The Centre has asked research institutions to consult experts in traditional systems of medicine such as ayurveda or yoga before conducting studies in these subjects, prompting many scientists to allege an attempt to curb academic freedom.
The April 2 “advisory” from the Union ministry of ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homoeopathy (ayush) asks all “non-ayush researchers, scientists and institutions” to involve “appropriate ayush experts” when investigating ayush treatment.
It has told India’s scientific agencies, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the University Grants Commission that non-ayush researchers should have their outcomes and findings vetted by ayush experts “to prevent incorrect, arbitrary and ambiguous statements about ayush”.
The document has cited a “need to protect the public image of ayush” and suggested that scientific studies published by non-ayush researchers without consulting ayush experts may “damage the credibility and sanctity of the whole system”.
It says the potential and scope of ayush in public health care “cannot be jeopardised and people (should) not be distracted or dissuaded from resorting to ayush from arbitrary statements and unfounded conclusions in scientific studies related to ayush”.
The move comes against a complex backdrop of a thriving market for unproven remedies as well as scientific efforts to probe traditional systems such as ayurveda or yoga through modern experimental biology or medicine, including human clinical studies.
“Scientific studies have already shown that there is knowledge to be discovered in ayurveda, but such an advisory needs to be denounced,” said Subhash Lakhotia, distinguished professor of zoology at Banaras Hindu University who has conducted studies on ayurveda. “Imagine if biology had been closed to outsiders in the middle of the last century — where would science be today?”
Lakhotia cited how physicists and chemists had helped develop the discipline of molecular biology. British physicist Francis Crick, who was involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA, had turned to biology inspired by the book What is Life? by another physicist, Erwin Schrodinger. American physicist Seymour Benzer contributed to behavioural genetics.
Some scientists view the advisory as an attempt to censor research and block the publication of scientific findings that may not be palatable to the ayush community.
“It is explicitly calling for censorship, albeit (one that is) voluntary for now. It is essentially an instruction to the public-sector funding agencies to ensure compliance,” said Satyajit Rath, medical immunologist and teacher at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.
Scientists also suspect that the tag of “advisory” is intentional as it allows a “tactical walk-back” in response to protests. “This is a classic ploy we have seen repeatedly used in the past few years,” Rath said. “Getting the outrageous said and then pushed forward again, and so on, until what was a lunatic fringe idea becomes assimilated into the mainstream public discourse and awareness.”
Ayush regulators assert that the advisory is not intended to infringe on the rights of scientists but only to encourage collaboration between non-ayush and ayush experts.
“If I publish a paper in physics, will it be accepted?” said Jayant Deopujari, president of the Central Council of Indian Medicine. “Many modern biologists and physicians make use of statisticians to analyse experimental data. We are similarly asking for collaboration.”
But scientists are worried that the advisory is intended to suppress results that might be unfavourable to ayush.
Several researchers had in the past highlighted that even agencies meant to frame regulations for ayush had promoted remedies without adequate scientific evidence. Government laboratories too have released traditional remedies without evidence of their health claims.
Two laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had about five years ago announced two herbal medications for the treatment of diabetes.
But Bhushan Patwardhan from the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences at the Savitribai Phule University, Pune, had written in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine that there were no records of clinical trials on either of the two products.
Earlier this year, the CSIR had warned a company for making unproven claims about curing cancer based on an experimental herbal product under study by the council’s Calcutta laboratory. Lakhotia said: “We look forward to genuine collaboration. But ayush experts cannot become watchdogs.”