Research funding in India

After Vidya Krishnan of The Hindu broke the news of the ‘Dehradun Declaration‘, which imposed a startling funding restriction on the Centres for Scientific and Industrial Research, multiple perspectives on the issue came to light for me. One was about the tensions between funding curiosity-driven research and funding research conducted in the national interest (assuming for a moment that they’re mutually exclusive). Based on conversations I had with friends, I realised that for five questions – listed in the survey form below – the answers varied a lot (especially for questions 1, 2 and 5). So before I write anything, I’d like to know what other researchers have to say as well.

Please read the brief intro in the form below and fill it – it shouldn’t take more than five minutes of your time. I’ve a feeling we’ll all learn something from it. I’ll share the results once I have enough (>5-10) responses.

DNA Bill uploaded for feedback

The Department of Biotechnology, under the Ministry of Science & Technology, is soliciting feedback on the Human DNA Profiling Bill, a scanned copy of which has been uploaded to the DBT website – accessible here. It is dated June 9, 2015, and is accompanied by some handwritten corrections. Public feedback is being solicited after the Bill was slated to be introduced in the monsoon session of the Parliament. However, the introduction eventually didn’t happen at all thanks to washed out sessions.

The last date for submitting feedback is August 20, 2015, at this email address.

On July 24, The Wire had reported on numerous shortcomings in the draft Bill, largely concerning the lack of accountability and privacy safeguards, as well as the absence of any financial memoranda. While a government representative – Dr. J. Gowrishankar, director of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics – had responded to our criticisms on July 25, he nonetheless didn’t mention if the draft Bill would or wouldn’t be modified in response to the issues we had raised.

However, the June-9 version of the Bill on which feedback from the people has been solicited differs from the working draft we had used – dated January 16, 2015.

In the new version, the table of contents and preamble aren’t included; Gowrishankar had previously noted that the Bill would be tabled without the preamble. However, it’s unclear why the table of contents was left out, too, apart from having uploaded a scanned version of the Bill.

Anyway, such minor changes have been made throughout the Bill – although a few significant changes stand out as well. For instance, Section 12(k) of the working draft has been excluded from the new version, that the supervising DNA Profiling Board will be “making recommendations for maximising the use of DNA techniques and technologies in administration of justice”.

For another, the self-contradictory Section 14(2) of the draft Bill has been removed in the new draft, i.e. that DNA profiling labs in already in existence at the time of passing the Bill needn’t get approval to perform tests. Now, all labs – no matter how old or new – will require the Board’s permission to serve the Bill’s interests.

While largely well-intentioned, the older draft Bill lacked watertight safeguards against the abuse of the DNA profiles that’d be stored in the database. Specifically, it abdicated the responsibility of defining best practices for extracting the profiles, didn’t define any operational costs, didn’t factor in any of the privacy-related course corrections suggested by the 2012 Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy, provided for no anonymisation protocols, and vested too many powers in the overseeing Board.

With the removal of Section 12(k), the new draft gives the Board a less self-indulgent ambit, even if the drafting committee hasn’t gone farther than that to ensure there will be independent regulatory oversight. In a previous conversation, Gowrishankar had said that such oversight would stem by default from the Parliament, but the just-concluded monsoon session illustrates how important decisions concerning the database could be delayed simply because MPs are distracted by other commitments.

Just as well, the Group of Experts’ privacy recommendations are also still missing. Without them, the Bill doesn’t do the following things, even as they’ve come to be recognised as important limbs of an effective privacy law around the world.

  1. Provide a notice that DNA samples were collected from so-so areas of the body
  2. Inform anybody – particularly the individual – if and when her/his DNA is contaminated, misplaced or stolen
  3. Inform a person if a case involving her/his DNA is pending, ongoing or closed
  4. Inform the people when there are changes in how their DNA is going to be accessed, or if the way their DNA is being stored or used is changed
  5. Distinguish between when DNA can be collected with consent and when it can’t
  6. Say how volunteers can contribute their DNA to the database even though the draft Bill has a provision for voluntary submissions
  7. Provide any explicit guarantee that the collected DNA won’t be used for anything other than circumstances specified in the Bill
  8. Specify when doctors or the police can or can’t access DNA profiles

The new draft also contains a new provision – under Section 24(5) – that DNA profiles’ databases will set up in individual states as well without saying if the same safeguards that apply to the national repository will apply to the regional ones. So, as a result of all these omissions the new draft Bill remains, like its previously availed version, in a suboptimal state. But while it is odd that the draft was opened up for public feedback after it was set to to be introduced in Parliament – it usually happens before – it has been opened now, until August 20.

The Wire
August 18, 2015

India’s open access policy is out and about

On December 22, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Earth Sciences approved India’s first open access policy. The policy had been in the works since July 2014, when a committee of members affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) had drawn up the first draft. Following two rounds of receiving stakeholders’ comments, the policy came into immediate effect.

It mandates that all scientific research funded in part or in full by the government of India should be available in the public domain. To achieve this, it takes the green open access route. After scientists have published their paper in a journal of their choice, a copy of the paper is duly made available within one year on a national repository maintained by the DBT/DST. Then it gets better. The policy institutes a pay-it-forward mechanism to perpetuate the practice: scientists have to submit proof of having uploaded previous publicly funded research in future applications for grants.

These rules apply to all papers funded by grants from 2012-2013 onwards.

The policy itself is an important tool in the modern information economy because it is the simplest mechanism with which to extend the codified right to information. Open access also safeguards the value of scientific data and knowledge and frees it from a publishing business that, in order to safeguard its interests, trades them in for the demand for them. While this has been the traditional mode of scientific publishing – by getting the consumers downstream to pay the publishing costs – the open access movement moved the costs upstream. Now, the authors pay to get their work published.

