Article Title
Problems with Indian Science: Misplaced Emphasis

I read Professor Vikram Patel's article Unshackling Science in India with much interest. Many aspects in this article, though not all, need rebutting even if they are made with the right intention.

1. Our universities are bad not because they rank low in global ranking but because they are not sticking to their founding principles. Ranking is of little use, both national and international. The least that we can do is to stay away from any ranking. The United States perfected the art of marketing education and research, and this is what we need to stay away from.

2. The article talks about how a large proportion of the National Institute of Health (NIH) funding in the US is given to private universities/research institutes, hinting that we should do the same in India. This is wrong. Our state-funded universities are either dead or dying. It's time to resurrect them first before being philanthropic.

Vikram Patel has since clarified in a private communication: "about the NIH funding, private does not mean 'for profit'; Harvard, for example, is a 'private' university as are NGOs in India. All I am saying is that public funds should be allocated in a transparent manner to the best research, regardless of whether the state runs the institution.”

This is precisely my point, and I'm afraid I still have to disagree. The institutions in the US and India are at different points in their evolution. To understand why universities (both public and private) in India cannot and should not be compared to those in the US one needs to read the article "Comparing Harvard apples with JNU oranges".

Why we should not fund private universities in India at the expense of public institutions. While Harvard's endowment is more than $50 billion, our public universities are languishing due to a shortage of funding. We don't have decent bathrooms for our students and faculty in public universities, let alone modern classrooms and laboratories. In this situation, suggesting that the public exchequer fund our private universities purely based on merit is a bit rich.

3. While agreeing that the state's role in regulating who applies to what grant and where (inside or outside of the country) should be zero, the idea of limiting scrutiny of international biomedical grants to the protection of human participants and data is misplaced. We all know how some Indians and poor people worldwide are subjected to unethical clinical trials by certain pharma companies.

Vikram Patel has since clarified this point saying, "My point about the Health Ministry's Screening Committee (HMSC) review does, in fact, include protection of human subjects; paradoxically, your observation that private pharma abuses the rights of our people is actually outside the scope of HMSC (as private companies do not have to secure HMSC approval!).

Whether private or for-profit parties are involved, it still does not preclude the parties (including international public bodies) from misusing personal data. If at all, India needs a powerful data privacy law. I was one of the original drafters of the biological data sharing document that has since been accepted and published as the Biotech PRIDE Guidelines by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. We argue that personal data and privacy of personal information are paramount while sharing data. A better international data guideline for us to look at and learn will be the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Union.

4. I can't agree more when the article talks about our institutions and how we should "liberate them from the shackles of state interference." It rightly points out that institutions should be free from any interference. We all know that, but those who matter rarely speak up. If they do, they will not be in that position to start with, and that is the whole point.

5. As far as the appointment of top positions in our universities/research institutions being in the hands of politicians, the article is spot on. If we don't change this, we are aiding a slow decay of our institutions.

Binay Panda is Professor of Biotechnology and Systems Medicine, JNU, New Delhi

Commentator name
Binay Panda