The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has given away one of its prestigious awards to its former director general a month after his retirement, triggering murmurs of protests within the CSIR family. Scientists described it as a probable case of ‘conflict of interest’ that needs to be probed.
In 2018, the council presented its ‘CSIR Technology Award’ in the category of life sciences to the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), Chandigarh, for developing a state-of-the-art clot-buster drug known as clot specific streptokinase. Mr Girish Sahni, a scientist who developed the indigenous clot-buster during his long research career at IMTECH, was the director general of CSIR when his pet project was selected for the award. “The streptokinase technology was developed years ago. The CSIR had even signed a commercial agreement with a pharmaceutical company in 2011. Then why was it awarded at a time when Mr Sahni was at the helm of affairs to throw around his influence? The issue of conflict of interest can’t be ruled out and the CSIR headquarters must come out clean,” a senior CSIR scientist, who didn’t wish to be identified, told DH. Mr Sahni retired as a CSIR director general on August 23, 2018. The CSIR awards are presented every year on its foundation day on September 26. But the process of selecting the award by a 14-member jury was carried out when Sahni was in charge of India’s oldest research council. A CSIR spokesperson said, “In 2018, the (selection) committee, after deliberations, recommended the nomination ‘Clot Busters for Thrombolytic Therapy’ submitted by a group of scientists of IMTECH for award. By a coincidence, Sahni was one of the contributing scientists of IMTECH for the nomination.” “The nominations for CSIR technology awards are scrutinised in detail, deliberated and selected by respective award selection committee comprising high level external members drawn from various institutions in India. This committee is an independent one; non-members (including director general, CSIR) don’t participate in the meeting,” the spokesperson said. Mr Sahni responded to DH, countering the charges. “I’m not aware of any personal knowledge or intervention in this matter. To the best of my knowledge, no influence was exercised. For me, it’s very difficult to comment more than this. I can say with utmost honesty that I have a clear conscience in this matter. A large group of scientists and students worked on this project for several years and created a strong societal impact,” he said. Incidentally, the charges against the former CSIR chief come at a time when India’s principal scientific advisor has come out with a draft national policy on academic ethics. In one of the chapters dealing with science administration, it says, “Conflicts of interest have to be avoided. When potential conflicts are liable to occur, the official must make this known to the concerned colleagues.”