"Indian science is run by a mafia"

p m bhargava is the founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (ccmb), Hyderabad. He has also been a former fellow of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (csir). A distinguished molecular biologist and an outspoken person, he resigned from all the three science academies of India (Indian National Science Academy, National Academy of Sciences and Indian Academy of Sciences), as well as the Indian Social Sciences Academy, of which he was a member, in protest against what he calls the activities of the "science mafia" in the country. He spoke to N Raghuram on a whole range of issues concerning the current science establishment in India

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Why did you resign from the three science academies?
Although there were many reasons, among the more important ones was the manner of their functioning, which I found very objectionable. For example, in each of these academies, it is the council (the top decision-making body) that elects the fellows for the next council. So, as a fellow, I did not have a say in electing the management of the academy. I wrote to the presidents of the academies asking for the procedure to be modified, but nothing was done about it. As we all know, science in this country is run by a mafia. It is this mafia which sits in the council and perpetuates itself. One can predict who will be and who will never be the president or a member of the council.

Secondly, I felt that all professional organisations -- including the three science academies -- must concern themselves with social issues. There should be an interface between any profession and society. But none of the academies were interested.

Does that mean that there is no accountability among scientists in India?
I believe that there is no accountability of scientists whatsoever. They are not accountable professionally, financially or socially. The worst part is that there are no institutional mechanisms to ensure accountability. Take the case of c n r Rao, a leading scientist and director of an institute. He published a report of his institute in which he listed the publications of people who have never been a part of the institute and have never worked there. Such a case would have been taken very seriously elsewhere in the world. But in India scientists can get away with anything.

What are your views on ethics in Indian science?
I know of innumerable instances of plagiarism and corruption. In any other country such scientists would have been in jail. Even Nobel Prize winners have been taken to task when found guilty, like in the case of David Baltimore and Bob Gallo. Such things do not happen in our country. Palaeontologist V J Gupta of Punjab University is an example. Charges of fraudulent claims laid by him on the discovery of Himalayan fossils have been proved, but the only punishment he has been awarded is the stoppage of some of his increments. What is worse is that the person who exposed him is now being harassed and victimised instead of being made a hero.

How effective is the Society for Scientific Values and its indiction of G P Talwar?
The society is quite active and I recently spoke to A S Paintal (founder-president of the society) and P N Srivastava (current president of the society) about a case of plagiarism in my own ex-institute, ccmb . The case involves a scientist who has included and removed the names of his students in the publications of his laboratory, regardless of the contributions of the persons involved. This is just reflective of a large number of instances in India where the research supervisor and senior scientists distribute credits to other members of the team as per their whims. The indiction of Talwar for impropriety has set a good example, but a lot more needs to be done to make our scientific community accountable for its actions.

What are your views on environment and development, especially with regard to your involvement with the development debate on Kutch?
I have great respect for some of our environmentalists who are very committed and knowledgeable. I strongly agree with them that we should not sacrifice the environment for the sake of development. But sometimes tendencies towards environmental fundamentalism may lead to the sacrificing of development. A case in point is the Narayan Sarovar sanctuary in Kutch. There are some discrepancies about the manner in which the area was notified and then denotified, as well as in the documentation of wildlife and biodiversity in the region. As far as I know, the biodiversity and wildlife of the area is not specific to the region alone. But the fear of environmental degradation has hampered industrial development in this underdeveloped, poverty-stricken area.

What do you feel about the US patent on the healing properties of turmeric? Do you agree with the fact that challenging such patents is not a long-term solution to the problem?
I am happy that Mashelkar (the director-general of csir ), has decided to contest the patent. If it is contested properly, there is no reason why we should not win. But for dealing with such issues, we cannot afford to leave everything to patent attorneys. In the West, scientists themselves argue important cases such as these. In fact, I have decided to offer my services to Mashelkar to argue on behalf of India on this. However, I do agree with you that fighting each individual patent is not a very sustainable solution in the long run. But it is important to contest at least some outstanding cases so that we can create the conditions where such patents cannot be obtained.

How can we prevent such patents in future? Can we not use the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) as an effective platform for this purpose?
I have been advocating the systematic identification and documentation of all medicinal products, which are part of our traditional knowledge, so that we ourselves can exploit them. I also agree with the fact that unless we bring such patents within the ambit of the cbd , we will not have a policy framework to curb such occurrences in the future. But then we have to argue from a position of strength and I am afraid that we have not created such a position of strength.

As the founder-director of ccmb, how would you rate the institute today?
The institute has deteriorated substantially since I retired from there. Though it still publishes some of the best papers in the country, it is no longer active in generating new ideas, which was not the case earlier. I do not know of a single new idea produced by ccmb in the last five years. I attribute this mainly to the science mafia in the country. There was a design not to let ccmb grow in stature and productivity. This was achieved by appointing people who never deserved to be directors. Cases of professional and financial impropriety have also been on the rise in recent years.

What is your opinion of Mashelkar's policy of CSIR?
I have great respect for Mashelkar's professional competence, intellectual honesty, vision, integrity and amenability to suggestions. His biggest plus point is total transparency. It is to his credit that the csir has found a mention in the recent budget. To make such a system work is a big challenge and to be able to handle such a task, he has to be absolutely ruthless and insist on professional excellence and integrity, as well as social and financial accountability.

Do you also agree with the tendency to push CSIR labs into self-financing?
Not all labs can earn their money from external clients. This is especially true for labs doing basic research like ccmb . I feel that if external earnings are used as the sole criteria to assess all csir labs, basic research will suffer, and no country can afford to neglect the same. Labs involved in basic research should be judged on the basis of the quality of their research ideas and publications. I could have got 50 crores for ccmb by opening up laboratory infrastructure for private services like testing and quality control. But I avoided this deliberately, as it takes you nowhere in the long run.

What are your views on the alleged misuse of director-level autonomy in CSIR labs?
There is a tremendous misuse of power and autonomy. But that is because of the bad choice of directors. Misuse of freedom does not mean that there should be no freedom. I feel that proper care should be exercised in the selection of directors and that they should be given freedom but must also be made fully accountable for their actions. The problem is that there has been no accountability. Nobody does anything because everyone has skeletons in their cupboards. There was a time when a directive issued from the headquarters disallowed csir scientists from speaking to the press without the director's permission. I found it nonsensical and gave my entire staff total freedom to interact with the press on the condition that if they say something irresponsible or unsubstantiated, I will take them to task. That is how I feel freedom and accountability should go together.

There is some evidence that Indian research publications have, of late, been suffering a decline both in terms of their quantity and quality. How do you explain this?
I agree with you that there has been a tremendous decline both in terms of the quality and quantity of publications. We are further behind in the world science scenario today than we were ever before. There is a greater mushrooming of third-rate science. I would again attribute this totally and absolutely to the mafia. There is no dearth of money for science in this country. It is perhaps in the wrong hands.

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