Although publication in the DBT/DST national repository will be free of charge, this is a problem the country’s scientists would do well to consider as they adopt open access publishing. Effectively, what is the point of substituting one kind of inequality (richer vs. poorer readers) with another (richer vs. poorer authors)? The asymmetry arises when you consider two things:

  1. Scientists can offer have publishing costs covered through their grants or through funds from their universities, which can often afford such costs
  2. By moving costs upstream, the contents of the paper become already paid for and make them more accessible

This ‘access’ is the need of the hour. It – and the richer learning environment it brings with it – defines the ability of the scientific literature to leverage the agility of tools available to its audience to become more useful faster. Like the nuclear fusion on a star prevents it from imploding thanks to its own gravity, the acknowledgment of access’s centrality to social and economic development keeps the publishing enterprise imploding due to its own costs. After, it’s only a matter of efficiency: the easier you make it for information to get around, the faster you’re going to use it.

Nevertheless, the inequality substitution paradigm does become relevant when considering open access’s long-term interests: to make information available for all, including to those who can’t afford to publish their papers in open access journals. Over time, as the methods through which new scientific information reveals itself become standardized in much of the world, the principal challenges will be to make it ubiquitous at minimum extra costs. One solution being considered on this front is to transfer the burden to the journals themselves, alleviating the plights of the authors as well as readers, even while ensuring that journals are tasked with securing funds to cover for printing and publishing.

… in other words, acknowledging that if anybody needs to make the money, it’s them, and then helping them make the money for themselves.

But all said and done, a bright start for India. Hopefully adoption will be quick, although some institutions listed on the national repository’s webpage are already ahead. In fact, there are two repositories, one each for the DBT and the DST, while institutional repositories are listed separately. The domain itself, sciencecentral.in, leads to a handy text and metadata harvester parsing through all the information in the papers. Needless to say, the opportunities, both for instruction and criticism, are endless at this point, and provide another tool – like the RTI Act – with which to hold the government and its research priorities accountable to the people’s scientific temper.

India's open access policy is out and about

On December 22, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Earth Sciences approved India’s first open access policy. The policy had been in the works since July 2014, when a committee of members affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) had drawn up the first draft. Following two rounds of receiving stakeholders’ comments, the policy came into immediate effect.

It mandates that all scientific research funded in part or in full by the government of India should be available in the public domain. To achieve this, it takes the green open access route. After scientists have published their paper in a journal of their choice, a copy of the paper is duly made available within one year on a national repository maintained by the DBT/DST. Then it gets better. The policy institutes a pay-it-forward mechanism to perpetuate the practice: scientists have to submit proof of having uploaded previous publicly funded research in future applications for grants.

These rules apply to all papers funded by grants from 2012-2013 onwards.

The policy itself is an important tool in the modern information economy because it is the simplest mechanism with which to extend the codified right to information. Open access also safeguards the value of scientific data and knowledge and frees it from a publishing business that, in order to safeguard its interests, trades them in for the demand for them. While this has been the traditional mode of scientific publishing – by getting the consumers downstream to pay the publishing costs – the open access movement moved the costs upstream. Now, the authors pay to get their work published.

Although publication in the DBT/DST national repository will be free of charge, this is a problem the country’s scientists would do well to consider as they adopt open access publishing. Effectively, what is the point of substituting one kind of inequality (richer vs. poorer readers) with another (richer vs. poorer authors)? The asymmetry arises when you consider two things:

  1. Scientists can offer have publishing costs covered through their grants or through funds from their universities, which can often afford such costs
  2. By moving costs upstream, the contents of the paper become already paid for and make them more accessible

This ‘access’ is the need of the hour. It – and the richer learning environment it brings with it – defines the ability of the scientific literature to leverage the agility of tools available to its audience to become more useful faster. Like the nuclear fusion on a star prevents it from imploding thanks to its own gravity, the acknowledgment of access’s centrality to social and economic development keeps the publishing enterprise imploding due to its own costs. After, it’s only a matter of efficiency: the easier you make it for information to get around, the faster you’re going to use it.

Nevertheless, the inequality substitution paradigm does become relevant when considering open access’s long-term interests: to make information available for all, including to those who can’t afford to publish their papers in open access journals. Over time, as the methods through which new scientific information reveals itself become standardized in much of the world, the principal challenges will be to make it ubiquitous at minimum extra costs. One solution being considered on this front is to transfer the burden to the journals themselves, alleviating the plights of the authors as well as readers, even while ensuring that journals are tasked with securing funds to cover for printing and publishing.

… in other words, acknowledging that if anybody needs to make the money, it’s them, and then helping them make the money for themselves.

But all said and done, a bright start for India. Hopefully adoption will be quick, although some institutions listed on the national repository’s webpage are already ahead. In fact, there are two repositories, one each for the DBT and the DST, while institutional repositories are listed separately. The domain itself, sciencecentral.in, leads to a handy text and metadata harvester parsing through all the information in the papers. Needless to say, the opportunities, both for instruction and criticism, are endless at this point, and provide another tool – like the RTI Act – with which to hold the government and its research priorities accountable to the people’s scientific temper.

India’s OA policy: Learning from Ioannidis

India’s first Open Access policy was drafted by a committee affiliated with the Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology (DBT/DST) in early 2014. It hasn’t been implemented yet. Its first draft accepted comments on its form and function on the DBT website until July 25; the second draft was released last week and is open for comments until November 17, 2014. If it comes into effect, it could really expand the prevalence of healthy research practices in the Indian scientific community at a time when the rest of the world is handicapped by economies of scale and complexity to mandate their practice.

