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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Is an “Indian Crab Syndrome” Impeding Indian Science?

The award of the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to Robert G. Edwards honors an achievement that was world famous the minute it happened and remains so to this day. With Patrick Steptoe, his late collaborator, Edwards did the pioneering work that resulted in the birth, on July 25, 1978, at Oldham General Hospital in England, of Louise Brown, history’s first “test tube” baby. Her Ceasarean delivery was both a scientific triumph and a worldwide, stop-the-presses, headline story.

Few Westerners — including this reporter — realized that less than 3 months after that epoch-making event, on October 3, 1978, the world’s second test-tube birth took place in Calcutta, India. A team headed by
physician Subhas Mukherjee (often also spelled Subhash Mukhopadhyay) conceived in vitro and delivered a baby girl they identified by the pseudonym “Durga,” after a Hindu goddess who embodies the female creative force, but whose actual name is Kanupriya Agarwal.  Mukherjee had devised a method different from — and, in the opinion of some, superior to — that used by the English team.

But unlike Steptoe and Edwards, Mukherjee’s countrymen did not acclaim his achievement. Instead, the Indian scientific establishment doubted his claims. He was investigated by an official scientific committee that included
no one qualified to evaluate his work. Then he was vilified for fraud and prevented from presenting his work to the international scientific community. Humiliated and dispirited, he committed suicide in 1981. Not until a quarter century after “Durga’s” birth did the Indian scientific world recognize his achievement, largely through the efforts of the man previously credited with India’s first test-tube birth, T C Anand Kumar. The tragic tale was popularized in an Indian movie.

Mukherjee always claimed that, had he received the support rather than the opposition of India’s scientific establishment, he could have beaten the British team to the first IVF birth. And even today, writes journalist Shobha John in the Sunday Times of India for January 16, 2011, an “Indian crab syndrome” — the tendency to pull down to the common level anyone trying to follow an innovative course — explains why, in the words of G P Talwar, founder-director of India’s National Institute of Immunology, “research at Indian universities rarely comes up with path-breaking work.” John adds, “doctors admit the going is tough in the Indian universe of scientific and medical research.”

“Heads of department (HoDs) put up opposition to anything unconventional and are part of expert groups which one can’t fight against,” Talwar observes. “Staff selection maybe biased and meritorious students may find it hard to survive and prosper unless they have a godfather, [Talwar] says,” John writes. John further quotes Anoop Misra, director and head of the department of diabetes and metabolic diseases at Fortis Hospitals in Delhi, to the effect that bureaucratic foot dragging and infighting can delay research for months.

How widespread the “crab syndrome” is in India is not clear. It is clear, however, that the phenomenon is not unique to that country. Unconventional discoveries by Western scientists have also met with disbelief and even scorn. The prion and the connection of Heliobacter pylori to stomach ulcers are just two prominent examples of advances that met strong initial resistance. Steptoe and Edwards also faced skepticism, and worse, before they succeeded.

But if John’s interpretation is correct, India would need, as John puts it, “institutional reforms and a process to keep department heads in check” if it wants to unleash the full talents of its scientists.

3 comments on “Is an “Indian Crab Syndrome” Impeding Indian Science?”

  1. Vikram says:

    Good to see finally somebody is there to comment on Indian science. In Indian science majority of the awards and honors are political . Any silly research praposal will be accepted, if some body has godfather. Best graduate students will not get recognition, if he is working under a low profile mentor. The faculty recruitment system in many places in India is worst.

  2. Smyths says:

    I just agree with the Mr. Vikram.

  3. Simpy says:

    I completely agree with the contents of “Indian Crab Syndrome” Impeding Indian Science?
    There had been series of very thought provocating critical write ups by Prof. Mashelkar in Science magazine about Irreverance in Indian science ( by Pushpa Bhargava in a series of articles in Hindu on genesis of Dept. of Biotechnology (DBT) and our own President Prof. Abdul Kalam in his book WINGS of FIRE about the role of research council or science advisory councils in institutional governance. If this can be the thoughts of the who’s who of Indian science, then it clearly suggest that there is something seriously wrong. Recently there had been a great thrust on promoting Indian science by KEYWORD catching them young. But if there is a serious problem at the top level which even the Who’s who of Indian science cannot control then how are these young innovators being identified.
    We all know that a life of any new institute in INDIA is only 5-10 years. All these institutes start with a novel objective and are groomed and nourished by the founder directors but then by the time these institute matures and founder directors are no more or have no authority over this institute it is open for a open competition. And it is then the rejected or dejected lot of Indian scientific bureaucracy put all pressure to mess up with the institutional affairs which is mostly political filled with vengeance leads to a natural death of this performing institute. There are innumerable examples but more predominantly with the DBT institutes, which very meticulously misuses the term autonomous. Possible solutions to these problems are to identify scientists with real interest in science in the helm of affairs of any institute. Why not invite the prominent Indian achievers in international diaspora both from academic and industry be a part of institutional building network. Make accountability of every member most significantly the Directors of these institutes to be reviewed critically. Make transparency in every matter of science administration and encourage networking and critical and open discussions on the merits based on the mandate of the institute. Simply encouraging young innovators is likely to be suicidal for both young innovators and the institute. If Prof. Mashelkar, Prof. Pushpa Bhargava or Prof. Abdul Kalam had made these statements early in their career they would have been crushed to humiliation and we wouldn’t have enjoyed the credibility of instutes like CCMB, CSIR or missile or space programs we cherish today.

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