First among equals

Peer review, the long-standing custodian of good science, is now being seen by many as a cabalistic exercise that assures the self-interests of the scientific community. With accountability being the new mantra, Indian scientists can no longer afford to spend public money on third-rate science. Sadly enough, however, the Indian scientist is least inclined to revamp the "black box" for the sake of scientific excellence

By Rakesh Kalshian
Published: Wednesday 15 November 1995

First among equals

-- WITH the ivory towers of Indian science Cracking up under economic pressure And the winds I of liberalisation blowing fircely into the cobwebbed windows of the scientific edifice, the talk in scientif- ft bes. all of a sudden, hinged on hmm accountability and com- e - words that had apparently id to evist in the Indian scientist's lexicon.

Survival is the keyword now. And a another name for survival. dwindling iritty and more hands pft ims iL the jungle of Indian sci Misbowd to become all the more odaim As research costs have i have become increas lp digpeadent on society for their Wom The caw for supporting sci at the heart of every bud jVdL coancting scientific success 0-" d objectives for health, eco- nomic compititiveness, defense, transportation agriculture and the like. But what is rhe assurance that only the best science is financed.

To answer this question, one must Must delve into a black box called the peer Review system, the centuries-old way of self-regulation practised by scientists. The tradition of asking scientists of repute to judge the quality of others' work goes back over 400 years to the birth of the Philosophical Transactions of Britain's Royal Society. It is now tightly woven into the fabric of scientific communities of all disciplines. To quote one recent definition: "Peer review is an organised method of evaluating scientific work which is used by scientists to certify the correctness of procedures, establish the plausibility of results, and allocate resources (such as journal space, research funds, recognition and special honour)."

The question is, can peer review, at the centre of the profession's claim to autonomy and society's demand for accountability, continue to serve as a mechanism of financial allocation and quality control? Furthermore, with accountability being the new mantra, it becomes pertinent to ask whether our s&T funds are going to the best people and the best projects, and whether they are being harnessed to the urgent needs of our economy and people.

There is growing concern among scientists and policymakers about the soundness of the peer review system in the present scenario. In particular, the allocation of research funds is an area of decision-making where the peers increasingly find others looking over their shoulders, at least in the us and UK, where the money involved runi into billions of dollars.
Peerless propositions For instance, us sociologists Daryl Chubin and Edward Hackett reckon that peer reviewers who allocate grants, today bear more of a burden than was ever intended. "The importance of obtaining research support, and the sheer volume of proposals have increased in recent decades," they point oul. In their book, Peerless Science (1990), they call for the system to be made "more responsive, and less cumbersome, burdensome and risk-averse".

But can one ascribe the same set of problems to peer review in India? To a large extent, yes, though the scope is widely different. In India, for instance, 'the majority of research funding is in the form of intramural grants, money which is given to universities and research institutes as project money for which, unfortunately, there is no peer review. Says Dinesh Mohan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, "It is this money that one should be looking at. The funds distributed by the s&T funding agencies, called extramural or sponsored grants, are a miniscule part (about Rs 150 crore per annum) of the total R&D budget (about Rs 4,000 crore per annum). So why should one even bother about peer review when the amount involved is so little?"

Cynicism of scientists like Mohan notwithstanding, Rs 150 crore forone of the poorest countries on earth is a large sum of money and scientists cannot get away by spending it haphazardly. Moreover, does the peer review operate only to evaluate merit or should it also help establish priorities? Can it or should it be effective in changing the direction of a programme or in allocating resources among programmes within the agencies themselves? These questions are significant because they challenge the assumption that peer review is the most effective way to allocate resources in the best overall interests of both science and society.

Judging from various accounts, it appears the grants peer review in India leaves a lot to be desired. The latest department of science and technology (DST) statistics on extramural grants lists about 17 funding agencies, including socioeconomic ministries like the ministry of human resource development, accounting for about Rs 127 crore for the year 1993-94. Of these, the DST and the department of biotechnology (DST) accounted for more than 60 per cent of the total money distributed. The DST and DST also happen to have "wellestablished" peer review mechanisms.

Of the rest, institutions like the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the department of atomic energy, the Indian Council of Medical Research (tcmk) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have not-sorigorous systems of evaluating proposals; some others, such as the department of coal, may or may not resort to peer review for proposal evaluation.

To understand the problems faced by grants peer review in the 1990s, it would be instructive to look at what it was like 25 years after independence budgets were generally increasing often rapidly, and there was much im c petition for cash. Says P I LavallimiL ToCrly With the DST, "The main ps peer committees at the subject level was quality control: weed out the sub-standard proposals and fund the rest. The funding agencies were relatively comfurtable with a system which left the details of the spending to the scientists."

Winning: name of the game
Things are changing now. The idea advanced by the British physicist and science policy gum John Ziman - the science funding has entered a steady state is controversial. unlikely to grow at a rate faster tbm economy. As scientific oppo grow rapidly, competition for has become fierce, within and specialities and between individuals research groups and institutions,.For every winner in the peer review game there are now several losers.

