Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

103. Need for a personal, scientific and professional Code of Ethics in Indian Science

R.N. Sharma
National Chemical Laboratory, Pune 411 008


Much of the decline in science, and the scientific temper in India is due to erosion of elementary ethical values in the personal and professional conduct of scientists. The conflict between personal ego and ambitions, and professional probity can be resolved by the evolution of ethical codes, or guidelines which should become sanctified as Tradition with their observance over a period of time. Apart from voluntary personal discipline, perhaps some kind of semi-official monitoring or regulation by national level associations or academies may be desirable. However, usurpation of such power by vested interests and cliques of scientists whose science comes to become limited to such politics must be guarded against. Given the analytical, judicious and cautious mindset of scientists, development of such traditions, with adequate safeguards should not be difficult. Observing them even pragmatically may, however, not be so easy. The time has come to set the houses of science in the country in order. The exercise should not be restricted to, but should cut across artificial affiliations and official/pseudo-official resistance to encompass all institutions and organizations where scientific endeavour is being undertaken, not excluding the universities.


Geographical, possibly anthropological, and subsequently historical, political and socioeconomic conditions govern the course of events, and human development. It has been the same in the Indian subcontinent. However, emergence of nationalism, and evolution of its corollaries of Institutions for developing and preserving cultural edifices of succeeding communities had to wait till comparatively modern times in India. Partition of the sub-continent added a whole new dimension to the divisiveness manifest throughout history, and may well constitute a datum for an entirely new beginning. Political upheavals of the magnitudes which have characterized the turbulent history of this part of the world have cast their shadow on the cultural profile of the people. The result has been the slow, often unsteady and unkempt development of climes of rational, communal, cultural ethics, and Institutions embodying old or new traditions.


Indian Science also has a similar chequered history. Prehistoric forays into Nature were more utilitarian, in stark contrast to inquiries into metaphysical riddles. Formal, channeled scientific inquiry really began under British tutelage, and entered modern mainstream around the beginning of the present century. Further rapid strides were made even as national consolidation built up in other areas of endeavour in the post Independence era. Only a decade ago, India could boast of the largest scientific manpower . Quality, however, rarely matched the much vaunted quantity (1). Traditions, too, have yet to crystallize, institutions yet to stabilize, and ethics - the respect for truth and the `other', have yet really to emerge and take root in the Indian Science scene (2).

Current Status

Cultural `future shock' scenario with intrinsic burden of insecurity has largely been responsible for the competitive spirit to degrade into a near feudal laissez faire in Indian Science (2). Continuing socioeconomic tensions have complicated matters. Personal ambition and social irresponsibility have aggravated the rot. And yet, given the astonishing political stability, and the amazing resilience of the Indian polity to `stay put' , the causes enumerated do not really justify the present nadir in which Indian Science is finding itself. The complete lack of direction, and a total inability to plan, or even comprehend futuristic trends and compulsions is perhaps the saddest commentary on Indian Science (3). The few upbeat noises in the media are essentially usual chest thumping by the hierarchy, verily tales told by unprincipled men to uncomprehending masses and cynical, uninterested rulers. Even worse is zero perception of HRD in Science in India, despite fanfare surrounding its installation in various organizations, essentially a race for climbing the bandwagon of this latest bulwark of modern management (4).

Some general principles

Developing societies generally remould, or build de novo systems of human conduct in different fields based on historical, extant, even if imposed, traditions, cultural social, regional, linguistic and / or religious tenets in vogue among them. Given the well demonstrated intrinsic ethical component of the human psyche, all systems are based on universally agreed principles of truth, justice, fairness etc. Howsoever sincere the intentions, pronouncements, and initial execution, sooner or later there is invariably a gravitation towards active or passive negation of the ideals, turning them into mockeries of venal hypocrisy.

Most developing, that is by and large Asian / African societies, the so called Third World Constituents, have relatively recently found political freedom from unabashed political imperialism. Neocolonialism in the form of economic, social and intellectual yokes of varied overt or covert kinds still persist, of course. The consequence is Future Shock syndromes of different complexities. That most such communities have not been frozen into catatonic inertia, and have instead adapted fairly well to a changing world with which they had little consonance, is a tribute to human resilience, as also to contraction of the customs into the Global village in the last few decades.

Education and Science

This process of redemption, however, has its pitfalls, which seem to recur with sickening familiarity. Absence of sanctity of long standing traditions, unstable political systems, loose or ineffective governance, paucity of sufficiently commanding role models, heroes or peers, insidiously lead to subversion of the new systems for sectarian or even individual motives or gain. The inevitable end results are edifices of straw, rotten and crumbling from within, maintaining facades of existence and exterior in often unbelievably venal scenarios of corruption and degradation. Exposures of political criminality have become routine, and taken the fancy of the media and the populace alike. However, perhaps less flamboyant, but more vitally destructive is the defilement of ethics, howsoever nascent and nebulous, in the sectors of Education and Science (2). Although the two are undeniably intertwined, the decline of Education in India will be discussed here very briefly only. Despite its avowed objective of imparting or disseminating knowledge, and universal human values, Indian education has never really encompassed virtues or heights expected of an ancient, even if historically beleaguered people. Modern Indian education, except perhaps at earlier school levels, or in specific curricula of some subjects in the Humanities, does not concern itself with even primordial human ethics. In the Sciences, the complete abandonment of any treatment of universal human values and norms of conduct even in the arena of Science itself , are all the more radical and glaring.