The policy aspires to set up a national Open Access repository, akin to PubMed for biomedical sciences and arXiv for physical sciences in the West, that will maintain copies of all research funded in part or in full by DBT/DST grants. And in the spirit of Open Access publishing, its contents will be fully accessible free of charge.

According to the policy, if a scientist applies for a grant, he/she must provide proof that previous research conducted with grants has been uploaded to the repository, and the respective grant IDs must be mentioned in the uploads. Moreover, the policy also requires institutions to set up their own institutional repositories, and asks that the contents of all institutional repositories be interoperable.

The benefits of such an installation are many and great. It would solve a host of problems that are starting to become more intricately interconnected and giving rise to a veritable Gordian knot of stakeholder dynamics. A relatively smaller research community in India can avoid this by implementing a few measures, including the policy.

For one, calls for restructuring the Indian academic hierarchy have already been made. Here, even university faculty appointments are not transparent. The promotion of scientists with mediocre research outputs to top administrative positions stifles better leaders who’ve gone unnoticed, and their protracted tenancy at the helm often stifles new initiatives. As a result, much of scientific research has become the handmaiden of defence research, if not profitability. In the biomedical sector, for example, stakeholders desire reproducible results to determine profitable drug targets but become loth to share data from subsequent stages of the product development cycle because of their investments.

There is also a bottleneck between laboratory prototyping and mass production in the physical sciences because private sector participation has been held at bay by concordats between Indian ministries. In fact, a DST report from 2013 concedes that the government would like to achieve 50-50 investment from private and public sectors only by 2017, while the global norm is already 66-34 in favour of private.

In fact, these concerns have been repeatedly raised by John Ioannidis, the epidemiologist whose landmark paper in 2005 about the unreliability of most published medical findings set off a wave of concern about the efficiency of scientific research worldwide. It criticized scientists’ favouring positive, impactful results even where none could exist in order to secure funding, etc. In doing so, however, they skewed medical literature to paint a more revolutionary picture than prevailed in real life, and wasted an estimated 85% of research resources in the process.

Ioannidis’s paper was provocative not because it proclaimed the uselessness of a lot of medical results but because it exposed the various mechanisms through which researchers could persuade the scientific method to yield more favourable ones.

He has a ‘sequel’ paper published on the 10th anniversary of the Open Access journal PLOS Med on October 19. In this, he goes beyond specific problems – such as small sample sizes, reliance on outdated statistical measures, flexibility in research design, etc. – to showcase what disorganized research can do to undermine itself. The narrative will help scientists and administrators alike design more efficient research methods, and so also help catalyse the broad-scale adoption of some practices that have until now been viewed as desirable only for this or that research area. For India, implementing its Open Access policy could be the first step in this direction.

Making published results – those funded in part or fully by DBT/DST grants – freely accessible has been known to engender practices like post-publication peer-review and sharing of data. Peer-review is the process of getting a paper vetted by a group of experts before publication in a journal. Doing that post-publication is to invite constructive criticism from a wider group of researchers as well as exposing the experimental procedures and statistical analyses. This in turn inculcates a culture of replication – where researchers repeat others’ experiments to see if they can reach the same conclusions – that reduces the prevalence of bias and makes scientific research as a whole more efficient.

Furthermore, requiring multiple institutional repositories to be interoperable will spur the development of standardised definitions and data-sharing protocols. It will also lend itself to effective data-mining for purposes of scientometrics and science communication. In fact, the text and metadata harvester described in the policy is already operational.

Registration of experiments, which is the practice of formally notifying an authority that you’re going to perform an experiment, is also a happy side-effect of having a national Open Access repository because it makes public funds more tractable, which Ioannidis emphasizes on. By declaring sources of funding, scientists automatically register their experiments. This could siphon as-yet invisible null and negative results to the surface.

A Stanford University research team reported in August 2014 that almost 67% of experiments (funded by the National Science Foundation, USA) that yielded null results don’t see the light of day while only 21% of those sent to journals are published. Contrarily, 96% of papers with strong, positive results are read and 62% are published. As a result, without prior registration of experiments, details of how public funds are used for research can be distorted, detrimental to a country that actually requires more oversight.

It is definitely foolish to assume one policy can be panacea. Ioannidis’s proposed interventions cover a range of problems in research practices, and they are all difficult to implement at once – even though they ought to be. But to have a part of the solution capable of reforming the evaluation system in ways considered beneficial for the credibility of scientific research but delaying its implementation will be more foolish. Even if the Open Access policy can’t acknowledge institutional nepotism or the hypocrisy of data-sharing in biomedical research, it provides an integrated mechanism to deal with the rest. It helps adopt common definitions and standards; promotes data-sharing and creates incentives for it; and emphasizes the delivery of reproducible results.

India's OA policy: Learning from Ioannidis

India’s first Open Access policy was drafted by a committee affiliated with the Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology (DBT/DST) in early 2014. It hasn’t been implemented yet. Its first draft accepted comments on its form and function on the DBT website until July 25; the second draft was released last week and is open for comments until November 17, 2014. If it comes into effect, it could really expand the prevalence of healthy research practices in the Indian scientific community at a time when the rest of the world is handicapped by economies of scale and complexity to mandate their practice.

The policy aspires to set up a national Open Access repository, akin to PubMed for biomedical sciences and arXiv for physical sciences in the West, that will maintain copies of all research funded in part or in full by DBT/DST grants. And in the spirit of Open Access publishing, its contents will be fully accessible free of charge.

According to the policy, if a scientist applies for a grant, he/she must provide proof that previous research conducted with grants has been uploaded to the repository, and the respective grant IDs must be mentioned in the uploads. Moreover, the policy also requires institutions to set up their own institutional repositories, and asks that the contents of all institutional repositories be interoperable.

