Protecting the autonomy of scientific research organizations: The Tribune India

Dinesh C. Sharma

Scientific commentator

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) prepared by experts from Yale University ranked India at the lowest position in the ranking given to 180 countries. The index is based on countries’ performance on 40 indicators in 11 categories, such as climate change, environmental health and ecosystem vitality. As it happens with such global rankings where India does poorly, the central government has criticized the methodology, choice of metrics, etc.

Some experts have tried to amplify the government version, saying the metrics used to judge India’s climate change performance are flawed. The biodiversity metric set includes protected area coverage, wildlife protection and biodiversity habitat. The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has argued that “data-intensive metrics may not be appropriate or effective in capturing a country’s performance in biodiversity protection. and housing”.

In the aftermath of the EPI report, reports emerged that the MoEFCC issued an order to the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to have its scientific reports checked by bureaucrats based in Paryavaran Bhawan, Delhi, before publish them. On the one hand, the MoEFCC is telling Yale that its report is based on unsubstantiated assumptions and on the other hand, it is trying to stifle the very system that generates scientific data on key ecological issues.

This is not the first time that a “supervisory ministry” interferes in the operation of an academic institution that it funds. Like the WII, which is an autonomous body under the MoEFCC, central ministries have research institutions affiliated with or funded by them. During the pandemic, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministry of Health Research effectively censored scientific data that would have confirmed the occurrence of community transmission of the virus as early as May 2020. If these results had been published , it would have gone against the political rhetoric of the time that India was doing extremely well in controlling the virus. As the following months proved, the situation had not been so.

Government departments try to pressure scientists even when they are not under their command. During the NDM-1 superbug exposure in India by British scientists in 2009, the Ministry of Health and the ICMR threatened experts working in private institutions not to give their opinion on the extent of the NDM-1 and drug resistance. This was to control negative publicity that could have harmed medical tourism. It is another matter that the Ministry of Health was forced to acknowledge the problem of drug resistance only months later and form a task force. In 2018, ISRO reprimanded researchers at a private engineering school for reporting a major flaw in its NavIC positioning system – interference with WiFi signals.

The role of research institutes like the WII and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) based in Nagpur is very critical as they are not only engaged in academic research but also conduct studies vital for governance and sustainability. development of environmental policies. These institutes conduct environmental and wildlife impact assessment studies for major projects seeking green clearance from the MoEFCC.

In the mid-1990s, WII scientists caused a stir when they reported in a scientific journal that the status of Olive Ridley sea turtles – an endangered species – on the east coast would deteriorate further due to major projects. in the region as well as mechanized trawling. The sea turtle is well known for mass nesting when thousands of them migrate to the breeding ground to mate and nest simultaneously at Gahirmatha. The big project in question was the missile testing area developed by APJ Abdul Kalam on the island adjacent to Gahirmatha. “The bright lights on DRDO Island were extremely dangerous to the turtles,” the WII scientists wrote. Later, defense scientists agreed to use “controlled lighting” in their missile campaigns. It is such independent scientific opinion that the present dispensation fears.

Research institutes are often called upon by courts to provide “independent” and expert opinion in important environmental cases – from smart cities to Char Dham highway development projects. For example, while giving the green light to the Char Dham project on national security grounds, the Supreme Court constituted an “oversight committee” to ensure that environmental concerns were taken into account. Technical assistance to this committee will be provided by experts from NEERI and the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun.

In a case relating to violation of environmental standards by Mangaluru Smart City Limited, the state government has agreed to seek assistance from NEERI. IIT-Roorkee’s export reports have often contributed to the green permit process granted to large hydroelectric projects.

However, several NEERI reports in the past have been harshly criticized for being biased in favor of project developers. Most infamous was his report on the Taj Trapezium case in which the Mathura Refinery’s contribution to air pollution was downplayed and small industries were blamed for the pollution. Recently, the services of the director of the institute have been interrupted due to accusations of corruption, and the appointment of a new one has taken an unusually long time.

All of this does not bode well for the proper functioning of national laboratories engaged in critical areas of research.

Direct or indirect scrutiny of the functioning of our research and academic institutions by political leaders or bureaucracy has serious implications for scientific research. In recent years, we have seen such interference grow at all levels. The scientific rigor of research, whatever its purpose, must be maintained at all costs. Research results must be released into the public domain, unless it is a classified project. Scientists should be free to discuss their work and defend it publicly, if necessary, in scientific journals and the media.

Unfortunately, our main policy-making bodies, like the Department of Science and Technology and the Office of the Chief Science Adviser, or “independent” bodies like the National Academy of Sciences of India, prefer to remain silent on the need to protect autonomy and freedom in national scientific institutions. They must act before it is too late.

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