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Go beyond ritual of science congress

The new Year seems to have taken off on a note of caution for Indian science. The annual jamboree called the Indian Science Congress has begun its weeklong session in Bhubaneswar with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurating the show. Singh has echoed the sentiments expressed by his scientific advisory panel chief C N R Rao a few weeks ago: India is fast losing out in science to other Asian giants like China.

While it is true that our investment in science and technology has gone up in the last few years, it is still too little compared to China which is taking up research and development in every important sector very seriously. Public investment in R& D in India has been growing at a healthy 20 to 25 percent per year during the Eleventh Plan period. Yet this comes to less than a percent of the GDP. The goal at the beginning of the Plan was to take it to at least two percent of the GDP. Ironically, this remains the goal for the 12th Plan as well.

What is heartening is that even marginal hikes in public investment have yielded fairly good results. The higher education infrastructure for science and technology is expanding a great deal. Universities are getting higher funding for research and the number of young people taking up research is rising slowly.

The University of Rajasthan figures in the top 50 Indian scientific institutions in terms of citations per paper under international collaboration, as a result of a special programme to boost research in universities. Nearly one million students are getting scholarships so that they can continue to pursue science. The number of papers published by scientists working in India has increased by over 12 percent annually compared to the global average of 4 percent growth.

Today India produces nearly 9,000 Ph Ds in science and engineering, compared to 3,000 five years ago. At the same time, the employability of these Ph Ds remains an area of concern, as reflected in a recent study which found that 60 percent of the 2,000 women Ph Ds in science surveyed were unemployed. The main reason cited was lack of job opportunities. A good number of science and engineering scholars also migrate to lucrative disciplines such as investment banking and management.

Merely increasing funding in research is not enough. We must direct this funding in a way that it helps meet our basic needs of food, energy, water security. Agricultural research has been languishing for lack of funds and direction. As Singh rightly pointed out, publicly funded R& D at present is skewed in favour of fundamental rather than applied research. On the other hand, private funding in R& D by Indian corporates had remained stagnant, though the likes of GE, HP and Motorola have made India a key centre of their technological push. Innovation is also taking place beyond the formal system of research. Some investment is also going in mainstreaming traditional knowledge. It was indeed gratifying to see the Prime Minister honour at the science congress a member of the Mayurbhanj tribes for his work in preserving traditional knowledge about medicinal plants. This way science could be made more inclusive.

Science should also see us apply our minds towards more efficient use of resources, while technology and process engineering could be used to take the benefits of development to those who need it the most. This is really the holy grail of scientific research. We did not hear of any specific programmes on this front from the PM. Hopefully some of the goals outlined by him would get translated into concrete action in the next Plan.

Biologists prove a scourge for rare species

In a classic case of the fence eating the crop, scientists engaged in the conservation of an endangered species have proven its nemesis. For a study of the reproductive biology of a freshwater fish species called Puntius denisonii – popularly known as Miss Kerala – biologists from St. Albert’s College, Kochi, killed as many as 1,080 members of this species.The fish is one of the most colourful freshwater species found in Northern Kerala and the western fringes of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1990s and has become a preferred aquarium species. The most recent conservation assessment of freshwater biodiversity in the Western Ghats places it in the Red List of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the endangered category.International guidelines require scientists to act responsibly while conducting research and minimise the number of specimens they collect. While raising the issue in Current Science, noted wildlife expert R J Ranjit Daniels has called this research ‘largescale killing of an endangered species’. He has lamented the lack of awareness about the IUCN guidelines on ethical research. Ironically, the Wildlife Protection Act does not cover freshwater fish species as they serve as food.

Spider better than silkworm at latter’s own game
Silk has grabbed headlines in the past few weeks, thanks to Vidya Balan’s role in the movie Dirty Picture . But here we are talking about some technological advances in producing real silk. It seems spiders spin silk fibres that are more elastic than those spun by silkworms. This makes spider silk more suitable for use in a range of medical applications such as sutures in surgery.But it is difficult to do spider farming in order to produce this silk because of territorialism and cannibalism among spiders. Now researchers have created transgenic silkworms that spin tough fibres containing spider silk proteins. The genes responsible for making spider silk elastic and tensile have been inserted into silkworms, allowing them to spin composite fibres.Earlier attempts to produce spider silk proteins in transgenic bacteria and yeast were successful, but putting this protein in silkworms obviates the need for post-production spinning technologies, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this week.

Scientists, civil society stand-off will persist

However, the scientific community feels that such confrontation is not good. The ambiguity on regulations and the confusion caused by the moratorium on GM brinjal has put biotech research in a limbo. “We are falling behind in crucial sectors such as food security. Various non- scientific solutions that these groups seem to suggest as alternatives are simply unworkable,” felt Dr Virandar Chauhan, director, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). He says dialogue on any contentious issue is welcome but it shouldn’t go on indefinitely. India, he says, must learn from countries like Brazil and China which have resolved issues in biotechnology which we are debating and moved ahead.

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