Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A slap in the face of India's science academies

Here's the gist of what appears to be a well-deserved slap from a minister:

Virtually trashing the report by six top academies which favoured “limited release” of genetically modified brinjal, the Environment Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh today said it does not give a larger scientific view and focused only on findings o f a scientist.

Endorsing views of an advocacy group that alleged that the report was plagiarised, Mr Ramesh said, “I had asked the academics to give the broader scientific view. But it is nothing else but the views of one scientist (Anand Kumar) which I had already kno wn much before the moratorium was placed on the release of the Bt brinjal.”

Clearly unhappy over the report which he had sought from the country’s leading academic institutes, the Minister said, “I do not want the six top science academics to tell me Anand Kumar’s view. I already know that.”

The science academies released their report -- Inter Academy Report on GM Crops sometime last week. You can download it from Arunn's site; see his post.]

Countercurrents.org already has a polemical piece from Devinder Sharma. You may not agree with the tone, but you at least know the man behind that that diatribe those harsh words. But you can't say the same thing about the report that went in the name of the six Indian academies of science, engineering and agriculture -- the report does not mention the authors anywhere. Indeed, as Sharma says, the disclosures should also include information on (potential) conflicts of interest of the authors (much like the disclosures that appear right at the beginning of any article in PLoS Medicine and other such journals -- see this one, for example):

... It will be interesting to know the names of the scientists who contributed to the report, and the research projects they have undertaken in the past along with the funding support.

Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh also gives the nation's top scientists a lesson in how to write a report:

“It doesn’t appear to be the product of rigorous scientific evaluation. There is not a single citation or reference in the report. So there is no way to know how the authors reached their conclusions. The report doesn’t even say who all were consulted in this exercise,” Ramesh said.

And, yes, we are witnessing that rare moment when a lot of people are going to agree with a minister-politician in his dispute with scientists over a serious policy issue in which science has a strong say.

This is a new low for India's science academies.

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Links to news stories on this issue: The Telegraph, India Today [see also this from February 2010].


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    It is disgraceful that our academies need lessons from Jairam Ramesh on how to write a report. When a minister asks for a report from the academies on one of the most pressing policy issues for the country, shouldn't our senior scientists take the task seriously? How did this happen? We need answers.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Well done Hon. Minister , At least some one like you are not working like a stamp Pad .good luck

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    Andow report
    seems worth reading.

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    swarup - thanks for that link!

  5. Anonymous said...

    This is very interesting. While the US and India based science communities hold almost the same opinion about science and the use of logic, their opinion about GMO differ sharply. Popular bloggers such as Dr.Candidate Abbie Smith (PhD candidate at U of Oklahoma), Dr. Steve Novella (neurologist, Yale University), Dr. PZ Myers, and several others are all but dismissive of any concerns over GMO. But the Indian science community thinks otherwise.

    This shabby report is a matter of concern but not the only one or even the most important.

    Some of the arguments made in favour of GMO food (or in favour of ignoring concerns over it) by the US science community are as follows.
    -That it is benign is not disproven
    -It requires less land use, and other resources and can feed many, many more, cheaply, and end hunger

    Even if we were to concede a point to Dr.Sharma that the Indian academies are waiting rooms for retired scientists, how can one ignore the fact that five other national academies including the Royal Society and the US's National Academy signed on a statement endorsing GMO? And are we questioning Dr. Borlaug's expertise, seriously, and his ethics? Nothing says we shouldn't, but should we with such flimsy evidence as a mere diatribe?

  6. gaddeswarup said...

    I think that the argument is not about GMO food in general but a particular one. In another recent paper The Risk of Resistance Evolution in Insects to Transgenic Insecticidal Crops, Andow says "Resistance risks are real and serious. However they can be managed to preserve the usefulness of transgenetic insecticidal crops in to the future." He seems to thibk that the attempt to foist GT Brinjal is hasty and the product is an old and not well tested one.

  7. gaddeswarup said...

    I do not have any expertise in this field but tried to follow a bit since I come from a family of farmers. Here are a few more articles that I have seen. About the difficulties of resistance risks, there is a paper Evolution in Action: Plants Resistant to Herbicides by Stephen B. Powles and Qin Yu and a blog post by Carl Zimmer How To Make A Superweed. Even in places where BT cotton is planted widely, there are still problems GMO crops and shifting agricultural food webs. A strong liason between science and farm is probably needed which seems to be available in countries like Australia. In USA scientists like Andow ( sometimes with the Union of Concerned Scientists) have been wotking for a long time on these problems.

