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Science With Borders: Will New Virtual Conf Guidelines Hamper Collaborations?

Science With Borders: Will New Virtual Conf Guidelines Hamper Collaborations?

Photo: Dylan Ferreira/Unsplash.

Bengaluru: On January 15, 2021, India’s Ministry of Education issued new guidelines for holding virtual conferences, seminars, workshops, etc. with international members.

The guidelines note that any ministry, department, public sector undertaking or publicly funded institutes and universities holding virtual meetings should seek and receive approval from an “administrative secretary” before they can begin.

The memorandum also requires “all events related to the security of the Indian state, border, North East states, J&K, or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matters” as well as “sensitive … political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal [subjects] with provisions for sharing of data in any form; presentations etc.” to seek an okay from the Ministry of External Affairs as well.

But many members of the scientific community told The Wire Science that the term “internal matters” is so broad as to include almost all areas of research – including the farmers’ protests, public health policies and all of India’s COVID-19 response.

They said the term “sensitive subjects” is similarly broad and similarly unhelpful – considering almost every scientific meeting involves scientists sharing data and making presentations about what they have found.

Better conferences

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many – if not all – international conferences to go online. As a result, the cost of accessing these events dropped, allowing scientists from low- and middle-income countries, including those from India, to attend them. This is why many popular scientific societies across the world reported a surge in attendance for their events, relative to brick-and-mortar events of the past.

“Virtual conferences lower or remove [financial and logistic] barriers by reducing both costs and travel times,” Sarvenaz Sarabipour, who studies computational medicine at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the journal eLife in November 2020.

“They also reduce the ‘red tape’ (e.g. the need for visas) experienced by some researchers, and make it easier for those with disabilities or vulnerabilities and those with caring responsibilities to take part.”

For these reasons, virtual conferences were also more diverse and inclusive than their physical counterparts, enabling “higher levels of participation of researchers from all scientific sectors internationally – and, in particular, researchers from underrepresented groups, researchers from countries with low-to-middle income economies, and early-career researchers,” Sarabipour continued.

And as virtual events became more popular, more scientists also became more willing to participate – breaking yet another, perceptual, barrier that benefited student groups in particular. For example, Indian students organised a neuroscience conference last year, called NeuroNovember, in which neuroscientists who had done good work around the world shared their findings.

But the new guidelines, as many scientists have tweeted, could minimise all of these advantages as well as revive some of the same barriers that they tore down.

Some scientists see the guidelines as simply an extension of existing requirements to the virtual space, but most said they stand to curb academic freedom and eclipse the international visibility of Indian scientists.

But Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, Sonepat, said even the previous guidelines – specifying permissions from various ministries for physical conferences with international speakers – were inconsistent with India’s democratic outlook.

“To make it that much harder for Indian scientists to participate freely in international meetings or to host them is a self-destructive act,” he said.

According to him, the education ministry’s stipulation might have been more understandable, if also more onerous, if they had applied only to senior officials already in government. “But the rule on seeking permission applies even to professors and scientists at any state or centrally funded institution attending online meetings – even if they are working in academic areas as far away from national security as possible.”

A large part of India’s ‘soft power’ in science comes from the respect that Indian scientists command in international forums, Menon continued – “from the fact that we are a democracy where [we are] not required to follow a party line.”

In light of these concerns, K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, told The Wire Science that officials were reexamining the memorandum.

“At the heart of the pursuit of science and research are international interactions, which is fully appreciated. An appropriate modification will happen soon that balances this with other concerns,” he said.

Taxonomic research

Some scientists are also wary that the guidelines could have a chilling effect on ecology research.

The Biological Diversity Act 2002 has been imposing similar restraints on Indian scientists for many years. The Indian government has been concerned about ‘biopiracy’: when foreign agents profit off of domestic biological resources, including natural biodiversity. So it enacted the Act to impose strict controls on the movement of biological species and specimens across the border.

But within half a decade, it became clear that the Act was stunting taxonomic research in India by hampering foreign collaborations. A 2008 article published by the Current Science journal called out these issues:

These guidelines on implementation [of the Act] would achieve the ultimate bureaucratic control in the history of science in India! Proponents of these guidelines have already revealed their mettle through some ludicrous suggestions to entomologists to send pictures, not (dead) specimens, for identification.

Being paranoid about biopiracy(!), they may even suggest microbiologists send digital images of microbes abroad for identification, as live cultures are required for identification and they can be easily multiplied and patented!

These bureaucratic controls struck closer home last year, when the Union health ministry rapped researchers of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, for studying bats in Nagaland without requisite approvals from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The issue: the research collaboration listed scientists from China and funding from the US.

For its part, NCBS  clarified that those scientists were listed only because they had shared some materials required for the team to analyse its findings, and one of the study’s authors is affiliated with the Duke National University of of Singapore, which had received funds from the US Department of Defence. Providing credit and disclosing funding sources are both part of common and ethical scientific practice.

But Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy saw red. Earlier this year, he accused NCBS of colluding with the Chinese and American armies to undermine Indian sovereignty, but with no evidence.

Between these two events, the home ministry also revoked the Manipal Institute of Virology’s license to use foreign money to fund its research on viruses. Many medical researchers continue to doubt the ministry’s reasons: that the institute collaborated with the US Centres for Disease Control on a multi-year study without the necessary permissions.

Arunkumar Govindakarnavar, the virologist who headed the study, told The Wire at the time, “Everything we did was with the knowledge of ICMR and the health ministry. I have several emails from ICMR appreciating our work. I am not sure why this has happened.”

Also read: Despite Landmark Judgment, Issues of Regulation Remain in India’s Biodiversity Regime

‘Internal matters’

The education ministry’s move comes at the same time as the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs accusing pop singer Rihanna of interfering in India’s “internal matter” after she tweeted asking why more people weren’t talking about the farmers’ protests.

Together with this limited context, the guidelines are also at odds with the actions of Indians past.

The rise of Nazi socialism and fascism in pre-war Europe prompted many scientists to leave Germany and Italy, many of them fearing for their lives. As the director of the Indian Institute of Science, physicist C.V. Raman wrote letters inviting many of them to join the institute.

“Raman, who believed in excellence per se, had an agenda to get some of these [scientists] to India: Max Born, Erwin Schrödinger, George de Hevesy, V.M. Goldschmidt, Paul Peter Ewald and Richard Kuhn, and a host of others,” S. Ramaseshan, a former institute director and Raman’s nephew, wrote in a historical note published in 1998.

Similarly, during the civil war in China, nuclear physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha wrote to Chinese mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern inviting him to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. Bhabha also invited physicist Bernard Peters away from McCarthyist America.

Joel P. Joseph is a science writer. Vasudevan Mukunth edits The Wire Science.

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