The foregoing is a resume of the possible causes which may have led to the corruption, degradation and the inevitable, foreseeable decline of Science in India. A short, howsoever unpalatable look at the extant scenario, and its consequences is essential to focus on the need, indeed imperativeness of introduction of ethics in this vital area of human enterprise (2).

Modern Indian Science Establishment

The modern Indian Science establishment, in all its major, minor and offbeat ramifications, is struggling to survive in the University Science Departments; Government funded Research Organizations, notably the CSIR*, ICAR* and ICMR*; the Atomic Energy offshoot; Defense Research Establishment; and Miscellaneous Government, Semi-Government or Private, including few most prestigious institutes (TIFR*, IISc* etc.).

As remarked earlier, Indian Science flourished initially in the immediate post independence era (6). Many Universities had international reputation and standards. The ICAR ushered in the Green Revolution, and the ICMR took several killer diseases head on. The Atomic Energy establishment successfully ushered India into the nuclear age. The role of the CSIR was unfortunately confused and rather marginal, straying as it did into undistinguished mediocrity, or worse.

Success stories of Indian Science were, alas, the first bloom effects, petering out in a medley of confusion and frustration as the lack of norms, traditions and standards - above all, elementary ethics, began to wreak the telling consequences of their absence.

Imperial Hangover?

The first perceptible characteristic of Indian Science in the post independence era, cutting across organizational sectors, was the rapid establishment of a feudal culture (2). This was most reprehensible in the Universities, followed closely by almost all Government Research Organizations, and their numerous institutions spread across the country. The feudalistic mindset, and consequent authoritarianism in the University Science Departments reached an unimaginable nadir with the permanent Life tenures, and post retirement extensions commandeered by the well entrenched Heads, the latter thus assuming literally Life and Death powers of King Emperors who could do no wrong.

Many Directors / Heads of Research institutions emulated their University counterparts, converting their more isolated establishments into well ensconced inviolable personal fiefdoms. The Universities managed to throw off the yoke of this 'academic ' neoimperialism in the seventies, in both the Humanities and the Sciences. Today there is a firm , nearly inviolable policy of rotation of Heads of all Departments in all Indian Universities after 3 years , ending once and for all the (today ) unbelievable horrors of those forgotten years. In the research laboratories and institutions under the various governmental organizations, however lengthy or life tenures have continued till very recently, resulting in the perpetuation of evils of unbridled power without meaningful accountability and virtual lack of any effective monitoring, checks and balances (7). The fundamental flaws of such systems unilaterally weighted in favour of individuals are reflected in the discomfort and dissent manifested by the latter when recently directorial tenures were sought to be restricted to six year contracts. The protests by the affected individuals ranged from defiant resort to legal redress (which were infractious),to pathetic actual tears in public. At present whereas attempts are being made to enforce the six year terms , resistance , manipulations are very successful in thwarting their implementation.

The consequences

A quick assessment of the harm done to the Indian science establishment by the trends briefly enumerated above reveals that the authoritarian culture has not in any way resulted in the promotion of even efficiency, let alone excellence, in scientific pursuits. The much vaunted numerical abundance of Indian scientific manpower has to be viewed against the backdrop of steadily falling standards and reputation of scientific achievements ,if any. In some cases credibility and faith have reached such an all time low that even Indian organizations have banned the induction of personnel from certain Universities and establishments .Unfortunate cases of brazen plagiarism or even outright falsehood have received international media coverage leading to further erosion of faith in Indian Science. At the grass root level, the average working scientists are frustrated by lack of facilities, recognition and any meaningful prospects in both pecuniary as well as professional terms. Myopic man power policies of early superannuation coupled with bans on recruitment, and / or motivated / sectarian induction without well defined needs or objectives has already created serious vacuums in most research establishments. In roads by the corporate sector, offering as it does incomparable career opportunities, have now sizably cut the influx into the science stream (8). This subtraction is not merely quantitative, but extends to quality as well. The science aspirants in India today are usually third or fourth in ratings, the cream going to the corporate or civil services sector, the next best to professional careers such as medicine and engineering, and only the leftovers reluctantly venturing into science (9).

