Ethical deterioration enabled by procedural ethics

It is over 6 months that I quit the Institute and about 4 months that I returned the fellowships of both the National Academies that I was a fellow of, namely IASc and INSA. While INSA has formally accepted my resignation, IASc hasn’t replied as yet. I left mainstream science for ethical issues and therefore I have been postponing writing a blog about ethics in science organizations. Since I myself have gone through ethical conflicts, I shouldn’t have passed judgments myself, at least in the heat of the moment.

I am not a person who takes decisions at the spur of the moment to repent later. Still I wanted to give sufficient time for cooling down the heat, if any, in my mind. Now I want to pen down my experiences, observations, anecdotes and interpretations about ethical issues in institutionalized science, and I want to do this in an analytical and critical way, not for defending my own case, or accusing anyone.

When I decided to resign on ethical grounds someone asked me why I didn’t take these issues to any of the ethics committees within the institute. This made me wonder. Was it really possible? Are there any ethics committees with the mandate to cover issues like the ones I was struggling with?

Does science need an ethical foundation and do science organizations need procedures and committees to handle ethics issues?

Hardly anyone will say no. But how to ensure ethical practices in institutionalized science is the real question. All institutes today have their own ethics committees. There are separate committees for animal ethics, human ethics, plagiarism check, gender discrimination and so on. Does that ensure ethical practices in the institute? The answer is tough. There are pros and cons of the ethics committees. Let us assume that they all work with the most honest efforts to fulfil the mandate of the committee. No doubt there are some malpractices somewhere sometime, but I am going to ignore them. The committees do talk about ethical issues in the area of concern for which the committee is constituted. They often make suggestions, warn someone or occasionally recommend action against someone. I am assuming that all this is done fairly well.

Even when all committees function well, at least five different types of problems are still left. One is that all ethical issues are not really covered by these committees. There are many that do not come under the mandate of any of them. The second is that the committees typically make dichotomous judgments, because of which the multi-dimensional and graded concept of ethics is painted in black and white. Realities are not in black and white. The third is that there can be conflicts between the procedures and contexts. Ethical committees follow certain procedures and norms which are designed for certain types of work. A procedure that is logical in one context may completely defeat the purpose in another. The forth and the most important is that it gives a false sense of satisfaction to the institute authorities that we are following all the ethics procedures and therefore we are ethical. By formalizing institutional procedures for ethics everybody is relieved from seriously thinking about ethics. Ethics can be completely driven out from anybody’s conscience for ever. Ethics is now a procedural issue, no more a conscience issue. The last and not the least is whether having ethical clearance for publishable research is sufficient for a researcher. Today most journals need a declaration that your experimental design and procedures were examined and approved by an appropriate ethical committee. So you need to go through the procedures in order to get published. What about the other things that you do in a science institute but not publish in the form of research papers, do they need to be ethical as well?

I have worked on some of such committees. They work like and are also perceived like rituals. What they discuss are some subtle technical issues and there is hardly any serious “ethics” discussed here. But because a ritual is completed the burden of ethics is removed from one’s shoulders and one doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. The institutes can boast that they have so many ethical committees so they are certified ethical.

I will illustrate all these problems with examples for clarity. Many examples involve more than one of the five, so I need not give five different examples for the five problems. Also my examples come from what I have myself seen and observed. Since I know these cases thoroughly I will prefer to use them as examples. But I just want to use them as examples. This is not intended to accuse anyone personally because I sincerely do not have any complaint against anyone. I am an analyst and critic of the system of science organization and institutionalization. Since I am no more a part of the mainstream science organizations, I have nothing to gain or lose by talking about these cases. In fact this is the true reason why I wanted to quite all organizational entities. This gives me a third party stand now so that I can attempt a more impartial analysis. Whatever happened is history now so justifying my stands, or begging sympathy of anyone by pretending that I suffered injustice is all irrelevant now. Also I don’t intend to project anyone as “guilty”. Instead we all need to analyse and learn from such issues so that tomorrow’s institutions are better than today’s.   

The institute campus had many environmental issues. There was illegal and unnecessary cutting down of over 500 trees and the waste water was being released without treatment. The institute gardeners were made to use this stinking water for gardening. When I was the chairman of the landscape committee, I raised these issues along with a few others. But instead of addressing these issues I was removed from the committee by cooking up false charges against me. At this point I resigned from the institute. The waste treatment plant was made functional immediately after my resignation. I had myself started compensatory tree plantation and planted 1000 saplings while I was there, mainly native endangered species. Now they have planted many more on the same principles. So my resignation had a positive effect and I am happy to have served the institute. This is fine, no serious ethics issues. Academic section of the institute was not involved.

