An apology of a justification

It seems clear now that the Academies responsible for the botched report on GM crops (my previous posts: [1, 2]) have no intention of making significant changes to the report, let alone retracting it. To recapitulate, the country’s top six academies of science, engineering and medicine prepared a report giving their opinion of GM crops, and in particular, of Bt Brinjal. They did this at the request of the Minister for Environment. The report entirely lacked references or any other justification for its numerous claims; it failed to list its authors; it failed to address many key issues, even ones that the Minister specifically raised in his own previous report; and nearly all of the section on Bt Brinjal turned out to be lifted from a previous article by P Ananda Kumar, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Delhi. The minister duly smacked down the report and all hell broke loose.

Now, instead of an apology for this ham-fisted job, we get this.

Or rather, “we” do not get that document and I’m not sure when it was written. It is available on INSA’s web site, but I haven’t found any ingoing links to it. It lists no authors. (But it misspells the Minister’s name in exactly the same way as a previous letter from INSA. That letter was signed by the INSA President, M Vijayan. So perhaps he authored this one too; in any case, he must take responsibility for its contents.) The PDF file’s embedded information suggests that the clock of the computer where it was prepared was nine years out of date. Perhaps it was circulated only to fellows; perhaps only to those who attended the “brain-storming meeting” on June 1. But since it is out there, I think everyone should read it, just to learn where the Academies — or, at any rate, this particular Academy — really stands on the matter.

You may have inferred that I am angry. I am not attempting to hide it.

The document begins by recapitulating the background and the manner of preparation. It quotes several pages from the original report on the approach and the conclusions. In addition, it makes several statements, which I translate below into English to the best of my ability.

  • The report, subsequently prepared on the basis of the above discussions and inputs, was made available to the Government and the Fellowship. It was hoped that further inputs and feedbacks could strengthen it. However, perhaps inevitably, the document became an object of wide public discussion. One glitch was acknowledged and appropriate corrections promised. (page 2)
    Translation: We did not think a Union Minister was a sufficiently important person to whom to deliver a finished product. We needed him to tell us that scientists are supposed to cite references for any claims that they make. We acknowledge the lifting of text from Ananda Kumar’s article: it is scarcely deniable, but it is only a “glitch”. The lack of references and authorship is not a “glitch”: it is entirely intentional, as we make clear below. The sloppiness and superficiality of the report is because we assumed the Minister is a typical ignorant politician who will rely on experts like us to translate it. The rest of you were never supposed to see it.
  • There have been much public discussion, although the document was not meant for that at this stage. (page 5)
    Translation: Same as above. It was considered acceptable to give a half-baked report to the Minister. Who showed it to the rest of you?
  • No unanimity or certainty is claimed. The recommendations are based on overwhelming views or views held by a vast majority. (page 5)
    Translation: 47 fellows, a few percent of our fellowship, showed up and most of them agreed on this. Obviously there are always a few unreasonable people: we won’t say how many.
  • The report is not meant to be the result of a new scientific investigation. It is meant to convey opinion on the basis of investigations already conducted. A report of this type may or may not contain references or footnotes. There have been reports by Academies in the past without references or footnotes. In the present instance, references could have been added in the initial stage itself and can be given now. Then, of course, the controversy can shift to which references have been and have not been cited. (page 5)
    Translation: None of us has read or written a scholarly review article in our lives. And this is true of our predecessors in the academy too. If we are not making new claims, we don’t need to justify the old claims. And, as the clever ones among you will observe, if we are making new claims, there can’t be references for those claims — because the claims are new! See? Who needs references? And if we did give references, you’d nitpick on those — so why bother?
  • In public discourse, only one of the 11 recommendations figured prominently. The first six recommendations enunciate a national strategy on GM Crops. The remaining five primarily deal with Bt brinjal. One of them is on limited release of Bt brinjal. The rest deals with concerns. The view that these correspond to the opinion of one person, could perhaps have resulted from inadequate perusal of the recommendations or insufficient attention to them. (page 5)
    Translation: You did not observe that the section on Bt Brinjal was not taken absolutely verbatim from Ananda Kumar’s article. One short paragraph was added and there were a few other minor changes. He was not responsible for those.
  • The intense pressure from interested groups and media attention do not help free discussion. (page 6)
    Translation: Leave us in our own world, please. We’re the experts here.
  • Reports of premature comments from those in authority, if correct, are also not conducive to free and uninhibited discussion. (page 6)
    Translation: We gave the Minister the report. Who’d have imagined that he’d actually have comments to make?

