Sammy Sosa has found the benefits of skin whitening.

A scheme – perhaps the first of its kind in India – that sees the government’s science department team up with a US multinational to promote innovation has run into controversy.

In December 2010 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched a monthly competition in association with Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble (P&G) to solicit innovative ideas from Indian researchers. Winners were promised a cash award of $1000 and possible commercialization of their ideas by P&G, which has a beauty business worth over US$10 billion in global sales…

But the competition’s first call – for skin whitening alternatives to hydroquinone, which is not approved for use in many places including the European Union – has prompted criticism from researchers who argue that such products help to propagate racist attitudes in the country. Meanwhile, the department’s January challenge for cheaper alternatives to silicones in shampoos, lotions, fabric softeners, and other beauty products marketed by P&G has fared little better. The principal drawback of silicones is their expense and poor biodegradability but some researchers argue that India has more pressing issues for its scientists to address.

“I am shocked,” Pushpa Bhargava, a biologist and former vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission told Nature. “This would propagate wrong values as it smells of discrimination against darker people, especially women, and of racism.”

“Unfortunately, in our society, especially for girls, white skin is a feature which is supposed to lead to a better price in the marriage market, for example,” says Vineeta Bal a senior scientist at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi and member of a national panel for women scientists. “I think for a government department it is inappropriate to promote social prejudices in the society.” “While the Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and other such philanthropic agencies do have partnerships with government agencies, I am not (for such tie-ups) with the companies.”

Bhargava agrees. “Research agreements with industry should be entered into by the laboratories and not by the DST that is a government organization,” he says.

Valangiman Ramamurthy who was DST secretary for 11 years until 2006 says he “would not have been in favour” of such a collaboration. He says he would consider it improper for the DST to hold online contests with a beauty products company and, by doing so, potentially give DST’s tacit stamp of approval for any product it commercialized.

However, the current DST secretary Thirumalachari Ramasami disagrees. The DST-P&G Challenge of The Month is only a small part of the department’s overall activities, he says.

“It is not a priority project but a very minor programme compared to larger issues of national importance that we are concerned with,” Ramasami told Natureadding that his department has earmarked only Rs.50 million (US$1.1 million) in total for the project. He says it is absurd to accuse the DST of promoting beauty research at the expense of more important problems. “Tell me which challenging issue has been ignored by DST?” he asks.

P&G says that more than 50% of its product initiatives involve significant collaboration with outside innovators and that its open innovation programme aims to bring “the best minds to work against the biggest projects to deliver the biggest game-changing wins for consumers”. Asked if there were plans to rethink the collaboration with DST in the light of the criticisms voiced by some scientists, a spokesperson for the firm said, “Our goal in collaborating with the DST remains unchanged – to stimulate the innovation talent in India to take on tough scientific challenges in a way that allows us to develop the scientific talent in India while seeking to fulfill the needs and aspirations of P&G’s consumers worldwide.”