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Scientists’ responsibility to society
In recent times, some of the major concerns among the Indian public relate to the use of genetically modified (GM) foods, the continued use of chemical pesticides, deaths in Andhra Pradesh due to HPV vaccines, continuation of use in India of certain drugs banned in other countries, conduct of unethical clinical trials using Indian patients as guinea pigs, safety of civil nuclear power plants and several others of a minor nature.

Scientists with expertise  in these areas have been mostly silent on expressing their views. The few who have expressed their views were guarded in their response. Of greater concern, their views have been extremely divergent on the same set of facts, so much so, the debates have only helped confuse the public. Is scientific discipline that much arbitrary to make it so ambiguous in the interpretation of facts? Scientists should be in the pursuit of validating truths based on experimental and correlated data gathered through accepted scientific methodology which are peer-reviewed and endorsed by other experts.

 

GM crops issue crops up

Let us take the case of GM crops.  One school of scientists vouch that GM food crops are the ultimate salvation for food security around the globe, while others claim that accepting genetically modified foods would spell doom to humanity. Practically all leading producers of food crops have adopted this technology and accepted the products therefrom thereby benefiting the agricultural and food sector and providing strong economic fillip to them. Nevertheless debates are rampant all around generating much heat and little light.  Isn’t it possible for scientists to make an objective science-based assessment of the accompanying risks and benefits?  Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? What conclusion does the public draw from these divergent views?


Scientists need to clear the smoke...

Similar is the case of nuclear power. The term nuclear is ‘evil’ to many years even when it is emphasised that in India it will be developed only as an energy source. The issues raised are on safety, costs and waste disposal.  Is it not possible to draw on the experience of countries which meet a good portion of their power requirements from nuclear energy and scientifically and objectively analyse the pros and cons?

The use of pesticides such as endosulfan has been in vogue for over half a century. Its toxicity has been widely recognised over the years. It is obvious that pesticides which are benign, including bio-pesticides are badly needed to replace the currently used chemicals. However, the strange accusation that endosulfan, has unacceptable toxicity even leading to fatality among the entire population of the country, is untenable. Obviously in this case there has been gross misuse, abuse or overuse of the pesticide or its mode of application. To confuse matters further, there are insinuations that Western countries which argue for the ban are out to hurt Indian dominance in the production of endosulfan. The ban on the product is not the major issue, in fact it may be a welcome move, provided safe and affordable alternatives are available. But we still need to establish scientifically the cause-effect relationship.

In the realm of drugs for human treatment, the basic principle is to establish beyond doubt the balance of risk versus benefit that the drug offers and make an assessment of what is acceptable to meet medical needs. The death of three girls in Andhra Pradesh reportedly due to an approved HPV vaccine is another example. It was reported that the vaccine was under trial which was patently untrue. Can’t the facts be verified including the reason for the fatalities?

 

Confused public and muted scientists

In all these cases, scientists have an obligation to make a systematic evaluation of available facts and if necessary collect fresh data and draw appropriate conclusions which should be endorsed by experts and communicated to the public. At present on all these issues the public is confused as to what the real facts are. Few of the scientists who are opinion leaders and policy makers have come forward to shoulder their responsibility to the society.n


The author is an independent consultant to the pharmaceuticals industry

 

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