And if all that is not enough, my colleague Gautam spotted a striking omission in the list of participants in the “brain-storming session” on June 1 (pages 6-7): that of P Ananda Kumar! Was he not present? How did his text get into the report verbatim? He himself has claimed that it was he who gave the Academies his opinion, which they incorporated verbatim.

Some senior scientists have been circulating a letter calling for the Academy Presidents to be dismissed. First I thought that was an over-reaction. Then I thought they may have a point. Now I think they did not go far enough. The academies should be dismantled. They have no understanding of scientific ethics. That makes them an active danger to Indian science.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

17 Comments

  1. “The academies should be dismantled. They have no understanding of scientific ethics. That makes them an active danger to Indian science.” – Indeed. If action of this proportion is NOT taken, I for one, will be very scared and skeptical about the future of Indian Science.

    Reply
    • Vinod Kumar Gaur

       /  November 23, 2010

      All the tenets I live by, makes me feel grievously wounded by the blow dealt to the Academy of
      which I happen to be a member, by the unprofessional, unscholarly and unethical conduct of those
      whose bounden duty is to embellish, enhance and protect its sacred values. Instead, I see the
      tenacious attempt to cling to its offices and continue to sully its image by their association.
      This is now a frequent occurrence, the last was the plagiarized report by a former President of
      INSA, on IPR, elicited by the Government for sagacious advice. Regrettably, such conducts score a
      winning value, witness the continued association of such offenders with the counsel of governance.
      Our democratic set up appears to have become an arena for jockeying by the lobbysts, forever
      defeating the Nation in securing the service of its ablest. So, even an impeccable
      PM is unable to choose an equally impeccable CV Officer. A large majority of Indians who will lead
      the nation tomorrow are under 25, and, the repository of most of our national asset in Idealism. Do
      we real;ize that these are gravely threatened by the unashamed cynicism of our generation.

      Reply
      • Rahul Siddharthan

         /  November 23, 2010

        Thanks for the comment. It is good to see non-anonymous comments, especially from well-known figures such as you. And I know you have spoken elsewhere. But as long as the majority of figures in the academies remain silent, nothing will change.

        Reply
  2. gaddeswarup

     /  November 17, 2010

    It seems that none of them have the stomach to do hard yakka.

    Reply
  3. Roy

     /  November 17, 2010

    I am not a scientist but still this pains me. This is shocking! Unbelievable! Thank God for blogosphere and the new media. I am sure this level of shoddiness has been there for the past many decades but now we are able to catch these fellows in their act. A great post. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. TGFI

     /  November 17, 2010

    Is there any attention being drawn to this in the mainstream media? Gosh. This angers me on so much. Accountability is simply non-existent in India, it appears. :(

    Reply
  5. Rahul

     /  November 17, 2010

    I found the last sentence most amusing — the Fellowship has sufficient maturity and independence to proceed further without fear or favour. What was that old bromide about ‘… rush in where angels fear to tread’. BTW the capitalisation of Fellowship gives it the air of the Tolkien Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe that’s where they belong! Why can’t they just call themselves the Academy? It all sounds like some secret society with super secret initiation ceremonies where ancient charms are chanted.

    Reply
  6. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 18, 2010

    Rahul: that’s what it’s meant to sound like.

