Recent links on the academies’ saga

In the new issue of Current Science, Gautam R Desiraju, professor of chemistry at IISc Bangalore and one of our most eminent and most outspoken senior scientists, has an opinion piece arguing for the unification of our three academies of science. For a country of our modest scientific achievements, three academies is certainly two too many — if not three too many. Desiraju reviews the history of the academies, describes why previous attempts to unite them failed, and puts forward his own proposal for unification that, I think, must be taken seriously if the academies are to be taken seriously at all.


Meanwhile, the academies have put out a revised version of their report on GM crops that had caused so much commotion. Not only was its verbatim reproduction of a previous document troubling, but Gautam Menon and I, among others, had argued that it was extremely unprofessional of the academy to publish a report that lacked authors, references, or statements on conflict of interest. INSA was mostly dismissive of such concerns — arguing, for instance, that if they inserted references, the rest of us could quibble about “which references have or have not been cited”. Their new document includes 109 references, and fails to include one of the most-cited reports on the topic, by David Andow (available here). The Bt Brinjal section is rewritten but its content is the same. Other than that, there seem to be no changes of significance. It continues to be authorless; it lists the participants of a meeting on June 1, but not all of those participants agreed with the views in the report, nor does the report claim that they do. It almost entirely ignores the question of socio-economic impact. And, of course, it makes no statement on conflicts of interest.

Is it too much to ask that scientists from our top scientific academies, when penning a report, actually step up to take individual responsibility for what they write, and disclose their possible conflicts of interest (or declare explicitly that none exist)? Why must they hide themselves amongst the names of colleagues, of whom many are ambivalent and some have expressed strong dissent?

INSA also links to the slides of the presentations at the June 1 meeting. G Padmanaban makes a verbose, but somewhat emotional and content-free, case for approving GM crops. On the other hand, P C Kesavan makes a strong case for caution. None of Kesavan’s points are discussed adequately in the report. Most other presentations fall somewhere between these extremes.

The Minister had himself raised several questions in a February report, linked on the ministry’s website. The academies’ original report made no effort to address most of those questions, and the revision does not, either. I know of at least one participant, listed (as is Kesavan) in the new report, who voiced his concerns very articulately to the group; his views have been entirely ignored, too. The revised report will be equally ignored, and deservedly so.

The affair is a continuing disgrace. Prof Desiraju makes some good points in his article; but at this point, I think the academies should not be unified, but abolished. We do not need this sort of “leadership”.

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7 Comments

  1. bingo

     /  December 10, 2010

    You think that the academies should be abolished, and that you do not need this kind of leadership ? But they do not provide ‘leadership’ of any kind, do they ?

    On a serious note, merging them together is the need of the hour. Having 3 science academies shows exactly what is wrong with Indian Science. It is (predominantly) made up of silly pompous asses. At least the academies are.

    But that surely does not mean that we do not need academies of any kind. The minister involved in this episode was wise to have asked for ‘advise’ from these science academies. That the academies themselves screwed up spectacularly is a different matter. Abolishing them for posterity is to presume that the next generation of Indian scientists would be just as silly as the current lot. A tad unfair, don’t you think ?

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  December 11, 2010

      bingo – what do you see as the purpose of academies? Assuming that the next generation of Indian scientists are not as silly as the current lot, what would they accomplish via the academies?

      It is true that the academies do some good work — the summer fellowship programme and a handful of good journals (Current Science is valuable as a medium of discussion for Indian science, and Resonance is one of the best educational journals around, thanks to the editors over the years who have done top-notch work). It is not clear to me that the academies are actually required for these to continue. They are more a prestige thing: senior scientists like to have lots of abbreviations beginning with “F” after their names.

      I would also not characterise all the senior scientists today as “silly”. A great many of them, I know, have articulately spoken up about this GM report business, and have been ignored. It is not that the leadership at the academies is not getting inputs from highly respected people: it is that they are ignoring those inputs. So it seems to me that the Academies do not, in any sense, speak for Indian science.

