Science academies must learn to be more transparent

Brinjal: Bt, or not Bt? Copyright: Flickr/Paul Ponraj

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To retain public trust in a connected world, science academies need to be more open about the way that they operate.

When India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, criticized an Indian inter-academy report on genetically modified crops last month as lacking in scientific rigour, the science academies responsible for producing the report could have chosen to stand their ground.

Instead, the head of the country’s top academy issued an apology a day later, and promised to produce a new report. Although the science academies’ acknowledgment of the weaknesses in their report was welcome, it was the kind of incident that they could have done without, signalling that they may be susceptible to political pressure.

In a world fraught with contention over emerging technologies that act as a meeting point between science and society — genetic engineering, nanotechnology, geo-engineering to name a few — science academies in developing countries have an important role to play.

That role has two dimensions. First, academies should provide extensively researched, peer-reviewed recommendations on (among other topics) the best ways that science can fight poverty. Second, they also need to mould their behaviour to the requirements of the modern world, not remain locked in closed practices that have served their interests in the past, but are increasingly outdated.

This is an important lesson for members of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), which has become an umbrella body for developing country scientists, and holds its 21st general meeting in Hyderabad next week.

Image problem

Developing countries need sound science-based policies, and science academies should be helping achieve this by rigorously evaluating critical issues.

Yet few would deny that academies have an image problem that affects their credibility, and hence their impact. The French physicist Yves Quéré, a former co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues, described last year in Nature how, when he asked a group of French teenagers what they thought an academy was, one eventually described it as a "club of old gentlemen".

To be effective in the modern world, academies need to shake off this image as elitist organisations pre-occupied with grants and fellowships, and distanced from social realities.

In principle, the credibility of science academies should be high. Several opinion polls in the West have shown that the public still places much more confidence in scientists than in politicians, business firms and even the media, and there is no reason that it should be different in the developing world.

But this trust must not be taken for granted. Scientists, and the academies that represent them, must recognise that the Internet age has brought with it a cultural change triggered by blog posts and tweets from those who no longer automatically respect authority built primarily on tradition and academic power.

Demands for openness

This cultural change demands more openness and transparency, at all levels. Gone are the days when disagreements between scientists could be contained within institutions. These days, diverse opinion, often (though admittedly not always) well informed, vents itself freely through blogs and online discussion fora.

If academies are to keep public trust, they must retain their credibility in these spheres. And to achieve this, they must emerge from their ‘old boys club’ way of doing things.

To judge by the track record of Indian science academies, some have a way to go. The academies were conspicuously silent when a former science minister introduced astrology as a science course, and they have not made any meaningful contribution to Indian science policy formation, or to parliamentary debates on contentious issues such as the presence in India of foreign universities, or liability for nuclear accidents.

Indeed, the fact that last month’s Indian inter-academy report on genetically modified crops — intended to shed more light on the vexed issue of GM brinjal — was the first of its kind in India only underlines how inactive the academies have been in a country that prides itself as growing knowledge economy.

All the sadder, therefore, that the report stands exposed as a well-meaning but ill-executed exercise. In India, a popular Hindi saying roughly translates as "inviting a bull to gore you". Submitting a report on GM crops without careful scientific evaluation, omitting references and citations, and including sections copied from another report in a pro-biotechnology government publication, was just such an act.

Complacency in the face of controversy

The controversy surrounding the earlier prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, made in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but based only on a journalist’s telephone interview with an Indian scientist, should have alerted the academies to the need for more rigorous scrutiny in documents that are likely to be controversial.

It would be a tragedy if academies were to become discouraged from engaging in public debate on important science-related issues. They have important messages to give about the role of scientific evidence in policy-making, and valuable expertise that can assist this process.

But the messages will be lost if academies remain wrapped in a complacent belief that the traditional authority of science is sufficient to carry the argument.

The modern world demands transparency in the way that decisions are made. That applies as much to the way in which advisory institutions — such as science academies — operate as it does to the political process itself.

TV Padma
South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net