The benefits of such an installation are many and great. It would solve a host of problems that are starting to become more intricately interconnected and giving rise to a veritable Gordian knot of stakeholder dynamics. A relatively smaller research community in India can avoid this by implementing a few measures, including the policy.

For one, calls for restructuring the Indian academic hierarchy have already been made. Here, even university faculty appointments are not transparent. The promotion of scientists with mediocre research outputs to top administrative positions stifles better leaders who’ve gone unnoticed, and their protracted tenancy at the helm often stifles new initiatives. As a result, much of scientific research has become the handmaiden of defence research, if not profitability. In the biomedical sector, for example, stakeholders desire reproducible results to determine profitable drug targets but become loth to share data from subsequent stages of the product development cycle because of their investments.

There is also a bottleneck between laboratory prototyping and mass production in the physical sciences because private sector participation has been held at bay by concordats between Indian ministries. In fact, a DST report from 2013 concedes that the government would like to achieve 50-50 investment from private and public sectors only by 2017, while the global norm is already 66-34 in favour of private.

In fact, these concerns have been repeatedly raised by John Ioannidis, the epidemiologist whose landmark paper in 2005 about the unreliability of most published medical findings set off a wave of concern about the efficiency of scientific research worldwide. It criticized scientists’ favouring positive, impactful results even where none could exist in order to secure funding, etc. In doing so, however, they skewed medical literature to paint a more revolutionary picture than prevailed in real life, and wasted an estimated 85% of research resources in the process.

Ioannidis’s paper was provocative not because it proclaimed the uselessness of a lot of medical results but because it exposed the various mechanisms through which researchers could persuade the scientific method to yield more favourable ones.

He has a ‘sequel’ paper published on the 10th anniversary of the Open Access journal PLOS Med on October 19. In this, he goes beyond specific problems – such as small sample sizes, reliance on outdated statistical measures, flexibility in research design, etc. – to showcase what disorganized research can do to undermine itself. The narrative will help scientists and administrators alike design more efficient research methods, and so also help catalyse the broad-scale adoption of some practices that have until now been viewed as desirable only for this or that research area. For India, implementing its Open Access policy could be the first step in this direction.

Making published results – those funded in part or fully by DBT/DST grants – freely accessible has been known to engender practices like post-publication peer-review and sharing of data. Peer-review is the process of getting a paper vetted by a group of experts before publication in a journal. Doing that post-publication is to invite constructive criticism from a wider group of researchers as well as exposing the experimental procedures and statistical analyses. This in turn inculcates a culture of replication – where researchers repeat others’ experiments to see if they can reach the same conclusions – that reduces the prevalence of bias and makes scientific research as a whole more efficient.

Furthermore, requiring multiple institutional repositories to be interoperable will spur the development of standardised definitions and data-sharing protocols. It will also lend itself to effective data-mining for purposes of scientometrics and science communication. In fact, the text and metadata harvester described in the policy is already operational.

Registration of experiments, which is the practice of formally notifying an authority that you’re going to perform an experiment, is also a happy side-effect of having a national Open Access repository because it makes public funds more tractable, which Ioannidis emphasizes on. By declaring sources of funding, scientists automatically register their experiments. This could siphon as-yet invisible null and negative results to the surface.

A Stanford University research team reported in August 2014 that almost 67% of experiments (funded by the National Science Foundation, USA) that yielded null results don’t see the light of day while only 21% of those sent to journals are published. Contrarily, 96% of papers with strong, positive results are read and 62% are published. As a result, without prior registration of experiments, details of how public funds are used for research can be distorted, detrimental to a country that actually requires more oversight.

It is definitely foolish to assume one policy can be panacea. Ioannidis’s proposed interventions cover a range of problems in research practices, and they are all difficult to implement at once – even though they ought to be. But to have a part of the solution capable of reforming the evaluation system in ways considered beneficial for the credibility of scientific research but delaying its implementation will be more foolish. Even if the Open Access policy can’t acknowledge institutional nepotism or the hypocrisy of data-sharing in biomedical research, it provides an integrated mechanism to deal with the rest. It helps adopt common definitions and standards; promotes data-sharing and creates incentives for it; and emphasizes the delivery of reproducible results.

Second draft of India’s OA policy open for comments

The second draft of India’s first Open Access policy is up on the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) website. Until November 17, 2014, DBT Adviser Mr. Madhan Mohan will receive comments on the policy’s form and function, after which a course for implementation will be charted. The Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society (CIS), a non-profit research unit, announced the update on its website while also highlighting some instructive differences between the first the second drafts of the policy.

The updated policy makes it clear that it isn’t concerned about tackling the academic community’s prevalent yet questionable reliance on quantitative metrics like impact-factors for evaluating scientists’ performance. Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, one of the members of the committee that drafted the policy, had already said as much in August this year to this blogger.

The draft also says that it will not “underwrite article-processing charges” that some publishers charge to make articles available Open Access. The Elsevier Publishing group, which publishes 25 journals in India, has asked for a clarification on this.

Adhering to the policy’s mandates means scientists who have published a paper made possible by Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology should deposit that paper in an Open Access repository maintained either by the government or the institution they’re affiliated with.

They must do so within two weeks of the paper being accepted for publication. If the publisher has instituted an embargo period, then the paper will be made available on the repository after the embargo lifts. CIS, which advised the committee, has recommended that this period not exceed one year.

As of now, according to the draft, “Papers resulting from funds received from the fiscal year 2012-13 onwards are required to be deposited.” A footnote in the draft says that papers under embargo can still be viewed by individuals if the papers’ authors permit it.