The root causes, and some puzzles

In seeking to pinpoint causes of this steady and shocking decline of Indian science, the conclusion is inescapable that there has been moral and professional turpitude in terms of complete abandonment of responsibilities on the part of the all powerful and near invincible managers of Indian science. Which brings us directly into the ambit of the whole vexed question of professional and personal ethics. Ethics in science would follow as a collateral once personality and professional problems are addressed and solved.

Practice and conduct of science requires monastic approach and discipline (4). Indeed, the Indian Gurukul system with centric focus on the Guru extrapolates well to the position of the teacher or the leader in Science. However, the Guru in the Gurukul was invariably the epitome of Justness and Morality, and commanded unflinching, unquestioning devotion form the disciples on the strength of his unimpeachable virtues rather than any ordained authority. In our system the hallowed Gurus of Indian science have chosen to impose authority, often arbitrary to crippling in effect, on the basis of power accruing to them by virtue of their official positions as Heads or Directors, rather than benign leadership emanating from their professional achievements or stature. It has been singularly puzzling and unfortunate that even where (though admittedly rarely) the latter was commanding enough, cheap, overbearing obnoxious and usually totally unjustified use of power, rather than persuasion or leadership is invariably in vogue. This peculiar behaviour seems to recur with predictable regularity among Indian Scientists elevated to executive, managerial positions. Instead of flexing intellectual muscles there is a very distinct (and disturbing) propensity to switch to an almost clerical mode of functioning. The technocrat seems to revel in dabbling in inanities of the archaic. Indian bureaucratic practice rather than exercise scientific or technological acumen to promote science. Perhaps there lies the crux of the dilemma. Promotion of any Institution in the Indian context seems to limit itself, or is defined by dictates of personal gain. In the science sector power has usually been the mesmerizing beacon, though of late pecuniary gain has also added to the luster of the lucre! Corruption by wielding of arbitrary power is of course more venomously lethal to the growth and development of institutions. In the present scenario, where both are highly vulnerable due to the myriad of circumstances related above, training and outlook of the preachers as well as the disciples can be inestimable. Once again it is puzzling, as it is pitiable that savants of no mean repute, intelligence and scholarships have stooped to blatant nepotism and favoritism ,starting right at the roots in the ' Education' sector , and going to the very top at the professional gubernatorial levels. Thus awards of unprecedented , and ensuring ensuing fallout’s of plum power positions in the academic/professional institutes for sons, daughter, other assorted kin and/or favorites/courtiers by some of the biggest names in Indian Science have long eclipsed the flowering of genuine scientific talent in the country. Till today there is little to choose from, since as remarked earlier, the cream is anyhow now gravitating to more fertile fields.

Some Solutions

Scientists, by training and aptitude, have a propensity towards analyses, objectivity and pragmatism. Their profession is , in one word, inquiry into truth as it relates to the nature of things and phenomena. This professional imperative of truth should influence some measure of respect for the latter, and a degree of honesty in personal life and transactions also. The Scientist, irrespective of his origin or affiliation, has to realize this, and translate it into a habit and a code. Representing the acme of aspiration in terms of all that is connotated by 'human' , the scientist has to devise a voluntary self-regulation of his own conduct vis-a-vis not only scientific inquiry, but inter-personnel relationships, as well as institutional and organizational responsibilities. Where, for whatever reasons, personal motives have trampled public, and human principles, discipline may have to be imposed by high level associations or academies. However, since these would also inevitably have a percentage of constituents they seek to check, reform or guide, making them above reproach may be possible only if they incorporate widest possible spectrum consisting of all segments of private as well as public science organizations, including the Universities, without fear or favour of `official' or pseudo-official existing `High Priests'. In the ultimate analyses, however, it is the individual whose discipline and direction will influence and shape the collective.


Indian Science today is an arid wasteland with little to recommend, and less to hope. The situation can perhaps be saved even now , first and foremost by the infusion of ethics bordering on the spiritual into the personal and institutional conduct of scientists, especially the Managers. Pitfalls in the guise of so called trade union activities by the inscrupulous and self seeking among the scientists themselves, and a mindlessly jealous bureaucracy seeking equations where none can possibly exist, have to be faced , avoided or overcome ,as the case maybe . This needs courage which normally comes with personal probity based on at least elementary ethics.

Ethics is ...a system of morals, or rules of behaviour, a professional standard of conduct (10). All definitions carry the implication of honesty, perhaps even exemplary, certainly unimpeachable behaviour. This would naturally acquire overriding importance, a beacon for emulation, in the conduct of professions, and ensure firm and lasting foundations of Institutions. At the more fundamental levels, ethics is essentially transcending animal limits, conferring one of the more primary distinctions on the human species.

The need for ethics in the meaning of the foregoing definitions and elucidation in the Indian Science scene at all levels can hardly be over-emphasized.
Abbreviations: CSIR: Council of Scientific and Industrial Research; ICAR: Indian Council of Agricultural Research; ICMR: Indian Council of Medical Research; IISC: Indian Institute of Science; TIFR: Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

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