      The first version report could be called a mistake. The revised version, and INSA’s justification, are not. They are an expression of contempt to the rest of us.

      Reply
  2. bingo

     /  December 11, 2010

    Rahul,

    As you have written, the academies do some good work. What is has failed to, is to play any kind of role in policy formation, or of engaging and educating the society as a whole. They got a wonderful chance to do the first one, and blundered like hell.

    As you have rightly said, the mistake of the first version pales in comparison to the second version, which is a disgraceful shocker. A bunch of Grad students could have done a far more professional job. Which brings us to the moot question …. why are the office bearers of these academies not accountable to the ‘fellows’ ?

    The way out would be to have academies which function more democratically, and where blunders of this kind are remedied, rather than being glossed over. For this we need ‘fellows’ (who are not silly pompous asses) who are willing to stand up and be counted. I wonder why is it that not a single fellow offered to resign from the academies in the aftermath of this scandal, stating that he/she did not wish to be part of this joke ??

    Reply
  3. V. Balakrishnan

     /  December 22, 2010

    I liked that bit about INSA telling you that, had references been given in the original report, there would have been quibbling about which ones had been cited and which ones had not. Years ago, when I asked a former departmental colleague why he had never given a seminar on his work in more than 30 years of service, he was equally dismissive of the idea, reacting with a deeply shocked, “What! And have all sorts of people commenting on and criticising my work?”

    As for standing up to be counted, it seems to be a national trait to be extremely cautious, and to ensure that, above all, that the sobriquet “outspoken” does not fall upon oneself. When the Rajput plagiarism scandal was going on, I was somewhat taken aback to see how small a number of older scientists had cared (or dared) to sign the petition when I got the opportunity to see it and add my signature to it. When Current Science published, many years ago, some work that was pure numerology by an eminent personality, I wrote to the editor asking whether there was a problem in accurately naming simple garden implements (i.e., calling a spade a spade). I was
    pleasantly surprised (and touched) to get a personal explanation from the then senior editor, informing me that the paper had been sent to a third referee who endorsed publication. I was not given any names, naturally, nor did I ask for any. But it was mentioned that the third reviewer was an also eminent scientist. And I did see the report itself, which began with a sentence about the paper having been written by “an eminent…” Whereupon I returned the report without reading it any further, remarking that that opening alone would have been sufficient for me to give no further credence to the report. To me, this episode of eminences, so-to-speak, is a microcosm of what ails our science.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

       /  December 22, 2010

      The credibility of an Indian scientist is inversely proportional to the number of times he or she uses the words “eminent”, “world class” and “distinguished”.

      Reply
    • bingo

       /  December 22, 2010

      Dear Prof. V B,

      There is a very simple reason why we as a nation are extremely cautious. It is just to see that we do not end up rubbing the ‘powerful’ chaps the wrong way, so that we do not give ‘them’ an opportunity to screw us.

      Thus, if a young faculty makes a hue and cry about how the ‘elders’ are misbehaving, he runs the risk of being branded a loony, and being harassed on a number of fronts. We all know that talk of ‘irreverence’ (like Mashelkar’s editorial in Science) is only lip-service…. many of our science managers are fanatically intolerant to criticism.

      Which is all the more reason for the principled among our seniors to ‘stand up to be counted’ .. don’t you think ?

      Reply
  4. V. Balakrishnan

     /  January 9, 2011

    @bingo:

    I’m sorry, I didn’t follow up on this thread. I’ve just seen your response.

    Yes. I think it is necessary for older people who retain some principles to stand up to be counted whenever it becomes necessary to do so. They run a very real risk in doing so—the risk of being marginalised—but at the least they can return to the pavilion, when their time comes, with their self-respect intact, knees unscraped, and without the lingering after-taste of boot-polish.

    As for the unification of the academises, this can only occur at energies even higher than the GUT scale (even the Mughals and the British could barely unify us). But in another sense, they are already unified, because it is obvious that the eminences right on top comprise a very sparse set. And no feather falls from any sparrow, etc., without appropriate sanction, as should again be quite obvious.

    Reply

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