In addition, the Indian government now appears to be more interested accountability for the money it spends on R&D than in preserving scientific autonomy. Politicians now want more say in what science will do. And a move towards controlling " expenditure through measures of put and "performance indicators emphasis in government policy research with potential applications on industrial exploitability all unease. While it is being str the importance of backing research without strings artached to becoming known, the suspicion still lingers that decisions are shifting towards short-term payoffs.

Remarks H Y Mohan Ram, a Proffe sor in the botany department of Delhi University, "All this reinforces the ambivalence many scientists feel about peer review. They want to defend it as a my of leaving science to scientists and as their bulwark against attempts to t0q lor research projects to specific goals." However, not many are happy with the way grants peer review operates.

With operational problems of the grants peer review much in evidence does it play any role in influencing sci ence policy and setting up priorities for scientific research? The less the amount of public money available to science, the Water will be the desire to influence, if not cowol. its distribution. Says S R Valluri fanner director of the National Aerospace Laboratory, "There has been usil accountability in the expendi- e an science through public funds, possibly in space and atomic whose plan budgets are mainly ow-specific. It is this lack of accountability that seems to have caused the distortions in the practice of science India.

S Ysshpal. former University Grants commossion chairperson, believes the government will not hesitate to support qpwimmes that are clearly seen to ngotional purpose. "However," he we took recourse mostly to the bqdli -in-aid schemes for sup Grant-in-aid is support which a scientist wanted to mquo% and it was only @Pintoru'eiy onme to him to carry oft bis worit. Thus, is no inherent in such grant except to the extent planned by the scientist himself.

If the manner of determination of Budgets of MEN fiW Scientific dkorol Research OF 69 Planning P" it any indi a fink rela nates wi thin scientists mind continues on paper as bureaucratic procedure and ends behind the dosed doors of the funding agency. Ir esocenred hoe lesult Coliaction b-ad projects which do not necessarily have clear input-output relations no nationally felt needs."

Narrowed background
Provided by this background, the sci- Entists seek funds for research conceived By them . In turn, of the same Scientific cimmunity are asked to Thus become inward-looking. The system has immud-looking. Says Valluri, "It was not that the scientists' intentions were not honourable. It almost seems that instead of first defining national priorities and deriving strategically targeted R&D programmes out of them, they ended up taking the viewpoint that whatever we wish to do will be good for the country."

With too many projects chasing too few funds, the demand far exceeded the supply. This situation has led to the now familiar manoeuvering by some scien- tists to have access to and, if possible, control or influence the distribution of these limited funds. The leverage is through membership in committees for sanctioning of grants, awards and honours or even appointment of senior staff in s&,r departments.

So much for the criticism of peer review. But what actual evidence is there to back them up? There is very little systematic data. Much of the criticism is based on assertion, or anecdotal evidence at best. As Chubin and Hackett concede in their book, "Peer review is air intensely private process that originates within a scientist's mind, continues on paper as bureaucratic procedure and ends behind the closed doors of the funding agency."

Says A R Rajeswari, joint advisor in the DST, "There are no performance indicators by which one can judge the quality of grants peer review. Firstly, very few funding agencies conduct studies to assess the output of the projects sponsored by them. And assuming they have information on these projects, they are extremely reluctant to part with it. For instance, a recent proposal to evaluate the performance of projects sponsored by the fcmR was shot down by the scientists." She deplored the !act that many scientists do not even furnish a project report for years after the project is over, making it difficult to assess the accountability of many of these agencies.

Say Chubin and Hackett, "Peer review leaves few clues in the public domain, and many participants in the system insist upon minimising public access to information. For example, the names of scientists who succeeded in their quest for support are accessible, but the names of those who did not, are generally unavailable to independent investigators."

Behind closed doors
Evidence is sorely lacking on peer review practices, largely because the reviews themselves, recorded in the files of journals and funding agencies, can be obtained only under assurances of strict confidentiality. In India, there is no facility like the Freedom of Information Act as in the us, which allows scientists and the public alike to request access to verbatim copies of proposals that had been supported by funding agencies.

The inherent difficulties of grants peer review have been exacerbated in recent years by budget constraints and by turther bureaucrutisation of science. Some fear "the incipient dismantling of the peer review system", brought about by research fraud, university lobbying for "pork barrel" grants, disputes over intellectual property, and increased secrecy in scientific research.

Despite these problems, few alternatives to current procedures or criteria for grants peer review have been advanced. When some are put forth ', they inevitably become entangled in value conflicts; for example, processing submissions more efficiently versus choosing more carefully or continuing established investigations versus promoting promising but risky work.

Further, peer review is built so deeply into the brickwork of science that many refuse to examine and improve it, fearing that any significant change would weaken the entire edifice. For some, questioning peer review is to challenge deeply held values about progress and prospects for the society.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.