While scientists and researchers have been calling for transparency in COVID-19 vaccine-related research data, the Centre, ironically, released the draft version of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP) in December 2020 based on the ethos of “Open Science”.
Open Science has emerged as a global movement amidst a growing crisis in science that has affected India as well, and includes issues such as fabrication and falsification of data, plagiarism, unethical authorship, failure to disclose funding sources and gender disparity in research institutions. An interesting example to understand the crisis is the “10,000 steps a day to remain healthy” goal, which most of us are aware of. How many, however, know that this goal is based on bad science and there is no evidence for the 10,000 steps figure?
Open Science draws attention to some core values such as transparency, accessibility, collaboration, and “constant and continuous transfer of knowledge between producers and users of knowledge.” It’s also an essential part of the draft STIP 2020, which states that an “all-encompassing Open Science Framework will be built to provide access to scientific data, information, knowledge, and resources to everyone” and “all data used in and generated from publicly funded research will be available to everyone under FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) terms”. However, the news on the “Emergency Use Authorisation” (EUA) to the two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, whose efficacy data is either currently unavailable or disputable in the Indian context, leads one to wonder if there is an inconsistency between policy and practice.
When data is not openly available, especially in cases of publicly-funded research and research which have wider public safety concerns, the vaccine for instance, not only is public trust in science and scientists damaged, the self-critical and self-correcting nature of science is severely hampered as well. The government’s intention to prioritise research and innovation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is laudable. A vaccine, however, cannot come at the cost of transparency, an indispensable element in the fight against the virus. While CDSCO guidelines clearly mention that “adequate data should be generated” to ensure safety and effectiveness of any vaccine whose development is expedited for unmet medical needs of the country, this data should also be made public.
Going ahead, data across the different stages of COVID-19 vaccine research (including but not limited to research methodology, research tools, negative results, efficacy data, and other limitations) should be made public on ICMR’s open access repository, the central repository of the Department of Science and Technology or other open access repositories identified by the CSIR. This must be done on a priority basis to ensure that bad science does not compromise peoples’ health and the trust in science remains intact.