  8. MP said...

    "That it is benign is not disproven"

    There are lots of not-so-nice things that fit this description, including:

    Violent video games
    Parents drinking in front of children
    Watching kiddie porn
    Carbon footprints
    Following astrological predictions


    So should we all go around encouraging everyone to adopt all these?

    I would like to see a public document listing the funding sources of all scientists who endorse GMO. I think there is a lot of ghost-writing happening in agriculture research as well.

  9. Anonymous said...


    Assuming their benign influence is not disproven is the least of your mistakes. Assuming that the degree of doubt in each case is the same as are the consequences are far worse.

    As of now the status re the following is

    Violent video games - no known effect on violence either in the US or Japan, the biggest consumers of this tripe

    Parents drinking in front of children - again does nothing to make your children alcoholics. It is worse if you suppress your drinking and not let children see what happens to you when you are drunk.

    Viagra - are you serious

    Watching kiddie porn - You can't be serious

    Carbon footprints - Are you a denialist?

    Following astrological predictions - it's none of your business! So would say a follower!

    The scientists I have cited aren't corrupt or compromised and differ sharply. A few months back when Scienceblogs.com hosted a page by Pepsi Foods, PZ Myers and a few others expressed outrage. While Abbie Smith (of ERV) argued that there is nothing wrong with it, and even ran a pro-junk food campaign on her blog. Some scientists walked out of Scienceblogs, never to return. Othrs stayed after assurances that Scienceblogs would behave themselves. Dr. Novella hosts his own blog. George Monbiot - anti-corporate and pro-environment activist, and humanist, who is my idea of Gandhi+King+Mandela for openness, is against GMO as it corporatises the food chain, but also agrees that it provides a way to eliminate hunger and that it has, damn the consequences. George also agrees that there is no evidence so far about the harmful effects of GMO foods. Do you get the idea? It is a far more nuanced topic than we imagine. I have my own reasons against Bt-Brinjal. India has the largest variety of Bt-Brinjal and of course the tastiest produce in the world, barring say South America. But our produce is not available in large quantities or cheaply enough for one and all. Bt-Brinjal by being a cheap strain, will stamp out the vast diversity of Indian brinjal.

  10. MP said...


    Sure, it is nuanced. Not sure how that relates to your earlier claim about GMO, which I understood as saying this: One of the central arguments made in favour of GMO is that "it is benign is not disproven". My examples were intended to show that this is a very unpersuasive argument, because lots of things we consider harmful fit the "not-disproven-as-benign" description.

    Corporations have a history of using "not-disproven benignity" as a cover to sell people dangerous things like Thalidomide, Heroin (A Bayer product at one time), Cocaine (included in Coca-Cola at one point), BPA, DDT, tobacco etc. Given all that wonderful experience, "not-disproven benignity" should not even be on the table as a supporting argument for GMO.

    The reputation and status of the scientists is irrelevant here, it is just bad reasoning to blindly trust companies (especially ones like Monsanto), and expect them to tell you what harmful effects their products have. It is also bad science, because biological systems are extremely complex, and it is very difficult to track the long-term effects of something like GMO on the human body, and ecosystems in general.

    As for the "eliminate-hunger" hype, it shows a non-nuanced understanding of hunger.

  11. Anonymous said...

    Well jbeck,
    I agree with your sentiment that sloppiness in the report itself does not in itself a reason for denial of the report. However, to me what is surprising in this report is the tone in which GM crops were approved and concern of opponents were just not discussed. I personally have two main concern related to damage to eco-system, and Food Independence (http://ansumali.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/bt-brinjal/). I read this report to see whether experts have answered any of these concern. Of course. I am assuming that my concern is shared by all those people who are not very enthusiastic to man made changes in eco system. At least, I failed to see
    any answer to my concern in the 6 member report.
    To me, reading the report was a validation of the view point that if a scientific report is written badly, there is a good chance that it is not trustworthy.
    Regarding your view that mainstream scientist in USA support GM crop, I do not know what evidence you have in that regard. A few blogger does not represent viewpoint of the whole USA.

    To me this report is a grim warning of what careless promotion of each and every scientific advancement can lead to
    At least, I would like to go European way, where typically caution is the way.

  12. Anonymous said...

    I think we should cut some slack for Jairam Ramesh, when we say "...rare moment when a lot of people are going to agree with a minister-politician..."

    He is one of the suavest and academically most distinguished ministers out there. (now that a certain Tharoor is laying low)