The DBT repository is available here, and the DST repository here. All institutional repositories will be available as sub-domains on sciencecentral.in (e.g., xyz.sciencecentral.in), while the domain itself will lead to the text and metadata harvester.

The drafting committee also intends to inculcate a healthier Open Access culture in the country. It writes in the draft that “Every year each DBT and DST institute will celebrate “Open Access Day” during the International Open Access Week by organizing sensitizing lectures, programmes, workshops and taking new OA initiatives.”

Second draft of India's OA policy open for comments

The second draft of India’s first Open Access policy is up on the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) website. Until November 17, 2014, DBT Adviser Mr. Madhan Mohan will receive comments on the policy’s form and function, after which a course for implementation will be charted. The Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society (CIS), a non-profit research unit, announced the update on its website while also highlighting some instructive differences between the first the second drafts of the policy.

The updated policy makes it clear that it isn’t concerned about tackling the academic community’s prevalent yet questionable reliance on quantitative metrics like impact-factors for evaluating scientists’ performance. Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, one of the members of the committee that drafted the policy, had already said as much in August this year to this blogger.

The draft also says that it will not “underwrite article-processing charges” that some publishers charge to make articles available Open Access. The Elsevier Publishing group, which publishes 25 journals in India, has asked for a clarification on this.

Adhering to the policy’s mandates means scientists who have published a paper made possible by Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology should deposit that paper in an Open Access repository maintained either by the government or the institution they’re affiliated with.

They must do so within two weeks of the paper being accepted for publication. If the publisher has instituted an embargo period, then the paper will be made available on the repository after the embargo lifts. CIS, which advised the committee, has recommended that this period not exceed one year.

As of now, according to the draft, “Papers resulting from funds received from the fiscal year 2012-13 onwards are required to be deposited.” A footnote in the draft says that papers under embargo can still be viewed by individuals if the papers’ authors permit it.

The DBT repository is available here, and the DST repository here. All institutional repositories will be available as sub-domains on sciencecentral.in (e.g., xyz.sciencecentral.in), while the domain itself will lead to the text and metadata harvester.

The drafting committee also intends to inculcate a healthier Open Access culture in the country. It writes in the draft that “Every year each DBT and DST institute will celebrate “Open Access Day” during the International Open Access Week by organizing sensitizing lectures, programmes, workshops and taking new OA initiatives.”

Following up on the DBT/DST OA policy

Earlier in July, a group of people working with the Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology (DBT/DST) of the Government of India had drafted an open access policy covering research funded by federal grants, and mandating their availability in a national repository.

The move was lauded because it meant Indian academia was finally making an attempt to embrace open access publishing, as well as making research labs more tractable and accountable about how they spent the people’s money. However, there was some ambiguity about whether the policy would address the issue of scientists typically preferring to publish their work in high impact factor journals, and the tendency to evaluate them on the basis of that number.

There were also questions about who would pay for maintaining the national OA repository as well as the institutional repositories, how it would address institutional reluctance, and if “glamorous” journals like Nature, Cell and Science – which prohibit self-archiving of published papers – would support DBT/DST.

Last week, I met Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, one of the people on the committee that drafted the policy, and asked him about the policy’s exact goals. He then spoke at length about the its origins and what it would and wouldn’t do.

For starters, he said that the policy will negate institutional reluctance by requiring all scientists applying for federal grants to submit the ID of their previous papers in the OA repository. It will also allow only the Government of India to keep track of and evaluate the research and the scientists it funds.

On the other hand, it won’t address scientists’ preference for high impact factor journals (such as Nature, Cell and Science), and it definitely won’t interfere with how institutions choose to evaluate their scientists – at least for now. In effect, the policy is a purely people-facing gesture and not a solution to any of the other problems facing the Indian research community, and it’s doubtful what it will do to check institutional nepotism.

The drafting committee is now looking for comments, suggestions and other feedback on the document, while waiting for a go-ahead from a government that is likely to take its time.

The policy draft does mention that the DBT/DST will maintain the repository, but Prof. Arunachalam couldn’t speak about the institutional repositories. In fact, he said that concern was farther in the future than getting those journals prohibiting self-archiving to make an exception for India’s scientists, and if they don’t, to allow pre-prints of the respective papers.

The eventual goal would be to set up a queriable database of citations, along the lines of PubMed but encompassing not just medical or biological literature but also for physics, he added.

Draft policy on increasing access to DBT/DST research

An Open Access Policy Committee has drafted a policy to enhance access to publicly funded research by setting up a national open access (OA) repository under the oversight of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Reproduced in full here:

This is a very good move that that will highlight what OA can do to spur scientific research and science communication in the country. It will also

  • foster a “richer research culture” as the draft says,
  • increase accountability and tractability of public funds and the research it sponsors, and
  • make the process of resource selection/allocation more transparent.

Some quick points:

  1. Accountability of DBT/DST-controlled research by mandating uploaded papers to mention grant ID.
  2. Papers should be deposited in OA repositories once accepted by a journal, but OA will be enabled only when embargo lifts. So maybe the DBT/DST OA repositories will be like a national pre-print server – but depends on the nature of the embargo
  3. The paper (pre-print?) will be OA whether or not the journal is OA. Moreover, “Publisher agrees to provide to Author within 14 days of first publication and at no charge an electronic copy of the published Article in a format … that preserves final page layout, formatting, and content. No technical restriction, such as security settings, will be imposed to prevent copying or printing of the document. ” What if highly profitable non-OA journals based outside the country (which researchers aspire to publish in to secure advantages in non-DBT/DST settings) disagree?
  4. An author who cannot furnish his/her publication ID will not be considered for promotions, fellowships, research grants, etc., if his/her institution is under the administrative control of DBT/DST. On the other hand, how will conflicts of interest/nepotism be prevented in this regard?
  5. The DBT/DST will bear the cost of maintaining the central repository, which should eliminate conflicts of interest arising from payment-for-publication. Will the DBT/DST help set up institutional repositories? Since these IRs have to be “interoperable”, what are the standards the administration has in mind?
  6. What about research that is funded by private parties? What fraction of research funding should the DBT/DST bear for the paper to be mandatorily deposited in an OA repository?

