Science in the Tropics Series – Part 1 – Ethical approach to science in less developed countries should not be weaker than in rich countries

Indian academy has been hit by crises related to data fraud, plagiarism, job security, caste discrimination or sexual harassment


Indian document sets out the fundamental principles for maintaining integrity and ethical practices in an academic environment and also simplifies the course of action to ensure legal applications in the event of unlawful practices

A few years ago, the news that the little Dolly sheep would be the first clone of an adult animal caused us a mixture of fascination and dread: cloning was a great achievement, but it also opened a great discussion about ethics and science. Mankind has acquired the ambiguous power of the technique and now that it is possible, shouldnt we have to think over and ask ourselves what really should be done? As would say Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park) “Our scientists were so worried about whether or not they could do, they never stopped to think whether or not they should do. When it comes to research ethics, should we: watch over, punish, prevent or transform? Where are we and where should we go? Are there differences between science developed in rich countries and science from less developed countries, such as tropical countries? How to approach research with ethical procedures and the search for knowledge in less developed countries? How are good practices in science and fragile democracies connected?

These and other topics will be addressed in a series of reports produced by the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (BSTM) on Science in the Tropics. In the first article, we talked to the Indian experts, since for quite a while, the Indian academy has been affected by crisis, whether related to data fraud, plagiarism, job security, caste discrimination or sexual harassment. Recently, the Government of Indias Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) office recently released a new draft National Policy on Academic Ethics, prepared with feedback from two of Indias three scientific academies (Indian National Science Academy and Indian Academy of Sciences). The document sets out the fundamental principles for maintaining integrity and ethical practices in an academic environment and also simplifies the course of action to ensure legal procedures in the event of unlawful practices.

Professor Gautam Menon, Physics professor at Ashoka University in Sonipat, India, recalls that this document is very important precisely because it synthesizes what should be good ethical practices in all sciences. He says he does not find this as specific to developing countries, as the documents content is similar to what is described in similar documents in developed countries. Still according to him, the major difference between science conducted in rich countries and science from developing countries, as are the tropical countries, is the strength of the supporting structure, but fundamental issues approached by science, both in rich and poor countries, are often similar. The scale of research and development in industrial science tends to be much smaller in the developing world. “The fact that a country is less developed should not mean that its ethical approach to science is weaker than in rich countries. A strong ethical framework is crucial for next-generation scientists to conduct their work with rigor and care”, he adds.

Dr. Jayant Murthy, an astrophysicist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, points out that there is a lot of pressure on developing countries that may not exist in developed economies. One of them is that there is less professionalism in a system with more political pressure, especially from people outside the academic system. A statement of academic ethics is important to set a baseline for the huge range of scientific institutions from those that are world-class to those that are glorified degree programs. On the other hand, there is nothing new in the document National Policy on Academic Ethics and if scientists have to have ethics explained to them, there are much greater problems than a document can solve, he acknowledges. To him, the main difference between the science made in rich countries and in poor countries is the strength of the supporting structures. Rich countries have a more developed scientific framework where it is possible to spend ones only discussing science with ones peers. Even if one wants to discuss science, there is a much smaller community available. It is also easier to be part of an international community when meetings are frequent. In addition, there are many local conferences where people meet others who work in the same field. In this regard, our countries lose. I dont think we should make any excuses because we are in less developed countries. Science is universal, a sense of ethics is universal, curiosity is universal. Whatever the pressures on us, we have to live up to our own standards.  If we cannot or will not, no amount of National Policy will make a difference.

To Dr. Madhusudhan Raman, theoretical physicist at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, in Mumbai, the way power is distributed and leveraged in the academy is the major obstacle for a fairer and more inclusive academy. “Caste-based discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment often affect the younger members of our community, and power relations are organized in such a way as to prevent any attempts to bring perpetrators to justice. A truly bold and progressive code of ethics would emphasize the primacy of the interests of the oppressed classes within academia and guarantee them a place at the table where all determinations of innocence and guilt are made. Until that happens, it is hard to imagine that these guidelines are in any way restorative or effective in resolving the crises that plague our community”, he emphasizes.

Good scientific practices

Dr. Gautam Menon also points out that in weaker democracies, scientists are under greater pressure not to comment on ethical lapses. In his view, a robust democracy, where no one is afraid to express their views is crucial to encouraging good scientific practices. I argue that effective and fair implementation is crucial and that punishments are due to the offense at stake. We should, for example, monitor, punish, prevent and transform, focusing on prevention and transformation, he stresses. Dr. Jayant Murthy agrees with his colleague and adds that standards should not be compromised because of external factors. “The difficulty is knowing what we can fight against.  There are so many causes from social causes to pseudoscience to outright unethical practices. At the institutional or national level, there has to be a low tolerance for ethical violations. In developing countries, the tolerance for unethical behavior seems to increase with the importance of the position. Setting up national guidelines sounds great, but we have many national guidelines on many issues, all of which have the most high-minded ideals. In practice, we seem to devolve into business as usual, he regrets.

When it comes to the ethical relationships between scientists who collect clinical and field data with those who receive them for sophisticated laboratory experiments, Dr. Gautam Menon states that the importance of field-based research is generally not sufficiently acknowledged in India or other developing countries. According to him, this happens in several fields. However, such studies are especially important for developing countries given their ecology, biodiversity and environment, as well as the public health challenges they face. Dr. Jayant Murthy says he notices a difference in quality (on average) and that very often those who collect the data are unaware of the context and may not even be interested in the larger picture. Those who synthesize take advantage of what is cheap labor, he ends.

Recently the University of São Paulo (USP) has also prepared and made available a “Guide of Good Scientific Practices”. The document provides information on research ethics and integrity and on the conduct of research: with human beings; with animals; with animal or plant species and in relation to the environment. In addition, the document defines the role of those responsible for research (researcher and institution) and presents the types of fraud in research, authorship and publication of scientific papers, as well as presenting other related information.…