Author(s): Latha Jishnu @ljishnu
Date:Sep 15, 2014
ICAR has asked for Rs 245 crore to promote intellectual property rights but is not doing due diligence on patent claims

The award was given for ‘patented work on innovative superchilling technology and vacuum packaging’ for improving the shelf life of meat (file photo)
The award was given for ‘patented work on innovative superchilling technology and vacuum packaging’ for improving the shelf life of meat (file photo)

THE Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has once again tripped up on the issue of patents while handing out one of its top awards. In the annual awards presented in July this year for exemplary research done in 2013, it gave the Lal Bahadur Shastri Outstanding Young Scientist Award to a scientist who had merely filed some patent claims –some of dubious merit –whereas the citation talks of his patented work that is in great demand.

In July this year, ICAR handed out one of four Outstanding Young Scientist Awards to M B Naveena, a senior scientist at the National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM) in Hyderabad for his “patented work on innovative superchilling technology and vacuum packaging” for improving the shelf life of meat. It goes on to say that this technology has “huge demand among meat processors”.

A quick check with meat industry sources revealed that such technology has long been in use, specially by the top exporters in the country who sold 1.56 million tonnes of buffalo meat in 2013 and made India the top exporter of carabeef.

Another application for a patent filed by Naveena and his colleagues at NRCM is for a pickle of chicken with gongura, a leafy plant. Chicken-gongura is a traditional Andhra dish that is made in most homes, restaurants and is also marketed by companies selling pickles and other processed foods (see ‘ICAR chases patents for pickle’)

None of these patents have been granted as yet. Naveena told Down To Earth: “The merits, novelty and final granting of patents will be known once they go far examination. As an inventor if someone challenges my work, I will be happy to provide the reply.” He did not respond to questions as to why he was pursuing a well-known pickle recipe for patenting or about its commercial potential.

For those who have been watching how ICAR chooses scientists for its awards there is a sense of déjà vu. In 2009, it bestowed its most prestigious award, the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award, to K C Bansal of the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology who claimed to have filed three patents for a novel gene discovery. One of these, he claimed, was for a transgenic brinjal. It turned out to be a figment of Bansal’s imagination (see ‘Maya of Indian science’) since no such patent had been filed when he was given the award.

Sources in ICAR say the council’s push for intellectual property rights (IPRs) has resulted in an invidious situation. Scientists, they say, at times file patent claims for processes that are neither novel nor have any industrial application. This is because ICAR gives two to three marks to those scientists who hold patents or have been able to commercialise their work. This is a major advantage when senior appointments are being considered or when prized research projects are being handed out.

On the face it, ICAR appears to follow a careful process of screening the applications, involving “many steps of meticulous planning and diligent efforts”. According to the citations booklet released on 29 July, 499 applications/nominations were received from 16 institutions at the end of December 2013. These were scrutinised by 16 awards committees consisting of three to six experts in different disciplines and chaired by “an eminent scientist of national stature”. These committees then met between April and July for finalising the awards.

Clearly a lot is amiss in the procedure since committees are not looking through the applications carefully enough or seeking validation of the claims that have been made.

IPRs have become a focus area for ICAR which is hoping to capitalise on the work of its nearly 5,000 scientists. In 2011, it set up, through its parent organisation, the Department of Agricultural Research & Education (DARE), a “for profit” company called Agrinnovate India Ltd with an authorised capital of Rs 100 crore. The idea is to monetise the fruits of the research of ICAR’s close to 100 institutions.

In the 11th Plan a separate fund of Rs 49 crore was earmarked to promote IPRs and ICAR has been passing this on to its top institutes, of which the 17 national research centres (NRCs) constitute the cream. Research institutes have the autonomy to decide which work qualifies for patents once they go through the due processes. For the 12th Plan, ICAR has sought funding of Rs 285 crore to promote IPRs.

According to ICAR guidelines, all its affiliates have to set up institute research committees and research advisory committees to evaluate the authenticity and novelty of the work. After that it goes to institute technology management committee which will then get the application ratified by the project monitoring and evaluation cell followed by approval by the director.

It is an impressively bureaucratic process but quite often such committees are not formed, scientists confess. As a result there is no due diligence being conducted by the institutions on what is patentable. Neither, it seems are, are the legal firms that have been hired by ICAR to pursue IPRs.

NRCM director V V Kulkarni did not respond to Down To Earth about Naveena’s patents.

Although instances of shabby award selection have dented the reputation of ICAR, it has not taken corrective action. Bansal, for instance, heads the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.