Let's unMonsanto the debate.

On August 28, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on the BRAI Bill, currently in Lok Sabha. It was held at The Hindu, and attended by some of my colleagues and some representatives from the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE). The point of the discussion according to ABLE, which had arranged it, was to create awareness of the bill and dispel some popular misconceptions.

The bill, if passed, will set up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), whose purpose will be to oversee and administer all biotechnology-related activities in India. These powers are wide-ranging, going from fixing prices for genetically engineered seeds to having a hold on export and import of transgenic foodstuff to dictating safety standards for the research, cultivation, production and consumption of genetically modified (GM) crops.

As things stand, the bill is being opposed on many fronts. A Technical Experts Committee constituted by the Supreme Court last year recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of Bt transgenic foodstuff. This was accompanied by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests suspending all field trials on GM crops, licenses for which were granted by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Both were centered around India supposedly lacking the infrastructure, skill and manpower to handle transgenic consumables.

Our discussion with ABLE snaked this way and that. It touched upon the GEAC, pesticides use, the possibility of ‘superbugs’, data availability, the Right to Information, and India’s agricultural needs and water-politics. At times, the participants seemed adversarial; at others, convivial. Unfortunately, there was one issue that constantly underpinned the conversation, this one very little to do with what India was or wasn’t capable of: Monsanto, Inc.

Guilt by association

One among the ABLE delegation, Dr. J.S. Rehman, an entemologist and a former member of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (constituted by the Department of Biotechnology), seemed very concerned about this. Monsanto’s unenviable environmental legacy worldwide had riled up activists to protest its coming with such vehemence that, he lamented, Indian biotech. was also being suppressed in the process.

Here are two questions that were addressed to Dr. Rehman during the discussion:

Do you think the entire atmosphere over the biotechnology bill and its understanding or misunderstanding – however you look at it – is largely because of one big MNC called Monsanto?

JSR: “Our using Monsanto as a synonym with GM technology is one of the worst things we’re doing – not only for farmers but also for our people who are trying to develop genes, and who are trying to compete with Monsanto. Every time, everywhere we go, we see people asking very general questions, and we’re wasting out time in educating those people rather than putting our efforts into the development of technology and other things.”

How much have Monsanto’s businesses hijacked the debate over biotech.?

JSR: “We’re in a very bad situation, I think: Monsanto is only the gene developer. It’s not a seed developer. It has the gene which it has given to Mahyco. In Andhra Pradesh, earlier, once Bt cotton was given, for example, and Rs. 1,700 was fixed as cost-per-packet. This was because artificial competition was created in the market by introducing the Bt gene, after which all competitors had to adopt it or face losses. Then, Monsanto demanded a royalty of Rs. 1,200 per packet. So, if I have been selling a packet at Rs. 400, then my new minimum cost is Rs. 1,600. So, the competition was exploited by Monsanto.

These prices are very high for farmers, and allows people to comment that the Bt technology has spiked the cost of packeted seeds. Then, the State intervened, and after a case was filed, Monsanto was forced temporarily to reduce royalty from Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 100. This brought down the price of Bt packets to around Rs. 750-950 per packet. So, both seed companies and the farmers are benefited by the Bt technology. Farmer will also get the benefit of reducing it from Rs. 1,600 to Rs. 750. The only person losing here is Monsanto.

Then, some time after this, the seed-rate was increased. New norms recommended that instead of one packet per acre, farmers use two packets per acre. However, another way to look at this is to see that in a net area, one can go for more productivity.”

So, Indians are succumbing to the fallacy of guilt-by-association – just like with our nuclear program: “Just because the Department of Atomic Energy is doing a bad job of administering India’s nuclear program, the idea of nuclear power is bad.” As Dr. Rehman said, Monsanto may have superior technology. However, it is exploiting the latency of its Indian competitors, and the preferential access it received in the 90s from the Indian government to promote free trade, to come out on top. And when activists assume that all of GM is bad because Monsanto – its leading researcher – is bad, they are suffocating the Indian competition and empowering Monsanto.

Daylight robbery

One other example specific to Monsanto that emerged during the discussion was brought up by Dr. T.M. Manjunath, of ABLE. Dr. Manjunath was a former director at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore.

He felt the need to correct Dr. Rehman on one count: that of the habit of comparing the prices of traditional cotton seeds with Bt cotton seeds. He said, “We shouldn’t compare the two without taking into account the associated benefits from each. For example, if farmers bought traditional seeds at Rs. 400 a packet, then they would also have to spend an additional Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 to insecticides. So, these [numbers] should be added to that cost. On the other hand, if you buy a packet of Bt cotton seeds at, say, Rs. 1,700, that is all farmers will have to expend there. You wouldn’t have to spray insecticides. Thereby, the farmers are immensely benefited.”

The problem here is that Monsanto is attempting to justify its exorbitant profit margins by citing a higher cost-benefit ratio, forgetting that it does not have a license to rip farmers off. Instead, if the technology has improved enough to keep the cost-benefit ratio high, then the farmer must be the full and final beneficiary. As one of the participants put it: “Monsanto can’t say ‘I’m still giving him a 4,000-rupee window!'”

