Science faces ethics dilemma - IIT professor charged with misconduct but opinion differs

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By G.S. MUDUR
  • Published 30.11.09
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IIT, Kharagpur

New Delhi, Nov. 29: India’s leading science funding agency has withdrawn a prestigious fellowship it had awarded last year to a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, after an investigation charged him with scientific misconduct.

Suman Chakraborty, a professor of mechanical engineering, is the first scientist-awardee to lose the Swarnajayanti Fellowship given by the department of science and technology (DST) annually to exceptionally talented young scientists for research in the frontiers of science.

Two panels of experts set up by the DST found that Chakraborty had portrayed research he had completed before 2005 as the outcome of a DST-supported project which he had undertaken between 2005 and 2008, sources told The Telegraph.

His DST-supported project involved the prediction of how biological tissues interact with lasers, a science that may lead to new strategies to fight cancer. In a project completion report submitted to the DST earlier this year describing his work during the 2005-2008 period, Chakraborty had reproduced verbatim his own research paper published in a scientific journal in 2005, according to the findings.

The findings have prompted the DST to withdraw the fellowship and examine the possibility of denying Chakraborty grants for a period of time. “This fellowship is a decoration — such conduct does not justify the award,” said a senior DST official.

Chakraborty said he had a legitimate explanation why he had pasted the 2005 research paper onto the project report, and that the two investigative panels chose not to accept his explanation.

The case has sparked debate in academic circles about penalties for misconduct in research. “We need exemplary punishment as a strong deterrent,” a member of one of the investigative panels told The Telegraph.

But DST chief Thirumalachari Ramasami said the case presented a “personal dilemma”.

“As a custodian of values in science research and funding, we need to send a signal to the community that this is not acceptable,” he said. “But I think we need to stop short of harming him to the point of destroying a career.”

Some scientists believe Chakraborty should be given an opportunity to repent and reform. They cite his track record of research and point out that he’s among just a few scientists in India involved in a research domain that couples engineering with biology.

“I think he’s a brilliant scientist,” said Sarit Kumar Das, professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Madras, who has collaborated with Chakraborty since July 2008. “If he misrepresented his 2005 research as post-2005 project work, it would be wrong.”

“But I would argue that the right thing to do would be to reprimand him, then give him a chance to concentrate on research,” Das said.

Das, who had spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until mid-2008, said he found Chakraborty the only scientist in India through whom he could set up a collaborative project involving the two IITs and MIT in a shared field of interest.

Chakraborty said he had applied for the project in 2003 and had not heard from the DST for nearly two years despite multiple reminders. “During that period, I continued to work on my own without funding and produced the research paper published in 2005.”

After the DST funds became available in 2005, he extended the research, but did not have any relevant new research paper to show when the project completion report was due in early 2009.

“I explained to the investigating panel that I had continued with my work, and that I was expecting a new research paper to appear shortly,” Chakraborty said. “I could not share details about this next phase of research without breaching confidentiality pacts that I had entered into with my collaborators at IIT Madras and MIT,” he said.

The Swarnajayanti Fellowship, open to scientists between 30 and 40 years of age, was set up by the DST in 1997 to commemorate India’s 50th year of independence. Eighty-four scientists have so far received the award, which provides funds and grants for equipment and infrastructure for up to five years.

Ramasami said he was planning to consult other members of the scientific community to resolve the debate.