The academies’ report on GM crops

UPDATE 22/10/2010: A modified version of the piece below has been published in Current Science, vol 99, no. 8 (pdf of piece).


The media, and parts of the blogosphere, have been reporting extensively on the smackdown that the minister of state for environment and forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, gave to the report prepared for his ministry by the six leading academies in science, engineering and medicine in India. And, unusually for a politician-scientist dispute, sympathies seem largely to be with the politician. Good overviews are on nanopolitan [1, 2] and Rahul Basu’s blog, and elsewhere.

I may post additional thoughts later, but below is a piece written by my colleague, Gautam Menon, and myself, which we would also like to see in print (but who knows how long that will take). Given the immediate importance of the matter, it seems worth posting here.


What we can learn from the inter-academy report

Gautam I. Menon
Rahul Siddharthan

The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

The six major Indian academies of science, engineering and medicine recently submitted a joint report on GM crops, and in particular on BT-Brinjal, to the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh. It has been widely reported in the media that Mr Ramesh has criticised the report, titled “Inter-Academy Report on GM crops”, in the strongest terms. To make matters worse, several sections of the report appear to have been lifted verbatim from reports published earlier by a US-based GM lobbying group as well as from an article published in a publication of the DBT, both without attribution. [1]

Specifically, the minister has pointed out that “It [the document] doesn’t appear to be the product of rigorous scientific evaluation. There is not a single citation or reference in the report. So there is no way to know how the authors reached their conclusions. The report doesn’t even say who all were consulted in this exercise”[2]. Having read the document and associated news reports, we find ourselves in agreement with this assessment.

The Indian Academy of Sciences and other academies have not made this report available as of this writing. It has, however, been published on the internet by activists (see reference 3 below). Our own reading of this document is that — quite apart from the lack of professionalism and questionable practices described above — it is a disappointingly shallow overview of a topic that has been debated internationally for many years now. For example, the report spends several pages explaining high-school biology to its readers, such as observing that DNA is degraded by the digestive system and is harmless, while skimming lightly over far more consequential information.

A previous report by the Minister, dated February 9, 2010, is available on the website of the ministry[4] and makes, interestingly, for more cogent and compelling reading than the document produced by the six Academies. As Devinder Sharma observes [3], the report of the academies fails even to address many of the questions raised in the Minister’s report. Though the Academies’ report stresses that the Bt gene has been found to be harmless in other organisms, the Minister questions whether toxins in brinjal which are suppressed in the mature fruit, can be expressed due to changes in metabolism. This concern is nowhere even mentioned in the report of the academies. Concerns about the dangers of a monoculture are dealt with in a single paragraph, and socioeconomic impacts are discussed in a superficial manner. We find it not a little disturbing that our six leading scientific academies, responding to a direct request from a Union minister on a policy issue of international importance, should produce such an unenlightening document.

This report should perhaps be used as an teaching example of how NOT to write a scientific report or a policy recommendation on a scientific issue. In particular, it nicely illustrates the following points:

First, cite your sources. A document full of numbers adduced to make a case, but no indication as to how they were obtained should not, in general, be trusted. The report itself contains no references at all, and news-reports suggesting that certain key sections of the document may have been lifted verbatim from other published sources appear to be valid. This document even fails to cite or address what is perhaps the most relevant source, the list of concerns raised by the Minister who requested the Academies’ opinion!

Second, make authorship and responsibilities clear. The document contains no indication about who was responsible for its preparation, apart from the names of the 6 Presidents of the Academies responsible for it, the Indian Academy of Science, the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the National Academy of Medical Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences (India). As a (counter-)example illustrating good scientific practice, consider the IPCC report. In this report, the names and institutional affiliations of every scientific contributor to the document are listed, not just the name of the Chairman of the IPCC. We know of no other scientific policy paper or document prepared by the major science academies of the world which leaves out the names of contributors. Indeed, we can see absolutely no justification for doing so.

Third, mention conflicts of interest, if any, or explicitly state that none exist. This is an absolutely crucial issue in areas of science which intersect industry and in which large financial or other interests are involved, such as the pharmaceutical or agricultural industries.

There have been some attempts at rationalizing the document produced by the academies, mainly along two lines: First, that since it is presumably represents the views of all (or the substantial majority) of the members of these academies, no names need be mentioned. The second rationale is that the methodology for the production of this document, including the absence of the names of those who prepared it, is explicitly mentioned in the early part of the document. Rationalizations, to date, have failed to explain the lack of references in the document (though it has been promised that this will be corrected), or the lack of statements of conflicts of interest.

We are unconvinced by either of these arguments. Such documents are not prepared collectively by organizations whose membership numbers in the thousands. They are prepared by a far smaller team whose task is to collate and refine input and feedback, while bringing their own specialist knowledge to bear on the recommendations. It is thus imperative to list the specific members responsible for the draft of the final report, so that transparency can be assured. In addition, conflicts of interest must be explicitly mentioned, as is standard practice in the biomedical sciences today.

Mentioning that a patently questionable methodology was used in the preparation of a document can in no way be used to justify that methodology a posteriori. Had the document been an executive summary of a much larger, well-documented report, these arguments would have had some validity. This is not the case here.