At the same time, it’d be beneficial for Indian decision-makers to remember that Bt cotton did see some kind of success in India, seeing adoption by over 70 lakh farmers, and lasting well beyond its initially perceived lifetime – 6 to 7 years – before worms developed resistance to it. “One of our recommendations to minimise resistance-development was asking for 20 per cent refugee area. However, we also knew that asking farmers to sacrifice 20 per cent of their land in the name of the yield wasn’t always going to work. But to our surprise, the resistance developed [by pests and worms] has been minimal,” said Dr. Rehman.

There were Bt cotton crop failures, too, but the moral is that Monsanto sucks, yes, but the technology is promising and could be useful for India. For instance, even though Monsanto’s Bt has defied resistance for more than a decade, scientists think the threat is always imminent and that we need to be prepared. If the pall of Monsanto could be cleared (and its monstrous royalties on seeds sales avoided), perhaps an indigenous developer of transgenic seeds (about 20 varieties of which are thought to be in the pipeline) has the answer.

Failure of the stakeholders

The appropriate place from which to address this “hijacking” would be to look at how much of and how well the public sector has been activated – not to compete with Monsanto, which is already spending $1.3 billion a year on GM tech., but to make India become a self-sustaining developer of indigenous biotech. capabilities that can address its immediate needs (such as water sufficiency, which has been worsened by Bt cotton varieties).

In this regard, there has been a failure among stakeholders to explain to the people that it’s not about MNCs v. India, that the BRAI Bill is not only for Monsanto but also for Indian players. The details of how it will take from and give back to them are out of focus.

For example:

  1. Proposed: A single-window clearance system.

    Actually: Seen from the pro-GM (“ergo pro-Monsanto”) side, it could be argued that the government wants to facilitate Indian applications. Seen from the anti-Monsanto (“ergo anti-GM”) side, it looks as if the government wants to fast-track dubious applications. Which one is it?

  2. Proposed: BRAI “will not disclose confidential information made available in an application to the Authority.”

    Actually: The representatives from ABLE clarified that while some information would be hidden from the public domain, research on and results from field trials would be on display on a website for all to see, and the rest could be obtained using the RTI.

  3. Proposed: BRAI will be a centrally implemented body; State governments will have no say in its functioning and decision-making.

    Actually: A proposal for a State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee has been included in the BRAI Bill. The committee is to act as an intermediary agency between the State government and BRAI. It is not as if States have no say; however, to what extent will such a body empower the State?

  4. Proposed: Committees constituted by the BRAI Bill will approve and ratify applications from companies for the production and transportation of transgenic foodstuff.

    Actually: While committees will approve applications, a third-party (non-governmental) agency will be required to validate the results first. At the same time, the bill also okays all DSIR-approved labs for validation, which means a company with its own DSIR-approved lab can validate its own results (DSIR is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research).

As it is, the bill is currently being examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, which would do well to ask for increased clarity on these issues. Dr. Rehman noted that even though the last deadline for public feedback, August 25, had passed, the Committee was considering extending the period for a second time (having earlier pushed it by 45 days from June 10). If and when a new date is announced, let’s unMonsanto.

I originally wrote this post for The Copernican, the science blog over The Hindu, on September 2, 2013.

Let’s unMonsanto the debate.

On August 28, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on the BRAI Bill, currently in Lok Sabha. It was held at The Hindu, and attended by some of my colleagues and some representatives from the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE). The point of the discussion according to ABLE, which had arranged it, was to create awareness of the bill and dispel some popular misconceptions.

The bill, if passed, will set up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), whose purpose will be to oversee and administer all biotechnology-related activities in India. These powers are wide-ranging, going from fixing prices for genetically engineered seeds to having a hold on export and import of transgenic foodstuff to dictating safety standards for the research, cultivation, production and consumption of genetically modified (GM) crops.

As things stand, the bill is being opposed on many fronts. A Technical Experts Committee constituted by the Supreme Court last year recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of Bt transgenic foodstuff. This was accompanied by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests suspending all field trials on GM crops, licenses for which were granted by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Both were centered around India supposedly lacking the infrastructure, skill and manpower to handle transgenic consumables.

Our discussion with ABLE snaked this way and that. It touched upon the GEAC, pesticides use, the possibility of ‘superbugs’, data availability, the Right to Information, and India’s agricultural needs and water-politics. At times, the participants seemed adversarial; at others, convivial. Unfortunately, there was one issue that constantly underpinned the conversation, this one very little to do with what India was or wasn’t capable of: Monsanto, Inc.

Guilt by association

One among the ABLE delegation, Dr. J.S. Rehman, an entemologist and a former member of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (constituted by the Department of Biotechnology), seemed very concerned about this. Monsanto’s unenviable environmental legacy worldwide had riled up activists to protest its coming with such vehemence that, he lamented, Indian biotech. was also being suppressed in the process.

Here are two questions that were addressed to Dr. Rehman during the discussion:

Do you think the entire atmosphere over the biotechnology bill and its understanding or misunderstanding – however you look at it – is largely because of one big MNC called Monsanto?

JSR: “Our using Monsanto as a synonym with GM technology is one of the worst things we’re doing – not only for farmers but also for our people who are trying to develop genes, and who are trying to compete with Monsanto. Every time, everywhere we go, we see people asking very general questions, and we’re wasting out time in educating those people rather than putting our efforts into the development of technology and other things.”

How much have Monsanto’s businesses hijacked the debate over biotech.?

JSR: “We’re in a very bad situation, I think: Monsanto is only the gene developer. It’s not a seed developer. It has the gene which it has given to Mahyco. In Andhra Pradesh, earlier, once Bt cotton was given, for example, and Rs. 1,700 was fixed as cost-per-packet. This was because artificial competition was created in the market by introducing the Bt gene, after which all competitors had to adopt it or face losses. Then, Monsanto demanded a royalty of Rs. 1,200 per packet. So, if I have been selling a packet at Rs. 400, then my new minimum cost is Rs. 1,600. So, the competition was exploited by Monsanto.

