What’s wrong with Indian Science? From an iron grip of a cartel to plagiarism Dr Hegde sketches out the reasons as to why Science in India is stuck where it is
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” - Albert Einstein
Most of what we do as science in India is a replica of western research. The government of India had commissioned Indian-born American Scientist, who also taught at Penn State University, the late Professor Rustum Roy, to assess Indian laboratories for their academic work standards. If my memory serves, I remember him telling me that most of the laboratories and their bosses needed to be rejuvenated. I have asked his wife, Professor Della Roy, a great scientist in her own right at the Penn State University, to fish out any copy of that report. I got the impression from him that his report was not acted upon by the then government.
It was a pleasant surprise for me to see an extensive article on Indian science in the Indian Express
a week ago. It spoke of the stranglehold on the scientific culture, by an oligarchy of about 10 people, who have been ruling the science world in India for the last couple of decades.
Each one is trying to pat the other on the back and getting all the benefits distributed among themselves, with some breadcrumbs thrown at some of their cronies. What makes the article a little dicey is that the author himself was a “Sarkari” scientist for a long time. Does it not make him one of the beneficiaries of the “oligarchy”?
At the same time, he is best qualified to write on the inner workings of Indian science, having been a part of it for so long. Of course, he could not have voiced his disagreements when he was a government servant. We should congratulate him for his article even though it came a bit too late in the day.
The “oligarchy” wants to keep its clan small and exclusive so as to get all the benefits. If you keep yourself in a closed society, you will become more powerful. This group has been advising both the Prime Minister and the Parliament (two separate groups), over the last 10-odd years. They keep the science academy membership and Presidentship tightly under their thumb.
India is probably the only country that has three science academies! This cartel gets all the top jobs like national professorships, awards and lifelong jobs with pay and comfortable bungalows in metros. Some of them were even nominated to be members of the upper house of Parliament. A few even get regular pensions in addition to their other perks.
What is science research today? Success in getting large grants from government and other sources, ability to get their papers planted in so called “respectable journals”, fattening their CVs, being on government committees, especially if the committee has any foreign trips scheduled, pontificating on the greatness of science in the media, delivering convocation addresses to motivate budding scientists in Universities etc.
Luckily, no one ever tries to audit what they do or where they publish. I shall give the reader a taste of what these “respectable journals” do in the words of a 2013 Nobel Laureate in medicine, Randy Schekman, Berkeley University professor of cell biology:
“Writing in the Guardian, Randy Schekman raises serious concerns over the journals' practices and calls on others in the scientific community to take action. I have published in the big brands, including papers that won me a Nobel Prize. But no longer," he writes. "Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals."
In an op-ed to The Guardian on Monday 13th December 2013, Schekman said his lab will no longer be sending papers to “luxury” journals — particularly Nature, Cell and Science — that he claims are creating incentives that negatively impact research.
Amita Gorur, a graduate student at Randy’s laboratory at Berkeley, said “I think it’s time to make a change, everybody has to change their way of thinking — it’s the quality of work that matters and not where you publish.”
India's top scientists know that it is the politician who controls research money at the end of the day. They know how to keep the powers that be under their control. Most politicians think “science” is sacrosanct and needs to be patronised. They swoon at the very mention of science.
The next is the area of fraud in science research. “The incidence of retractions due to fraud is increasing, a trend that should be concerning to scientists and non-scientists alike,” wrote Dr Arturo Casadevall, chair and professor of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
An American researcher thought that his country had the highest fraud rate in the world. Dr Abinandanan from Indian Institute of Science did a study about Indian fraud rates and found that we probably have the highest rate in the world. He goes on to say that “First, plagiarism is overwhelmingly the primary mode of misconduct in India. Of the 69 retracted papers, the retraction of 45 could be traced to some form of scientific misconduct -- plagiarism (of both text and data) and self-plagiarism accounted for 26 and 18, respectively. Only one paper was retracted due to what might amount to falsification. Second, at 44 per 100,000 papers, India’s misconduct-related retraction rate is far higher than the world average for all retractions (due to misconduct as well as genuine errors) of about 17. And, third, this rate could be said to have accelerated during the decade -- while it was 34 during the first half, it rose to 48 in the second half.” Greed and competition must be at the root of it all.
After going through the above audit, I get a feeling that Indian science is better than many others as only ONE paper was retracted for falsification of data, whereas many in the west fall into that category.
On the question of plagiarism, I have a feeling that many of our young scientists have not been properly educated about the illegality and ethical problems of plagiarism. I don’t think they do it deliberately. Many of the scientists I talk to, think that it is not a sin. Their mentors should take pains to tell them how to quote another scientist's work.
Self-plagiarism is a different cup of tea. Although it is one’s own writing one must take similar precautions but we cannot club that as such a bad sin as stealing ideas from others. There is another group of Indian scientists who really do wish to do good work but cannot survive in the current environment. They suffer in silence or the more enterprising ones migrate abroad. If we can clean our scientific stables they might be encouraged to work better.
We have to demystify science for the benefit of the common man and the funding agencies headed by politicians. “The personality of science is neither that of a chivalrous knight nor that of a pitiless juggernaut” wrote Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, physicists from the Universities of Bath and Cornell, respectively in their book, The Golem. It is the scientist that is good or bad depending on the way s/he does science and for what purpose? For the common man who wants to know about science all of it looks controversial.
Karl Popper, a great thinker and professor of Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics in the 1950s, had rightly pointed out that “knowledge advances NOT by repeating known facts, but by REFUTING false dogmas.” If one were to measure Indian science with that yardstick, it has hardly taken knowledge forwards in any area.
May be we have been able to innovate in some technologies, like in rocket science. We have brilliant young minds that need to be motivated by the examples of our elders. The new government should think deeply about the usefulness of the oligarchy that has not been a great motivator thus far.
“It is a fraud of the system to call the sciences human invention; it is only the application of them (technology) that is human. Every science has for its basis a system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed. Man cannot make principles—he can only discover them.” - Thomas Paine
(Professor Dr BM Hegde
, a Padma Bhushan awardee in 2010, is an MD, PhD, FRCP (London, Edinburgh, Glasgow & Dublin), FACC and FAMS. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Science of Healing Outcomes, chairman of the State Health Society's Expert Committee, Govt of Bihar, Patna. He is former Vice Chancellor of Manipal University at Mangalore and former professor for Cardiology of the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, University of London.)