Report on INSA- SSV Seminar on "Ethics in Science"

Jointly organized by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) and the Society for Scientific Values (SSV), a Seminar on "Ethics in Science" was held at INSA premises for half a day on March 8, 2003. In his inaugural remarks, Prof M S Valiathan, President INSA, underlined the ethical concerns which have taken a central place in global societies particularly after the second world-war due to ever increasing role of science and technology in our lives. With rapid advances in life sciences, issues of medical, genetic and ecological sciences are riddled with ethical problems which are of concern to government departments, social organizations, NGOs, academies and learned societies. The dilemma of ethics for a scientist is epitomized by what Duryodhana of Mahabharat said : " I know what I ought to do but I cannot do it; I know what I ought not do but I cannot help doing it".

Prof Valiathan stated that several Indian and international agencies such as WHO, UNESCO, ICSU, ICMR and DBT have dealt with ethical issues in the pursuit of S &T in various documents. However, the problems and concern of developing societies have not been addressed to in these documents. INSA has, therefore, taken an initiative to set up an inter-academy committee of all Indian scientific academies under the Chairmanship of Prof M G K Menon to prepare a document to take care of the concern and response of developing nations. Representing Prof Menon, Prof P N Tandon elaborated on the task of this inter-academy committee and on how the Academies can provide moral and ethical leadership to the scientific establishments of the country.

In his introduction to the Seminar, Prof Chopra stated that whereas Science by itself is neutral to Ethics, its pursuit and the scientist are not. Because of the multidimensional and functional aspects of Ethics, neither a universal definition nor a universal code of ethics can be formulated. Nevertheless, unethical practices are easily discernable to concerned and conscientious peers. Being honest to oneself and accountable to others is as good a definition as possible. The foundation of ethics lies in values within a civilized society. So, why has ethics in science and technology assumed global concern today? Ethics is central to the process of creation of Knowledge. And, today, Knowledge is the engine which drives globalised free market economies in the world. Knowledge is the new currency of wealth of a nation. International organizations have been set up to ensure universal acceptance of some sort of ethics.

Frailty: thy name is Mankind! Unethical practices are a part and parcel of frail human beings every where, though to varying degrees. It would be naïve to think that a nation which is known for corruption in all its governance systems would have an island of ethical practices in our S &T establishments. Prof Chopra listed a number of examples of unethical and corrupt practices for the scientific bodies to ponder over. The practice of claiming co-authorship in a research paper by a supervisor or sectional head without contributing much continues to be a common practice in our national laboratories of CSIR, DRDO, ICMR, ICAR, etc. Fake degrees and honours are available by mail and on internet. Appointments to senior posts of Directors/ Vice Chancellors are being increasingly made on the basis of political understanding or pliability. Appointments and transfers of faculty in state controlled institutions call for bribes. Bribes and kick-backs are creeping in our national funding agencies and departments. Questionable claims of achievements are being made by government departments through lavish advertisements. Plagiarism and other academically unethical practices are not at all uncommon even in our institutes of excellence such as IITs and Central Universities.

The SSV has examined some of the cases of unethical practices brought to its attention. A popular national magazine has listed a number of Vice Chancellors as Chancellors of Vice and yet they continue to do business with Knowledge. The tragedy is that not many Heads of Institutions are prepared even to acknowledge the existence of such a problem, leave alone take any action. The soft peddaling of cases of plagiarism, and multiple publications of essentially the same paper hurts the image of Indian science. It is most painful to see that despite a clear evidence of plagiarism being given by peers in India, no action is taken. The infamous case of Prof Rajput, the VC of Kumaon University, is in point. The SSV and numerous others made all efforts to move the President of India, the state and central governments but nothing would move till three American scientists wrote to the President for an immediate action. This point was later elaborated further by Dr Indira Nath who was inducted in as a member of the enquiry committee in this case.

Prof R Natarajan, Chairman AICTE, spoke on professional ethics, values, and accountability of engineers and engineering teachers. While engineers have a special responsibility in the profession, the engineering teacher has responsibilities towards teaching, guidance, consultancy, R&D, etc. He discussed the principles of professional engineering ethics and the virtues of a professional engineer and academic integrity. A code of conduct for engineers in Tamil Nadu was presented. With rampant corruption around, Prof Natarajan said, we must correct prevalent unethical practices with a top-down approach and then at grass roots.

Dr Vasantha Muthuswamy, Dy D G, ICMR spoke on genetic and genomic research and the ensuing issues of accountability. Genetic engineering, cloning, embryo and stem cell research, genetically modified organisms, gene therapy, transplantation etc have opened a pandora's box as far as societal and global concerns with ethical, legal and social issues are concerned. The need of the hour, according to Dr Muthuswamy, is to develop appropriate scientific and ethical review procedures and regulatory systems. And, it should be our long term strategy to sensitize researchers and to teach principles and policies of research ethics in academic institutions.

Prof P N Srivastava discussed the role of scientific societies and academies in creating awareness on ethical issues, in monitoring unethical practices and in applying moral pressure on concerned authorities for punitive action. He highlighted the activities of the SSV, in particular the conduct of four national seminars on various aspects of Ethics by the Society in the last decade or so (Note: the Proceedings of these Seminars are available with the SSV), its efforts in enquiring into a no of plagiarism cases brought to the attention of the Society, and its sensitization programs.. Prof Srivastava queried if we need an Office of Research Integrity (as in USA), or if INSA could perform a proactive role. He also made several suggestions for ensuring ethical practices. One that needs our whole hearted support to improve accountability is that an approved and final copy of the PhD thesis of a student should list the names of the examiners of the Thesis so that it is a public knowledge.

Several interventions by participants made suggestions on code of conduct for ethical practices and its implementation. Dr P N Tiwari detailed a model code and steps to implement it. Dr A R Verma suggested that those who may have done something unethical inadvertantly should be given an opportunity to confess and clear their conscience. And, some felt that we must take action against senior scientists for their unethical actions to set a good example.

A summarized version of the proceedings of the Seminar will be circulated to the interested participants. It was generally agreed that unethical practices in the pursuit of S&T in our country are a matter of serious concern. Spreading awareness of the importance of ethical conduct throughout the scientific community should be one of the major goals of scientific societies and leading scientists. And, like charity, Ethics should begin at home, with our scientific leaders and administrators as role models.

K L Chopra


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