The bigger concern, however, is the ethics of scientific practice in India. What we should do when faced with ineptitude at this scale and at these levels? We are happy that Prof. M. Vijayan, President of INSA, has expressed his sorrow over the allegation of plagiarism, commenting to news agencies that “This is unfortunate – we are devastated. This should not have happened.” This admission, however, would have carried more weight had he not been one of the six Presidents of the National Academies whose names appear on the document itself. This applies also to a very recent news report indicating that the National Academy of Medical Sciences has disassociated itself from the document, citing its unhappiness both with the consultative process as well as with issues of possible plagiarism [5]. The issue of plagiarism is by no means the only problem with the document and we will only note that the presidents of the academies appeared perfectly willing to associate their names with this report until the controversy broke.

There is need for action, and it should start by naming the authors of the document, as well as those who approved its release to the ministry. After that, the Academies should come up with a set of guidelines that can set the standard for such documents in the future.

Some of the academies have committees on ethics, but little has come publicly of the efforts of such committee. If the ethics committees feel that they have little to work on, perhaps this report is a good place to start.

[1] PTI report, September 26, 2010

[2] Indian Express, “No scientific rigour in report on GM crops: Ramesh”, September 28, 2010

[3] http://www.countercurrents.org/dsharma270910.htm

[4] http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/minister_REPORT.pdf

[5] The Times of India, September 29, 2010

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9 Comments

  1. Rahul

     /  September 29, 2010

    You might recall that the reaction of the Academies when Murli Manohar Joshi and the UGC Chairman were trying to introduce astrology in school and college curricula, was thundering silence (and some occasional mealy-mouthed response). Overall, very little leadership in science has been provided by the Academies.

    Reply
  2. gaddeswarup

     /  September 30, 2010

    Like Pre Legislative Briefing Service (PLBS) (see the post http://lawandotherthings.blogspot.com/2010/07/alternative-thinking-outside-law-firm.html), some of the concerned scientists can perhaps form a group to appraise the public on these technical matters. With news like this http://beta.thehindu.com/news/national/article108821.ece (proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI)), it may be useful to have scientists outside the committees informing the public on such matters.

    Reply
  3. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  September 30, 2010

    Rahul – indeed, very little leadership on any matter — pseudoscience, ethics, policy — has been provided by the Academies. I think it is time for the Academies to define clearly how they see their role. The Indian Academy of Sciences’ self-perceived role is wishy-washy, and does not consider a possible role in science policy or enforcing academic integrity. (It also seems to assume that all scientists are men.)

    As I said, I have more to say on this matter: in this letter we confined ourselves to the question of why the academies produced such a shoddy report. In addition, I have opinions on the desirability of Bt-brinjal, which I will express later: but in short, I am not so concerned about the safety of the vegetable itself (though I would like to see some discussion of the toxins question raised by the minister) as by the impact on farmers, the economy and biodiversity. Monsanto have not proven in the past to be good public citizens.

    Reply
  4. Vijay

     /  October 6, 2010

    Dear Rahul
    You ask, rhetorically, about the purpose of academies. Was it not Feynman who said that their only purpose is to elect their membership? That said, the US National Academies reports are a pleasure to read, as are those of the Royal Society. Their websites are also informative about matters of policy. About the current controversy, Gautam and you have it down just right and there is nothing to add. But, the problem is not about just this instance. The problem is about attention to detail and about taking responsibility. We seem ready to take on big tasks and slip in implementing. Or, we just refuse to take responsibility. I hope the Academies learn from this and address matters of policy well and ethically and come out with regular report. Its easy to back off and do nothing! I know the Presidents of two of the Academies, they are from Bangalore. They are both solid scientists whose own work is not and would never be of the quality they have signed off on. I hope the Academies just take the GM crop report back fully, start again and come back with something that redeems them. Alternatively, just take it back. And, do a very good job on the next topic.
    Best
    Vijay

    Reply
    • Gautam

       /  October 16, 2010

      Vijay,

      A good scientist is a good scientist. He/she is rigorous about anything he/she does. I don’t buy your argument that these people are good scientists but they slipped on this one. Good scientists don’t slip up on professional matters. The fact that these guys are academy presidents is what makes it that much more ghastly.

      Gautam

      [Clarification: The author of this comment is not Gautam Menon. - RS]

      Reply
  5. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  October 6, 2010

    Dear Vijay – thanks for the comment! I too know one of the academy presidents personally and agree with what you say. if there is internal pressure (as perhaps there was in the medical academy), they may indeed retract the report and do a better job, but it is not clear that they even recognise the problem. The only issue that (publicly) bothers them seems to be the plagiarism allegation, which they justify by saying that Dr Ananda Kumar contributed, together with many other scientists. First, that is understating it: practically the entire section on Bt Brinjal, except for one paragraph, is taken almost-verbatim from Dr Kumar’s previous article. Second, as we observe, this is hardly the only problem with the report. But I am yet to see much concern about the other problems.

    Reply
  6. Devi

     /  December 14, 2010

    I think the time to depend solely on such academies is over. It is time that scientists, practioners, doctors, farmers, activists and all kinds of professionals and concerned citizens form independent bodies to evaluate, analyse and put out documents on policies in the public space.
    The Union for Concerned Scientists in the US performs a stellar service on the Gm crops issue….ETC another group comes up with cutting edge reports on the same….
    In India it is time to have such bodies/groups/think tanks that people can look to for independent, unbiased information, ( hopefully written out cogently, lucidly and without obfuscation).

    devi
    devi

    Reply
  1. Plagiarism in the internet age | E's flat, ah's flat too
  2. An apology of a justification | E's flat, ah's flat too

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