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How conflict of interest is murdering science in India

E Arunan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, believes that it is more problematic for us than nepotism and favouritism.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   24-04-2018
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Conflict of interest is not an issue that’s talked about openly in Indian academic and scientific circles. And so, an editorial on the subject in Current Science — a flagship journal of Bengaluru based Indian Academy of Sciences — has raised quite a few eyebrows. The editorial, penned by E Arunan, a member of the editorial board and a professor at the Indian Institute of Sciences, is bold and scathing, stating that conflict of interest is doing more damage to Indian science than nepotism and favouritism.

The work of people in academic and scientific research institutions is primarily driven by research grants, projects, fellowships, awards and positions. And selection committees that govern all this are ridden with a severe conflict of interest. “One can see scientists sitting in committees, selecting their own students or junior colleagues from among a list of scientists for an award, a fellowship, position or project. This is not the same as recommending your student or younger colleague,” the editorial notes.

This constitutes a conflict of interest because senior scientists select their students — not for their merit alone — but “expect the beneficiary to show some gratitude” later on. This means those students or juniors with an independent line of thinking don’t get selected.

“Beneficiaries of this kind of selection process expect the next generation to behave the same way. In a few generations, our system would have ended up choosing the most subservient people for top positions,” Arunan has pointed out.

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The editorial says this system is in place even for positions at the higher level where it’s more of quid pro quo or confluence of interests. Persons holding top positions with the power to approve a grant or a project to an institution should not join the same institution in some capacity after their retirement. Raman Research Institute (RRI), founded by CV Raman, has been cited as an example. The institute started looking out for a director only after Raman passed away in 1970, at 82.

And the selection committee found no one more suitable than Raman’s son — V Radhakrishnan, who was living in California and had no formal degree. “Why did Raman not groom a successor during his tenure? Why didn’t anyone from within the RRI or anywhere else in the world get picked to succeed Raman? Have actions like these throughout our history led India to perform below its potential?” the editorial asks.

Coming from a practising scientist at one of India’s topmost research institutions, these remarks should not be brushed aside as mere expression of some sort of frustration or denial. All those concerned need to introspect and take remedial measures, particularly making transparent procedures for selection for top positions, grants, awards and projects.

Every institution involved — beginning with funding agencies — should develop a code defining conflict of interest. They must lay down procedures to implement and enforce the code. While the editorial refers only to scientific institutions, the malaise is seen across the academic world including our universities. Hopefully, the editorial will generate public discourse on the issue and lead to some action.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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