The academician is primarily meant to be furthering their chosen field – be it in the sciences, arts or something else. Furthering their field would include research, teaching or communication about that field adhering to proper ethical standards.
An academician has for long been heralded as an intellectual capable of guiding society, someone above the petty misgivings of less learned beings and a beacon of hope in conflicting and challenging situations. Yet in the current atmosphere, this academician appears to have retreated into obscurity, with allegations of scientists locked in their ivory towers and disconnected wit societal realities being made. India currently in going through a tense time – there have been revelations of massive scientific fraud in academic papers, unscientific claims made by politicians and governmental agencies, even as a viral outbreak knocks on our doors and a fight for India’s constitutional rights that will need all the scholarly might to win. In this current atmosphere of misinformation and turmoil, what is the responsibility of the academician to both science and society?
The academician is primarily meant to be furthering their chosen field – be it in the sciences, arts or something else. Furthering their field would include research, teaching or communication about that field adhering to proper ethical standards. In core experimental research, the scientist would be ethically bound to report and analyse data correctly and not misrepresent or capture data through fraudulent manner. Those academicians who rely on secondary research are ethically responsible to not skew data or cherry pick data that suit their hypothesis. Finally, those academicians that interact with civilians – either for clinical studies or for social science studies – have to be critically review their own commitment to ensuring that participants provide informed consent to their studies. The onus of obtaining informed consent is ethically placed with the academician, since they are an expert in the subject and can answer any concerns of the participant. These are obvious responsibilities and being faithful to the spirit of scientific enquiry remains the hallmark of any scientist.
Apart from the core experimentation, academicians are also tasked with training the future generation of scientists. Needless to say, apposite training can help build the next cadre of scientists that will fuel of the science engine. Yet, training itself poses ethical conundrums to the academician. She has often to choose between her own requirements – for instance, a high impact paper for improving chances to get a grant – and those of her students – a time limitation on the PhD student to get their first-author publication. Confronted by such questions, the academician’s ethical duty lies to those under her tutelage. As a custodian of academic intellect, she has to catalyse the spread of knowledge and nurture the students to their fullest potential.
Finally, in her place of work, the academician has to do her best not to spurn any other non-research activities. Our academicians have to do many administrative jobs – such as procurement, grants writing, recruitment, participate in various committees. It is equally important that the academician performs these jobs with utmost honesty.
Even outside of the laboratory setting though the academician is not free of her ethical responsibilities. In the truest sense, academia is not a 9-5 job and an academician remains duty-bound to society. Maintaining scientific rigour, pursuit of scientific enquiry and rejecting unscientific ideas are expected of any academician holding a governmental post.
The Constitution of India bestows upon all her citizens liberty to faith – to follow any belief they want. This includes any superstition or quackery, as disbelieving as it be. We often see scientists citing Article 51A from the Constitution which lists that each Indian should develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform as a fundamental duty. However, this Article is at crossroads with the Preamble which endows liberty to faith. The academician may follow any religion or ritual in personal life, but in their public life as a researcher, they have to maintain a neutral position. The ethical academician is tasked with educating the citizens on such faith – they cannot denigrate their faith or impose their own beliefs on them. But certainly alerting the citizens to the correct path is the academician’s ethical duty.
This is especially critical when groups and individuals peddle harmful pseudoscience. Indian politicians are habitual offenders of this crime. In 2018, then Minister for State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh publicly suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is incorrect because there were no records in ancient Indian texts of apes transforming into humans. He recommended that school curriculum be revised to remove the theory . Singh further volunteered to organise an international conference on the validity of the evolutionary theory. The Indian scientific community responded with an online petition demanding that the Minister retract his statements. Three Indian science academies commended the comments in a joint statement, adding: “It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution is a time-tested example of scientific temper: Darwin deduced his theory through meticulous observations despite of the traditional belief of creationism. But out rightly dismissing these outlandish claims does not resolve the issue.
I had earlier written about this incident and below briefly outlined the below consequences of such an approach:
- It demotivates any one who wants to challenge existing theories.
- An opportunity to showcase how evidence-based arguments work is lost.
- Scientists disconnect themselves from the society.
- It downplays someone who actually showed scientific temper – Singh agreed to sponsor a conference for evidence-based questioning of the theory.
- It projects science to be out of the reach of non-scientists. Instead of explaining how evolution works in simple terms, using relatable examples, it becomes a science versus non-science discussion.
It is the ethical responsibility to guide society to judge between truth and quackery. The way would be to introduce citizens to the method of scientific enquiry, not force them to accept scientific statements.
Finally, today India is fighting two battles – an internal constitutional turmoil and a threatening viral outbreak. For India to win these battles our citizens need to be equipped with the most authentic information and advise on how to best move forward. It is academician’s ethical responsibility to guide this society to make good decisions. The academician is not just a scientist in the laboratory – she is a hope for a brighter future.
Shambhavi Naik is a Research Fellow at Takshashila Institution. The views expressed are personal.