    All: I strongly suspect this document was not meant to be public (just as, it says, the original report wasn’t), and it is on the INSA webpage merely as a lazy way to share it with the “insiders”. But I am glad it leaked out.

    Another point that I forgot to make above: the original report gives absolutely no indication that it is meant to be an interim or preliminary report.

    The dictum that comes to my mind is: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” But nobody told Messrs Vijayan and co.

    Reply
  7. Rahul: Excellent post. You nailed it right! The “the Fellowship” thing would be funny, if these were just another bunch of folks. [You know the above requires two “the”s.] Coming from “prestigious” academies, this is beyond pale.

    The statements: “In the present instance, references could have been added in the initial stage itself and can be given now. Then, of course, the controversy can shift to which references have been and have not been cited.”
    makes one wonder if it is an Onion piece.

    Alas, it isn’t. When a joke news site sounds more plausible than INSA… “we are in deep sh*t fellows” (as Jon Stewart said when he skewered Crossfire).

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  November 23, 2010

      Thanks, belatedly, for the comment and it is good to see posts like yours with real names (and real web pages) attached. The problem, as I see it, is that the majority don’t speak up, and therefore those who do are classified as trouble-makers and easily ignored — even very eminent figures like Pushpa Bhargava.

      Reply
  8. Amritanshu Prasad

     /  November 24, 2010

    Thanks Rahul, for bringing these out. It seems that the public response from the academies is still a deafening silence.

    Reply
  9. ” In the present instance, references could have been added in the initial stage itself and can be given now. Then, of course, the controversy can shift to which references have been and have not been cited. (page 5)”

    So, we can all now hand in term papers and research papers without references! The disclaimer would be “Evaluate or review my work, not my references” ! Boy, theses have been rejected for mere lack of up-to-date references!

    Reply
  10. The “updated”
    report is on the INSA website now.

    I have not had the time to look through it, but it seems that the most of the letter you released has found its way into the update. It has 109 references, but David Andow’s report does not make it to the list.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  December 7, 2010

      Amri – thanks. I’ll take a look. It’s disappointing that they think this sort of response is adequate.

      Reply
  11. Dr. Shanthus Shantharam

     /  October 3, 2011

    I do not know how many of you realize that Dr. P. Anandkumar is the author of the piece that everyone believes has been lifted out of Dr. Anandkumar’s original piece in DBT’s Biotech Newsletter. It is absurd to suggest Dr. Anandkumar plagiarized from his own article. All said and done, the first draft of the academy report was shoddy. However, the scientific stance of the academy on the safety of GM crops has always been accurate and agrees with the opinions of all scientific bodies in the world. The reason that most anti-GM activists don’t like the report is that it supportss GM crops based on scientific facts. But, had the same “shoddy” report discounted GM crops, it would have been lapped up by all these noise makers. Actually, it is the message in the report that most people so not like than the report itself. I do not doubt that these academies did not do themselves a favor by submitting such a shoddy report to begin with. Second version of report is definitely better than the first one, but they have lost lots of credibility.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  October 3, 2011

      It is absurd to suggest Dr. Anandkumar plagiarized from his own article.

      Look up self-plagiarism. Quoting oneself is OK as long as it is acknowledged clearly. In this case, Dr Anandakumar was not an author of the Academies report (there were no authors) and not even cited (there were no citations in the original report, and none in his name in the revised report). And though the revised report still has no authors; it does list the “participants” in the “brain storming meeting” (p30) and that list does not include Dr Anandakumar!

      I am not an “anti-GM activist” — in fact I am of the opinion that every single plant we consume today is genetically modified over thousands of years of breeding and we are no longer capable of digesting most “wild” varieties. I am, however, against the GM companies like Monsanto and their business practices; their past record merits the most careful scrutiny of every action they take, especially in a country like India. The academy report was scientifically a disgrace and did not even attempt to address the socioeconomic concerns.

      Reply
  1. Recent links on the academies’ saga | E's flat, ah's flat too

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s