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
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. 
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”. 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 and makes, interestingly, for more cogent and compelling reading than the document produced by the six Academies. As Devinder Sharma observes , 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 . 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.
 PTI report, September 26, 2010
 Indian Express, “No scientific rigour in report on GM crops: Ramesh”, September 28, 2010
 The Times of India, September 29, 2010