The ministry of environment, forests and climate change has taken a retrograde step by “rejecting” a research paper on mortality due to air pollution in India, written by scientists from one of India’s best research centres – Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, (IITM), Pune.
This has serious implications not just for IITM but for scientific research in the country as a whole. The research paper on estimated loss of life expectancy due to pollutants was published in a reputed journal, Geophysical Research Letters, after due process of peer review.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar went overboard by calling it “unscientific” and smelling a conspiracy to “defame India” at a time Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting America.
He then got the environment ministry to issue a statement saying “the government” has rejected the study. The statement claimed that the ministry of earth sciences (MoES) – under which IITM functions – too has “completely rejected the study”.
The episode has sent shock waves in scientific community across the country.
The IITM scientists feel it is an onslaught on academic freedom. The institute authorities (IITM at present does not have a full-time director) – at the behest of MoES – have issued a gag order warning scientists not to speak to media about their research work.
In the present case, it was not scientists who approached media but they only explained their study after it was published in a scientific journal, as is the standard global practise in science reporting.
The way two ministries – environment and earth sciences – meekly submitted to the whims of a politician is surprising.
If the environment ministry did not agree with the findings of IITM study, it should have come up with a scientific rebuttal instead of resorting to political posturing.
Despite being an independent scientific ministry (under another minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan) with its own mission and agenda, the MoES buckled under pressure and failed its own scientists.
The feeling of betrayal is particularly greater for IITM because the present MoES secretary was its director till a few months ago. Gagging scientists is not new in India or elsewhere in the world.
China suppressed scientific information about outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, causing silent spread of the epidemic.
In 2010, when I wrote the story about scientists reporting on superbug, NDM-1, in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the Indian government not only summoned researchers who wrote the paper but also warned experts whom I had quoted and told them to keep mum.
Much like Javadekar, the then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad “rejected” The Lancet study as it would hurt medical tourism in India. His junior, Dinesh Trivedi, attributed “ulterior motives” to the researchers. The result of such political interference in science can be devastating.
Research on NDM-1 and antimicrobial resistance in India took a backseat. Even today scientists working on antibiotic resistance don’t want to talk about it or pretend as if NDM-1 has ceased to be a problem. I shudder to think of similar fate for research on air pollution now.