Saturday, October 12, 2013

DBT's Stand on Research Ethics

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), an arm of the Government of India that funds scientific research especially in biological and biomedical sciences, has issued a statement devoted to "the handling of allegations of research misconduct", and it is "intended to address situations where this foundation of integrity may be compromised."

The statement is a modified version of that from the Wellcome Trust-DBI India Alliance (which is acknowledged right at the beginning as being the primary source). It provides guidelines for individual organizations:

  • The organization has the responsibility to "investigate all allegations of research misconduct made against its staff and students."

  • The organization also has the responsibility to notify DBT "at the earliest opportunity ... whenever there is prima facie credibility in allegations of a serious nature"

  • The organization must "have in place formal written procedures for dealing with allegations of research misconduct"

This is a great initiative, and I am very glad to see DBT taking the lead to address this policy vacuum. I hope the other funding agencies will follow suit.

It is not clear if this statement has any teeth. I am saying this only because the it has only two instances of the word "must," as in "the organization must do this"; most of the other sentences go, like, "the organization is expected to this."

Which raises the question: what Will DBT do if an institution chooses to ignore one of the two "musts" in the statement: "must have in place formal written procedures ..."?

The statement is also incomplete in the sense that it leaves certain things out -- for example, it does not talk about anonymous whistle blowing. Also, it has nothing to say about making the results of misconduct investigations public. I presume the document will be updated to fill these gaps over time; but it will happen only if the broader scientific community feels filling such gaps is important.

I am not sure how long the DBT statement has been in place (Vishu Guttal, a colleague at IISc, sent me this link a few days ago).

It will be very interesting to see how our universities, IIXs, and R&D labs respond to it.

As I said, it's a great initiative; still, it's only a start.


  1. Phani said...

    A policy that outlines a desired behavior without an action for a deviation is not really a policy but just wishful thinking. It will have no effect.

  2. Vijay said...

    Hi Abi
    Thanks. We will have updates as we get feedback, such as yours. @Phani: I thought the section on sanctions adresses your point. Unless I missed something.
    FYI We will be starting google hangout sessions on these and other topics soon (within a couple of months :-))