These prices are very high for farmers, and allows people to comment that the Bt technology has spiked the cost of packeted seeds. Then, the State intervened, and after a case was filed, Monsanto was forced temporarily to reduce royalty from Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 100. This brought down the price of Bt packets to around Rs. 750-950 per packet. So, both seed companies and the farmers are benefited by the Bt technology. Farmer will also get the benefit of reducing it from Rs. 1,600 to Rs. 750. The only person losing here is Monsanto.

Then, some time after this, the seed-rate was increased. New norms recommended that instead of one packet per acre, farmers use two packets per acre. However, another way to look at this is to see that in a net area, one can go for more productivity.”

So, Indians are succumbing to the fallacy of guilt-by-association – just like with our nuclear program: “Just because the Department of Atomic Energy is doing a bad job of administering India’s nuclear program, the idea of nuclear power is bad.” As Dr. Rehman said, Monsanto may have superior technology. However, it is exploiting the latency of its Indian competitors, and the preferential access it received in the 90s from the Indian government to promote free trade, to come out on top. And when activists assume that all of GM is bad because Monsanto – its leading researcher – is bad, they are suffocating the Indian competition and empowering Monsanto.

Daylight robbery

One other example specific to Monsanto that emerged during the discussion was brought up by Dr. T.M. Manjunath, of ABLE. Dr. Manjunath was a former director at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore.

He felt the need to correct Dr. Rehman on one count: that of the habit of comparing the prices of traditional cotton seeds with Bt cotton seeds. He said, “We shouldn’t compare the two without taking into account the associated benefits from each. For example, if farmers bought traditional seeds at Rs. 400 a packet, then they would also have to spend an additional Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 to insecticides. So, these [numbers] should be added to that cost. On the other hand, if you buy a packet of Bt cotton seeds at, say, Rs. 1,700, that is all farmers will have to expend there. You wouldn’t have to spray insecticides. Thereby, the farmers are immensely benefited.”

The problem here is that Monsanto is attempting to justify its exorbitant profit margins by citing a higher cost-benefit ratio, forgetting that it does not have a license to rip farmers off. Instead, if the technology has improved enough to keep the cost-benefit ratio high, then the farmer must be the full and final beneficiary. As one of the participants put it: “Monsanto can’t say ‘I’m still giving him a 4,000-rupee window!'”

At the same time, it’d be beneficial for Indian decision-makers to remember that Bt cotton did see some kind of success in India, seeing adoption by over 70 lakh farmers, and lasting well beyond its initially perceived lifetime – 6 to 7 years – before worms developed resistance to it. “One of our recommendations to minimise resistance-development was asking for 20 per cent refugee area. However, we also knew that asking farmers to sacrifice 20 per cent of their land in the name of the yield wasn’t always going to work. But to our surprise, the resistance developed [by pests and worms] has been minimal,” said Dr. Rehman.

There were Bt cotton crop failures, too, but the moral is that Monsanto sucks, yes, but the technology is promising and could be useful for India. For instance, even though Monsanto’s Bt has defied resistance for more than a decade, scientists think the threat is always imminent and that we need to be prepared. If the pall of Monsanto could be cleared (and its monstrous royalties on seeds sales avoided), perhaps an indigenous developer of transgenic seeds (about 20 varieties of which are thought to be in the pipeline) has the answer.

Failure of the stakeholders

The appropriate place from which to address this “hijacking” would be to look at how much of and how well the public sector has been activated – not to compete with Monsanto, which is already spending $1.3 billion a year on GM tech., but to make India become a self-sustaining developer of indigenous biotech. capabilities that can address its immediate needs (such as water sufficiency, which has been worsened by Bt cotton varieties).

In this regard, there has been a failure among stakeholders to explain to the people that it’s not about MNCs v. India, that the BRAI Bill is not only for Monsanto but also for Indian players. The details of how it will take from and give back to them are out of focus.

For example:

  1. Proposed: A single-window clearance system.

    Actually: Seen from the pro-GM (“ergo pro-Monsanto”) side, it could be argued that the government wants to facilitate Indian applications. Seen from the anti-Monsanto (“ergo anti-GM”) side, it looks as if the government wants to fast-track dubious applications. Which one is it?

  2. Proposed: BRAI “will not disclose confidential information made available in an application to the Authority.”

    Actually: The representatives from ABLE clarified that while some information would be hidden from the public domain, research on and results from field trials would be on display on a website for all to see, and the rest could be obtained using the RTI.

  3. Proposed: BRAI will be a centrally implemented body; State governments will have no say in its functioning and decision-making.

    Actually: A proposal for a State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee has been included in the BRAI Bill. The committee is to act as an intermediary agency between the State government and BRAI. It is not as if States have no say; however, to what extent will such a body empower the State?

  4. Proposed: Committees constituted by the BRAI Bill will approve and ratify applications from companies for the production and transportation of transgenic foodstuff.

    Actually: While committees will approve applications, a third-party (non-governmental) agency will be required to validate the results first. At the same time, the bill also okays all DSIR-approved labs for validation, which means a company with its own DSIR-approved lab can validate its own results (DSIR is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research).

As it is, the bill is currently being examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, which would do well to ask for increased clarity on these issues. Dr. Rehman noted that even though the last deadline for public feedback, August 25, had passed, the Committee was considering extending the period for a second time (having earlier pushed it by 45 days from June 10). If and when a new date is announced, let’s unMonsanto.

I originally wrote this post for The Copernican, the science blog over The Hindu, on September 2, 2013.