A worrying piece of news in this week's Nature:
Jayaraman, K. S. 2008. Entomologists stifled by Indian bureaucracy. Nature 452: 7.
An international collaboration to study insects in the Western Ghats mountains in southern India has been unable to get off the ground because of government concerns over biopiracy.
The story in a nutshell - an Indian entomology team working for an organisation called the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment collected some 200,000 specimens for an ecological survey of the Western Ghats, but needed to send the specimens to experts in different countries to be identified (and potentially described if and when some turned out to be undescribed species) because India lacks the experienced persons to do so. However, sending specimens out of the country required that the Trust obtain a licence to do so from the governmental National Biodiversity Authority, and NBA says no.
The reason for refusing the permits was tied up in legislation designed to stop biopiracy, a legitimate concern for many developing countries. Specifically, the legislation requires that specimens be retained in Indian institutes and not deposited out of country (the Ashoka Trust specimens were to be returned to India after identification). Unfortunately, such laws cause more harm than good if they cripple legitimate research. The secretary of the NBA responded to Nature's questions:
“There is no restriction on collection or export of a few specimens for research.... But exporting 200,000 specimens is not permissible.” The NBA encourages Indian scientists to send photographs or digital images to collaborators abroad instead of actual specimens, he says.
Unfortunately, this attitude shows complete ignorance of the requirements for research. Many invertebrates simply cannot be identified from external photographs along. Genitalia may need to be dissected out for many if not most insects. The news item does not mention if specimens of any groups other than insects are concerned, but many soft-bodied animals such as worms may require fixation on slides to examine internal anatomy. Experts on identification of a given invertebrate group will usually be few and far between, and it is quite believable that India (which does not have many well-funded research centres) lacks the expertise to identify many groups. This is especially true if costly techniques such as electron microscopy are required in identification, which are probably of limited availability in developing countries.
I also suspect, reading between the lines, that this might be a case of interference from the vertebrate-invertebrate divide, where policies that are developed with vertebrates in mind are unwisely applied to invertebrates. 200,000 specimens would be an extraordinary amount in a study on vertebrates, and would be quite rightly regarded as inordinate. One could also expect that most of the specimens would represent known species, and possibly could be identified from photos only. In a large-scale invertebrate survey, 200,000 specimens is surprisingly little, and one can feel certain that a significant proportion of those would represent undescribed species. The problem is especially acute when, as with many micro-invertebrates, the distinctiveness or otherwise of a given specimen can't be estimated prior to expert inspection.
And by essentially cutting off external input from better-funded countries (by making outside experts leap through too many hoops for it to be worth their time), the Indian government is effectively preventing its local researchers from improving their situation. For researchers in developing nations to improve their skill and knowledge base to the point where they don't need to seek outside assistance will almost certainly require a fair amount of initial input and training from said outside assistance. Also, as a significant amount of taxonomic work on Indian taxa has been conducted in other countries in the past, before principles of returning specimens to countries of origin were considered, many types and other critical specimens are held in non-Indian institutes. If Indian institutes are prevented from sharing their own specimens, then it forms a disincentive for non-Indian specimens to share specimens in turn, which could prevent Indian researchers from obtaining specimens critical to their own research.
It would be absolutely fantastic if Indian researchers were able to do all the required work on their own, without having to call in outside help. But to insist on such a state of affairs is to ignore the realities of current invertebrate taxonomic research, and to prevent conditions from ever improving. For shame!