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Science’s ugly underbelly

New Delhi, Sept. 8: An academic institution has allegedly punished a scientist whistleblower in an imbroglio packed with charges of plagiarism, squabbling scientists and institutional impropriety, providing fresh glimpses of the ugly underbelly of research in India.

A five-member inquiry panel has indicted the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Niper) near Chandigarh for victimising a scientist who, it says, had tried to expose alleged research misconduct by the head of his department.

The institution had refused to renew the contract of organic chemist Animesh Roy in October 2005, alleging poor performance and disobedience. An internal committee that reviewed his work before his dismissal had noted that, during his assessment, he could not even write correctly the chemical structures of certain compounds on which he had worked.

But an inquiry panel set up by Niper’s board of governors has now said the institute punished Roy for blowing the whistle on unethical research practices by the head of its pharmaceutical technology department, Uttam Chand Banerjee.

Two independent scientists asked by the panel to evaluate Roy’s performance have given him high grades. The panel has called on the institute to reappoint Roy and initiate action against Banerjee.

The panel’s report, a copy of which is available with this newspaper, was adopted by the board of governors’ meeting last Saturday, sources present at the meeting said. Niper director P. Rama Rao declined comment on the panel’s observations.

Science ethics watchers who had examined Roy’s claims and asked for the inquiry say the case underscores the need for government-backed mechanisms to monitor research integrity and punish misconduct.

“This is the kind of thing that can erode the credibility of science in India,” said Kasturi Lal Chopra, former director of IIT Kharagpur and now president of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV), a watchdog for science ethics.

Roy, who had obtained a doctorate at North Bengal University before joining Niper in 1997, declined to speak to The Telegraph for this story. But the panel’s report shows that trouble began in 2003 when Roy requested a transfer from Banerjee.

Roy had in letters sent to the Niper director and others alleged that he had observed instances of research misconduct by Banerjee.

The inquiry panel has said a scrutiny of Roy’s laboratory notebooks suggests that three research papers authored by Banerjee and a student in 2005 appeared to contain contributions from Roy --- without acknowledgement.

Banerjee, an award-winning biochemical engineer and IIT Delhi alumnus, has denied wrongdoing. He said a review article he had published had contained “a few lines from here and there”, for which he had already apologised to a scientific publisher.

“It was not a big mistake, but it was blown out of proportion. The inquiry panel itself appears biased. It has not verified all the facts and it didn’t give me an opportunity to clear things,” Banerjee said.

The controversy comes at a time the government plans to invest in six new Nipers at Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Guwahati, Hazipur, Hyderabad and Rae Bareli to spearhead pharmaceutical research for domestic industry.

“This is a mess. This is not what we would expect to see in centres of excellence,” said Thirumalachari Ramasami, secretary, department of science and technology, who is chairman of Niper’s board of governors.

Sources familiar with the panel’s investigation said the objections from Niper administrators to Roy’s reinstatement, at one point, appeared to bear similarities with children fighting for space in a playground.

The institute’s dean, Saranjit Singh, told the panel that Roy had “hurt our egos” and it did not matter whether he was a good scientist or not, according to the panel’s report. Singh told the panel Roy could be accommodated at any other Niper, but if he were reinstated at Chandigarh, Singh and three others would “resign under protest”.

Over the past three years, allegations of research misconduct have surfaced in public institutions in Cochin, Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Nirjuli (Arunachal Pradesh), Pune, Tirupati and Varanasi.

“We see this over and over again ---- institutions deny charges, delay action, then dilute charges,” said Nandula Raghuram, associate professor at Indraprastha University, New Delhi, who as a member of SSV has investigated a dozen cases of misconduct.

The SSV has long been urging the government to create a mechanism to investigate science misconduct. “I think this is a legitimate demand,” said Goverdhan Mehta, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Science policy makers and SSV members say there is no evidence to suggest that research misconduct is more common in India than elsewhere. But many countries have formal mechanisms to deal with this, said Chopra, the SSV president.

“The SSV has good intentions but it is a toothless body,” Mehta said.

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