More serious ethical issues cropped up later. The director denied that there was any tree felling at all. By this time the sites of tree felling were cleared and there was no obvious evidence left on the ground. So I got high resolution satellite images to show how many trees were seen in those images earlier which were not there anymore. I mailed the image analysis report to the institute faculty from ecology and earth sciences departments asking them to critically examine my analysis, point out whether I was wrong anywhere in the analysis. There was no response from any of them and in a reply to a separate RTI request the institute continued to deny tree felling. This is the most serious issue for SCIENCE. It is not an administrative issue any more. This is an academic issue. Everyone will agree that ignoring or denying evidence is “bad science”. You may criticise the method of collecting evidence, or suggest alternative interpretations of it. This is how scientific arguments are made. But deliberately ignoring inconvenient evidence is certainly a bad practice in science. Directors of science institutes are scientists themselves and science starts with honest reporting of data. If the director himself propagates bad science by denying evidence, how can the institute claim to do research? How can it be an educational institute that has a mandate to raise scientists for the next generation. This is the real ethical issue, not a general ethics issue but specifically a “scientific ethics” issue. No doubt the director acted unethically. Whether other faculty that had actually witnessed the tree felling on campus but did not react to it, the ones to whom I mailed my image analysis report and who did not respond to it are ethical or not is an open question. I leave it to the readers’ judgment.

What we see in this example is that such ethical issues are not the mandate of any of the ethics committees. Since this is not related either to published research or to the teaching syllabus, this will not be considered as an issue in scientific ethics at all. We are nurtured to believe that only what is published as papers is research and what is asked in the examinations is science education. So this issue is neither a part of research, nor of teaching so nobody in a research and education institute carries any guilt of being unethical. Since no ethics committee has labelled it as unethical, it cannot be unethical!! Everyone is happy.

Here is another anecdote. A student of mine wanted to do some human behavioural experiment. We had a human ethics committee just established by then. So we put a proposal to the committee. The committee had members with prolonged experience in examining research in clinical medicine. Informed consent is a natural and mandatory part of such work. In this case we said that letting the subjects know the purpose of the test is bound to change their behavioural responses, so we cannot reveal the purpose before the test. We are ready to reveal it later. But the committee did not agree. They insisted that subjects need to be informed everything before participating in the study. This defeated the purpose of a behavioural experiment. We could not do the experiment ultimately. This illustrates how following the same norms and procedures in all contexts can undermine science. 

Another issue arose following my resignation. I was the principal investigator for certain on-going projects. The question was: after I left the institute, do the projects get transferred along with me to my new organization or they remain with the institute which appoints a new PI on the project? This is not a new question. So many researchers change the institute/university. The answer should be context dependent. One the one hand there are projects such as the Chandrayaan mission of ISRO. This is necessarily an institutional effort in which individual scientists and engineers may come and go. This is certainly institute centred. On the other hand there are projects whose central idea is conceived by individuals, they get funding for the concept and the institute only hosts the project. In such cases the project is the PIs intellectual property. if the PI left the institute, the institute may not even have anyone else capable of handling the concept efficiently. The decision whether the project grant is transferred with the PI or the institute finds another PI should be based on what will be better for the successful implementation of the project. Among the projects that I was handling, some were of type 1 and others were of type 2. So accordingly they could have appointed another PI for the type 1 components and transferred the grant for the type 2 projects. But when institutes follow rules, thinking is typically not required. Without any distinction between the two types of contexts they decided that the funding will remain with the institute and they would appoint another PI. Bureaucracy is satisfied when one person replaces another. Thinking, capabilities, background, personal research interests are irrelevant. There is a plagiarism issue here when the institute appoints another PI for a project that is 80% completed. But the existing institutional procedures for plagiarism check use a soft-ware to check whether your manuscript resembles any of the previously published papers. If the funding based on one’s concept is used by another person, the plagiarism check procedures do not cover this so it is not considered plagiarism. Procedures are always dumb and when it comes to following rules and procedures the most brilliant scientists become the dumbest brains. If science is to be done by following procedures it will invariably end up being dumb.

Whether I was right or wrong in these issues is not the question that I myself should judge. I am actually saying that the right-wrong dichotomy is wrong. Ethics is a complex concept and making black and white judgments degrades the entire concept. What matters more is transparency. One should make the entire real story transparent so that any interested person is free to access the reality and judge oneself. Ethics committees should make everything transparent and leave the decisions open whenever possible. Whenever there is real need to take dichotomous decision, they should not stop at the yes-no decision but make all facts and documents available to everyone.

The knee jerk reaction of administration to any new issue is to lay more procedures, write more rigid rules and constitute more committees. This makes life easy for the administrators. But for science institutions it is important to realize that rules and regulations are there to support science. Science is not there to follow administrative rules. Making context based decisions with complete transparency on the facts and reasons is a more difficult path to follow. Making and following rules is an easier path. But what will support better science should be more important than what is easy to follow.

What I write here is particularly important for the history of science. I may not be of any relevance in the history of science, but my stories are. They can be important resources to students of the history of science, philosophy of science, policy makers and implementers. Therefore I am making the entire set of documents related to my exit from mainstream science available on the links below. Follow the links to a compilation of all documents related to the issue. I don’t expect many people to be interested in the details, but a rare soul genuinely interested in the organization, structure and working of science institutions would certainly appreciate it as a small but important resource for the history of Science organizations in India.

Links to documents:

Resignation related

Returning INSA and IASc fellowships

Quitting MGB formally, (Informally I will keep on working for the project, since I know that no one else will be able to document and articulate the most important outcomes of the project)

The tree felling case

The gardeners’ case

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