work passed off as original. We need to be agressive thinkers. We have to reclaim the lost scientific temperament.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • With some exceptions of

    With some exceptions of individual brilliance, the scientific community is nothing but bunch of good for nothing people. I am involved first directly then indirectly with several Universities and Institutes in India and first hand I know that. I agree with the original article, that they are more of a babu's as is reflected by dismal progress of science in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • One of the finest critiques

    One of the finest critiques on the subject. Courage of independence of thought will come hard for the country as long as we follow the text book culture in our schools and continue to incentivise herd mentality.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Additional comment - perhaps

    Additional comment - perhaps we also need to understand and appreciate the science of Indian social development and its dyanamics before discussing about the quality of Indian science itself.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • The insight by Jefferson is

    The insight by Jefferson is neither shocking nor surprising. Many scientists in indian institutions, at least in universities, have been echoing this view, only to be drowned by 'I know better' attitude of higher ups. Science will not improve in this conutry till we set right our universities where rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy rule the roost. If your nurseries are mortally sick how do you reap a healthy crop? Apropos, science being proving things wrong, I wonder how many of the powers that be in the 350 odd universities in the country understand that science is about proving things wrong!! You can tally the count on fingers of one hand - on this I will hazard wagering to the last 50 paisa coin in my wallet! Philosophy of science is a long shot - faculty of universities in India do not even appreciate why universe(ities) are called so. We cannot let our 'vision'(sic) go beyond the last rule in statute book - 'Universe' is too much to ask for. Also, as long as 'the accident of birth' forms the bedrock of the hiring process of the faculty this will continue to be the 'Scene in Indian Science.' I see no solution to this problem except the march of time which should 'level the playing field' to the satisfaction of everyone. Only then can we begin to 'think' about addressing what plagues science in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Absolutely. Cannot agree

    Absolutely. Cannot agree more....since I do not see it happening in near future I feel that the only hope for Indian science is to hope that somehow random drift will take us to our intended goal-if we have one!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • From the comments posted, it

    From the comments posted, it appears that almost everyone has his finger on the problem of what ails Indian science. But where are the solutions and who is going to implement them? Experience has shown that we gather courage to offer solutions only long after we have retired and come back as 'experts' on various committees. Why are these ideas not brought out and implemented when these so called experts were practicing 'scientists' or 'scientist babus?'

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Just how do you build such an

    Just how do you build such an 'atmosphere.' I do not know about policies in various research institutions in the country (under CSIR or DST/DBT) but if one goes by the deliberations of the annual conference of vice-chancellors of universities we have not even felt the need for just such an academic atmosphere that encourages aggressive independent thinking unshackled by the fear of hierarchy - in India everything goes with hierarchy, there is no way you can even touch the glass ceiling, bury your dreams of breaking it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • There are three issues which

    There are three issues which I find extremely upseting.
    The first is dealt with in 'The Scientist as a Babu' in the November 01-15 issue by Latha Jishnu. She asks, 'Is there a crisis of moralityin the science establishment?'Mu answer to this query is,'Why only the science establishment? What about the G2 Spectrum, the Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society in Mumbai, and the food scam in UP? Isn't there a crisis of morality in every sphere, and all around us?'

    The second issue is related to November16-30 issue cover story' Death by Default' about Microfinanace institutionsgrowing at 80% plus by using borrowers'lives as collateral. Are these people totally heartless? I just wonder how dehumanising greed can be. Who says vultures are becoming extinct when there are so many vultures in human form?

    The third is a program I saw on TV on December 10 on the TIMES NOW channel. Sunita Narain and another lady, and Sidhdharth ji and one Sri Bittu (Iam not sure about the name) were on the program.I was aghast at what Bittu ji said. How could he talk about shaming America into cutting down its emmisions by taking a high moral ground by India taking up legally binding emmision cuts? Is he so naive that he does not realise that one just cannot shame a callous party into being reasonable. Not even Christ could do it. What he suggested last night is a recipe for disaster. I could see how exasperated Sunita was.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • dear lakshmi, thank you for

    dear lakshmi,

    thank you for your letter. i agree with you that we are dealing with a moral decline in every sphere. we have focused on the 2G scam in an earlier column (The New Banana Republic) and in a more recent one (Remember the Farmer?). in case you are interested you could click on the links below to read these.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Latha, I haven't had the

    Dear Latha,
    I haven't had the time to go to the links mentioned by you but I have read 'Remember the Farmer'in the December 01-15 issue of Down to Earth. I agree with all what you have written and written really well. Doesn't the government realise that by neglecting agriculture so callously it is jeopardising the food security of the country? The greatly biased pro industry stance makes me wonder whether we can satiate our hunger by eating cars, cell phones, and other machines and industrial products?

    I live in Bhopal, and you must have read about 'Bhopal under farmers' siege' as Hindustan Times put it. Farmers have come from all parts of MP. Their major problems are accute power shortage, spurious seeds and fertilisers, the same as mentioned by you in your article. How desperate must the farmers be to have undertaken the journey to Bhopal from their villages in such biting cold weather and spend their nights in the open with only the sky as the roof .

    And to top it all there is the onion crisis. I just can't find words to express my anguish. How painful it is to witness all this and not be able to do anything about it!

    With best wishes,
    Lakshmi Bhargava

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply