Scientists and their social responsibility: Indian view

By: Dr. R. R. Kishore, MD, LLB

(Chief Medical Officer, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India, President, Indian Society for Health Laws & Ethics, New Delhi. Telefax: +91-11-6876621 e.mail:

– This paper was presented by the author at Workshop organized by the Hastings Centre at New York, USA, 27 June-3 July, 2003)


On September 11, 1990, following the disintegration of Soviet Union, President Bush, , sounded very optimistic while announcing emergence of an order “free from the threat of terror, stronger in the quest for peace, an era in which the nations of the world can prosper and live in harmony”. (1) For hundreds of years, economists and politicians have been experimenting with different philosophies and systems of state policy, ranging from monarchy to democracy but they have not been able to provide a secure and peaceful social order. By means of continuous and sustained efforts, in the hope of achieving a uni-polar world, easier to govern and administer, they demolished a communist system which stood erect for nearly seven decades. But, the outcome belied their assessment and expectation. Even more than a decade after the iron curtain was torn, world is as insecure as ever, perhaps more, and the perceptions remain drastically heterogeneous. People, in the same society and culture, continue to perceive aggression and liberation differently. There is no unanimity even on fundamental issues of human quests and values? The global village, shrinking day by day through faster communication and cultural assimilation, presents a painfully disintegrated picture in terms of human quests and goals. Science by its very nature is unanimous and integrative. It does not vary according to political systems and boundaries. Scientists worldwide share common principles and theories for their operations. As such, they are part of an independent and transparent civilization, offering a ray of hope in this multipolar world divided by race, religion, history and politics. This paper seeks to examine the socio-economic obligations of the scientists in the face of fast advancing science and technology and the strategies adopted in this regard by a developing country like India.

Existing Scenario

During the last decade there has been spectacular progress in science and technology. Capabilities in information, communication and transport have increased manifold and several areas of space have been successfully explored. Fast advancing biotechnology has turned fiction into reality. Human genome has already been mapped. Thousands of diseases are already known to result from defects in single genes and the screening of defective genes has become a practical possibility. Transplantation technology holds the promise of improving millions of lives by replacing diseased organs. Reproductive technology has transformed the life of many sterile couples into hope and joy. However, there are many areas in biotechnology where enhanced capabilities have added to human dilemmas. Genetics, in its attempt to understand life in molecular terms has led to objectification of human subjects, affecting person’s identity, autonomy, and equality. Individual’s body and its characteristics have become the object of commercialization leading to prolonged legal battles , with no definite results. (2) Non-existing are taking precedence over the existing (3) and the embryos are being subjected to inheritance rights (4). Claims for the “custody” of fertilised ova, “wrongful birth” and “wrongful life” are challenging judicial capability. (5) Human relationships and institutions like ancestry, parentage, marriage, and family are being redefined — and even collapsing. The rights of the mother and the embryo/foetus continue to interfere with each other increasingly and the search for ‘normal’ children by selection of embryos remains surrounded by ethical obscurity. End of life decisions, stem cells, genetic patentability, research involving human subjects, organ donation and allocation, and many more issues display lack of conceptual clarity. On top of all this has come the “Utility” with its vast potential of making the life worthless and misconceived, compelling one to search new meaning in the objects and phenomena.

Of the world’s 6 billion people, 2.8 billion – almost half – live on less than $2 a day, and 1.2 billion – a fifth – live on less than $1 a day, with 44 percent living in South Asia ” (6) Poverty is a complex phenomenon. It breeds many negative forces such as illiteracy, superstition, ill health, social bias, injustice, dependency, genderization, outsized families and migration, enhancing poor’s vulnerability. Media is full of disquieting reports indicating exploitation of the poor for organ removal, womb hiring (surrogacy), sale of dead bodies, sale of children, sale of foeti, DNA sampling, clinical research and experimentation. Malnutrition and communicable diseases are still the major killers in developing countries and the poverty-health nexus continues as ever before. World has slipped into 21st century with loud thinking, utopian goals, and health-starved people, and many questions remain unanswered.

It is very clear that the international pronouncements affirming human dignity and individual autonomy as essential components of contemporary ethics have failed to protect the poor. Despite enormous scientific and technological advancement today’s world displays following disappointing features –

1. The life of common man has not improved. The inventions and innovations have brought comfort and luxury to those who belong to higher income group.

2. A large portion of the world’s population continues to live in poverty.

3. Genderization is prevalent in many parts, with blatant discrimination against women

4. Many vulnerable groups have emerged, with huge possibilities of coercion and exploitation

5. Social sectors such as healthcare, food, water, sanitation, housing, education, and justice have been ignored.

6. There has been extensive degradation of earth’s environment and natural resources are rapidly depleting.

7. Future generations are getting increasingly insecure

8. Political tensions and religious rivalries are mounting and the people are exposed to newer forms of threats

9. Individual is becoming more and more institutionalized, with loss of privacy, freedom and choice.

10. Growing commercialization is eroding the wealth of cultural and traditional knowledge

A scientist is not expected to watch the above trends as a mute spectator. As a member of civilized society he has to play a proactive role in its formation and betterment.

 Science, humanities and values

For centuries science and humanities have been treated as two different extremes for the understanding of universe, resulting in to inadequate utilization of both. While the former discovers the power of Nature, the latter determines its application. Technology therefore contemplates a matching human content in order to unfold itself for a purposeful role. Since technology is rooted in urge for productivity, resource optimization, automation, and innovation, there is a general belief that it improves the quality of life by imparting higher functionality, comfort and security. But, technology, in fact, acts in a strange paradox. On one hand it enhances human capability by increasing access to knowledge and resources, on the other hand it encourages concentration of scientific and economic power, leading to inequality and vulnerability.

In the recent years the common man who was earlier concerned with the problems of his daily life has become increasingly conscious and inquisitive of the scientific progress around him. He has become a part of interactive and proactive world, asking many questions concerning moral, economic and social implications of scientific pursuits. Three vital questions in this context are-

1. What is the human face of scientific research and development ?

2. Are the scientists a mere tool in the hands of economists and politicians or are they bestowed with a vision and commitment to use their knowledge and skill for evolving a secure and peaceful world order?

3. What is the interplay between human resources and scientific pursuits? Is it worthwhile to spend billions of dollars of people’s precious money on the development of spacecrafts while millions are hungry and devoid of basic necessities of life?

These questions point towards the basic human values associated with scientific and technological development. These values are truth, common good, transparency, independence and responsibility. In a civilized society, therefore, scientific advancement and moral evolution should proceed simultaneously and technological pursuits ought to be founded in deeper perspectives of human needs and aspirations than merely the desire for quantitative gains. Primacy of the human being is a uniformly recognized principle and the “ interests and welfare of the human being shall prevail over the sole interest of society or science” (7) No research or research applications “should prevail over respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of individuals or, where applicable, of groups of people” (8) Based on these perspectives one can identify following goals of scientific and technological advancement-

1. To preserve and sustain nature

2. To bring peace and security to the people.

3. To impart equity and justice to social dispensation

4. To enhance unity and integrity of the world.

 Science and social responsibility

Public responses reflect fairly widespread moral concern about advancing technology and its applications. Instances such as Bhopal, Chernobyl, depleting ozone layer, green house effect, genetic interventions and nuclear arsenal have shaken people’s faith in science and technology. Many feel that since it is not possible to regulate and control such outcomes it is safer not to have such capabilities. This mistrust about science and technology is partly because of lack of people’s participation in the decision making process. “Exaggerated reports of success are likely to hurt the very people who we were trying to help.” (9) The situation calls for a continuous dialogue between the scientists and the general public in order to discuss the ethical, social and economic aspects of scientific and technological developments. Such a dialogue would lead to wider public acceptance of scientific promises. It is therefore necessary that scientists come out of their laboratories and research establishments and share a common platform with the general public.

Failure of political and religious leaders to take clear position on the issues emerging out of advancing technology has added to scientist’s responsibility to educate the public about the nature and consequences of their pursuits. In today’s democratic societies it is not possible for the politicians and the policy makers to ignore the public opinion even if such opinion is not scientifically well-founded. This may lead to discouraging impact on the scientists due to fear of getting their grants stopped and also on the industrialists due to fear of not getting adequate markets. In the process, many valuable opportunities may be lost. “… what can be done to change the present situation? The scientist must enter the public arena and must explain what he is doing and why it is important to the public. He must speak of it with same passion as the activist, and without condescension. He must abandon the jargon of his guild and speak in ways the public can understand” (10)

Science is becoming increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary, and calls for multi-institutional and, in several cases, multicountry participation” (11) Rapid advancements in science and technology have thrown profound and formidable ethical, social and economic challenges. Knowledge which was considered to be a universal asset has become a commodity, with severe restrictions on dissemination and sharing. Scientific knowledge for its adoption, transfer and diffusion requires participation of scientists in social tasks. Those engaged in research and development in the field of basic sciences ought to be conscious of the needs and aspirations of the community in which they live. The scientists must regularly interact with those who are involved in social sectors and humanities. This is necessary in order to impart social perspective to scientific pursuits. Many problems in today’s world can be attributed to rigid compartmentalization of disciplines. Human existence in its essence is holistic. No scientific pursuit is complete unless the resulting knowledge is integrated with social, economic and emotional aspects of human personhood. There are several other intelligible reasons justifying close interaction between scientists and society. Some of them are as follows-

1. Mundane breeds subtle: Practical circumstances and challenges provide the best impetus to scientific discoveries and inventions. Most of the scientists feel that the only places for them to pursue their knowledge and expertise are research and development laboratories. But, it ought to be realized that laboratories are not the only places to practice the art of science. Had Newton not been sitting in a garden he would not have discovered the laws of gravitation. Real life situations provide perspectives and insight which are not available in a study room or a laboratory. Working with lab rats and guinea pigs is one thing, working with human beings in flesh and blood is another. Interaction with surroundings is the best source of imagination and creativity. As such it is in the interest of science and technology that their initiators remain close to nature and community.

2. Scientists are a part of common intellectual stock of the society. Substantial natural and social resources are spent in making each one of them. They owe an obligation to return the debt by means of effective service to humanity i.e., the common man. The best service a scientist can render to the society is to use his scientific knowledge and expertise in a manner that improves accessibility of fruits of research and development to the common man.

However, the above social obligations notwithstanding, the choice of pursuit adopted by a scientist depends on a variety of factors such as –

  • Pesronal likes and dislikes

  • Individual circumstances

  • Nature and quantum of incentives by the state

  • Political atmosphere

  • Civil rights consciousness of the society

  • Economic status of the community

  • Cultural milieu

  • Historical background

As such, the scientist will behave differently in different societies. In an economically developed society most of them may like to pursue a purely research and development career. Scientists in a developing country, confronted with many a social problems may prefer to devote his knowledge and acumen in order to find solution to the problems in various social sectors.

Indian Scenario

Science and technology have been an integral part of Indian civilization and culture over the past several millennia. India was the fountainhead of important scientific discoveries which cover many great areas in the field of mathematics, astronomy, architecture, chemistry, physics, metallurgy, medicine, and several others. India too learnt a great deal of science from other jurisdictions. Many Indian scientists such as Chanakya, Aryabhatta and Sushruta who gifted the world rare ideas and discoveries were not only involved in scientific research and development but were also social reformists actively associated with community’s daily life and spirit. For this reason, the scientific discoveries and inventions in ancient India were never contrary to the interest of common man. Such scientific advancement was a part of overall social development, intermingled with economic, moral and religious processes.

Indian culture displays a unique universalism, perceiving the whole world as one big family-

“That person is my own, and the other one is not

my own is a thinking of small-heartedness. For the

generous ones the entire humanity is one family”

The above cultural thought provides a valuable direction to scientific pursuits.

India is committed to play her role in the global as well as national fields of science and technology. The emphasis has been on sustainable and equitable development of technology. The country has been successful in building a sound infrastructural base of scientific institutions and a highly skilled human resource. Indian capabilities in science and technology span through a wide range of disciplines. Agriculture, healthcare, education, information, communication, chemicals, fertilizers, nuclear energy, civil aviation, defense production, astronomy an astrophysics are some of the areas in which country has made remarkable success. A scientist cannot remain unaffected by the social milieu to which he is continuously exposed. In a country like India there are many specific challenges contemplating involvement of young scientists. These areas reflect a unique blend of scientific talent and social commitment. Areas like safe drinking water, nutrition, control of pests, flies, rodents, low cost housing, irrigation, power generation, indigenous system of medicine, and a host of others contemplate active involvement of scientists. Some of the common goals to be pursued by the Indian scientists may be identifies as follows-

1. To raise the quality of life of the people, particularly of the disadvantaged sections of the society

2. To generate wealth for all

3. To make the country globally competitive

4. To utilize natural resources in a sustainable manner

5. To protect the environment

6. To ensure national security

Scientists enjoy a unique social credibility which was never as compelling as it is today in view of increasing commercialization and politicization of resources in the name of globalization. The basic goal of all human development is to enhance access to justice. Scientists can be part of important policy initiatives in this direction.

Scientific and technical manpower (S & T) constitutes one of the major input resources for scientific and technological development. It provides measurement of country’s development potential. India has 7.27 scientists, engineers and technicians (SET) per thousand of population as compared to 180.66 in Canada, 139.16 in Russian Federation, 113.63 in Sweden and 112.77 in Japan. India’s per capita research and development expenditure was Rs. 130.26 (US $ 3.1) during 1998-99. There were 220 universities, 11 institutions of national importance and 11397 colleges in 1998-99 imparting higher education in the country. In 1999 the total strength of S & T personnel was 7.24 million. Many of these scientists and technicians are not gainfully employed. As per the data on the S & T personnel worn on the Registrar of Employment Exchange the number of unemployed S & T personnel was 1.72 million in 1998. (12)

India’s Science & Technology Policy for 2003

In the words of M. M. Joshi, India’s Minister for Science and Technology, “Our new policy is anchored in our abiding belief that for science and technology to grow, it must be green, it must be ethical, it must have a human face, it must be gender sensitive, it must be region and contest specific, reflect our enormous diversity and plurality, and it must empower the community as a whole and not merely a section of it.”(13)

In order to ensure integrated and fruitful development of science and technology and assimilation of country’s scientists in the socio-economic and cultural mainstream of nation’s life the Government of India announced a comprehensive policy for the year 2003. The policy takes in to account the emerging global and national challenges in the field of science, technology, economics and politics and the part to be played by the Indian scientists in this regard. The evolving world order founded on liberal economic policies, changing political equations and expanding people’s aspirations contemplates a proactive and multisectoral role by the scientific community. The Indian policy identifies several distinct objectives and envisages a multi-pronged approach in order to address the emerging imperatives. Some of the policy objectives are-

1. To inculcate scientific temper amongst the Indian people so that they emerge as a “progressive and enlightened society” and are able to participate in the development of science and technology and its application for “human welfare”

2. “To ensure food, agricultural, nutritional, environmental, water, health and energy security of the people on a sustainable basis.”

3. “To mount a sustained attack on alleviation of poverty, enhancing livelihood security, removal of hunger and malnutrition, reduction of drudgery and regional imbalances, both rural and urban, and generation of employment, by using scientific and technological capabilities along with our traditional knowledge pool.”

4. To ensure that science and technology enterprise in the country is “fully committed to its social responsibilities and commitments’

5. “To integrate scientific knowledge with insights from other disciplines, and ensure fullest involvement of scientists and technologists in national governance so that the spirit and methods of scientific enquiry permeate deeply into all areas of public policy making.”

Thus, it can be seen that the nation’s science and technology policy perceives the scientists not only as initiators of research and development but as persons capable of playing a much wider role in the country’s overall development. The policy seeks to realize this goal by adopting a dynamic and flexible approach, necessary to accommodate the evolving world order. The policy reiterates India’s “commitment to participate as an equal and vigorous global player in generating and harnessing advances in science and technology for the benefit of all humankind”

While spelling out the strategy and implementation plan the policy recognizes the need for the development of technologies which address the “basic needs of the population” and lays special emphasis on “equity in development” so that the benefits reach the “disadvantaged section”


Unregulated technological advancement generates serious socio-economic challenges. It causes diversification of resources for the comfort and luxuries of few, imparts higher power to certain sections of society, neglects social sectors, exacerbates people’s vulnerability and aggravates overall inequity. Owing to past bitter experiences and lack of conceptual clarity the promises of technology seem to have turned into suspicions and many technological feats have been shelved for fear of moral miscarriage. In a civilized society the economists, politicians and religious leaders are not the only characters cast with responsibility to ensure people’s development. As enlightened members of society scientists have a complementary role to play in the people’s development. No technological development is complete unless it is integrated with social sectors. Scientists can utilize their scientific knowledge and skill in order to address many socio-economic challenges. They are bestowed with unique human attributes namely the truth and transparency and, as such, they are the founders of bright future. Scientists must understand that they are not robots operating at the command of their economic and political masters. They have an obligation towards disadvantaged sections of population which means that their scientific knowledge and skill should unfold itself in order to discover methodologies capable of liberating such sections from deprivation and neglect. Scientists also carry an obligation to ensure that their discoveries and inventions are not misused by business entrepreneurs and the industry to mislead the people by false claims and publicity. They should therefore engage themselves in dialogue with general public. With this perspective in mind, India’s Science and Technology Policy for the year 2003 seeks to integrate development of science and technology with social sectors, by encouraging scientists to play a complementary role, along with other players, in the overall development of the people.


(1) U. S. Department of State, Current Policy Document No. 1298

(2) Moore v Regents of the University of California, 793 P.2d 479, 271 Cal, Rptr, 146 (1990), Cert. Denied, 111 S.Ct. 1388 (1991), as reported in the Journal of Legal Medicine, Vol. 14. No.3, September, 1993

(3) C Byk “A Map of a New Treasure Island”, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 1998, Vol 23, pp234-246 at p 236

(4) In the Matter of Estate of Late K and In the Matter of the Administration and Probate Act 1935 ex parte The Public Trustee , as commented upon by Derek Morgan, in “Rights and legal status of embryos”, Australian Health Law Bulletin, Vol, No7, April/May, 1996).

(5) Michael S. Yesley. “Bioethics in the United States of America: Who Decides?” Human Genome Research and Society. Proceedings of the Second International Bioethics Seminar in Fukui, 20-21 March, 1992. P34-45

(6) World Development Report 2000/2001 Attacking Poverty, published by the World Bank, p3

(7) Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard

to the Application of Biology and Medicine: Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine,

Oviedo, 4 April 1997, (Article 2)

(8) Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, UNESCO, 11 November,

1997, Article 10

(9) Heiner Westphal, M. D. Animal models of human diseases. Genethics. Published by Ciba-Geigy Limited, Ciba Communications, Basel, Switzerland, 1995, p28

(10) Gerald E. Gaull, M. D. The new biotechnology: communication with the public. Genethics. Published by Ciba-Geigy Limited, Ciba Communications, Basel, Switzerland, 1995, p68

(11) Science and Technology Policy 2003, Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India

(12) Research and Development Statistics 2000-2001, Govt. of India, Ministry of Science and Technology, Deptt. Of Science and Technology, New Delhi, May 2002

(13) Dr. M. M. Joshi, Minister for Human Resource Development, Science and Technology, India. Science and Technology Policy 2003, Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India


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