Paper run

Here’s another contentious story of an Indian research group feeling left out in the ‘paper run’. A group of researchers from IIT, Madras Chennai has claimed that they lost precious time while trying to get their paper published — it was rejected a couple of times by prestigious publications before another one accepted it. In the meantime, another group of ‘first world scientists’ got a similar paper published by the very same publishers who had rejected the IIT group.

Now, we have heard such stories many times. We have also heard voices of protest and angst that follow such controversies.

While it would be improper to comment on the journal’s decision to reject the paper without weighing the merit of the original draft that was sent for publication, the feeling of ‘third world alienation’ in paper publication has been a seething topic in many developing countries. Researchers have reported similar ‘abandonment’ issues time and again.

I am curious to know if there are more stories like these in our labs. Is it really true that third world scientists do not get as much importance in the peer-review process as their first world cousins? Is there a method to address these issues impartially — a body of peers that investigates into the genuineness of these cries?

Science prize

Two leading science publishers Wiley and Elsevier have announced a new prize for young scientists demonstrating a commitment to excellence in scientific research and international collaborations within the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member economies.

The prize is being called the APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE Prize) and will accept one nomination from each of the 21 APEC member countries. The nominee has to be under the age of 40. The prize money is $25,000 and will be honored at the Joint Transportation and Energy Ministerial Conference in September 2011, in San Francisco, California.

The prize recongnises the ‘dynamic period in scientific research, discovery and innovation’, especially in the Asia-Pacific. It also recognises the global nature of science and collaboration.

The theme for the ASPIRE prize this year is “green growth”, building on efforts by APEC to promote environmentally sustainable economic growth and development and help economies successfully transition to a clean energy future.

The APEC Industrial Science and Technology Working Group is now soliciting nominations from top educational and research institutions. Countries are required to submit entries by August 1, 2011.

More information can be obrained from Luis Enrique Vertiz, Program Director, APEC Secretariat, at lev@apec.org.

Daylight Venus

So you might actually get to see planet Venus in broad daylight tomorrow (June 30, 2011) if you know exactly where to look. And of course if the monsoon doesn’t spoil your planet watching session.

The moon will come directly between the Earth and Venus and for a while the planet will be right behind the moon during daytime in India. However, the event apparently can still be seen — first in Kandla, Gujarat around 1:03 p.m. From the West it will move towards the north east of India and end at Silchar, Assam around 1:57 p.m. After about an hour and 20 minutes later, Venus will come out from behind the moon.

The planet will be visible in a clear sky. The place to look for it is in context with the Moon. It will take about 30 seconds for Venus to disappear completely behind the moon and the same time to reappear again.

For more on the celestial event, here’s a good place to find information.

The IIT debate

India’s controversy-courting environment minister Jairam Ramesh rubbed many the wrong way when he trashed the faculty of the country’s leading technology schools — the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) — for being sub-standard. His remark of last week has since been amended several times over, as is wont in a political circus, but the issue has led to some serious thinking on where the IITs are going — both quality wise and quantity wise.

A recent feature in Nature addressed similar issues facing science and technology education in India. According to statistics it quotes, India has around 90 million college-going youngsters. This number is expected to rise to an estimated 150 million by 2025. The country has 500 universities and 26,000 colleges, which can take in around two per cent of its eligible youth. The population is growing by 1.34% a year, more than twice the rate of growth in China — stark statistics.

Most of India’s science and technology graduates look for high-paying jobs in industry. Those who seek a PhD form a minority — about one per cent.

These are just a few grim realities of science education in India that the feature addresses.

It was followed by a correspondence from a couple of Indian researchers at Boston University, USA, who pointed out the state of education inequality among socially disadvantaged groups. They analysed data from the country’s top medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and found that performance was poor among students admitted under a government scheme for socially disadvantaged groups.

I find it interesting that British science writer Angela Saini’s book Geek Nation, which attempts some serious analysis of the IIT system and India’s scientific temper, preceded this debate.

The problem of science education in India has been written widely, analysed vastly and solutions recommended generously. The implementation, sadly, is not as promising or visible.

Geek Nation review

I am convinced that I catch the flu at the wrong times. I can recall half a dozen instances of missing stardom by a whisker because I had the lousy virus. One such instance was when British science journalist and now author of ‘Geek Nation’ Angela Saini came calling. I lost the chance of figuring in her wonderfully written book on the state of Indian geekiness, thanks to a bad bout of flu.

I finished reading Saini’s book recently. Here’s my review of the book, written on invitation from a New Delhi-based magazine, and reproduced below:

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Dispatches from Geekland

Knowledge is good, science is better. stealing this quote from Angela Saini’s book Geek Nation looked like the best way to talk about its essence. The book is an enviable slice of science tourism, a wide-angled examination of some pockets of Indian science. Its chatty demeanour and novel observations (that only a foreign eye can pick up) make the book a knowledge-enhancing exercise. As for serious scientific analysis of the state of Indian science, this is not the tome you are looking for.

And that is all right, one should guess. For, it never claimed to tear apart the scientific fabric of this country under a microscope to churn out dry statistics such as the number of publications or patents, top-ranking institutions or the rate of reverse brain drain. Thankfully, it did not. Or else the book would be just another heavy compendium on where Indian science is headed and risk being relegated to the ‘reports’ section of most libraries.

Saini’s book is what every science journalist in this country has secretly wished to live at one point of time or the other. Hopping in and out of flights, taxis and buses, Saini has merrily stolen the plot from under their noses, and how! The book is replete with the refreshing phenomenon of the ‘fresh eye’. You tend to ignore mosquitoes, ill-equipped labs, tea spilt on your sandal in a crowded conference venue, bumpy rides in the suburbs or the constant mingling of religion and science if you live in India. If you do not, your eye picks them up as abnormal. The narrative points a finger at many such things that a non-resident Indian finds irritating or amusing, with ample reason, and a resident frustratingly learns to live with.

Saini’s busy shuttling across the length and breadth of India — voice recorder in hand — has yielded a hydra-headed inspection of what is cooking in laboratories and geeky workstations. She tries digging deep into this seemingly impossible phenomenon — how is it that despite all the constraints, India has managed to breed and nurture the most happening scientific community of the world.

Geeks, geeks everywhere, not one geeky enough: is Saini’s observation of the nuttiness quotient of Indian scientists. She encounters random disappointments in her journey — the IITs are not fun; most Indian labs are ill-equipped and do not nurture crazy ideas; there is no attempt at separating science from pseudoscience; Indian IT nerds are over hyped — in reality they are all assembly line soldiers, just like their friends in the pharmaceutical industry. And then she finds bursts of excellence in the country’s space programme and in innovative biotechnology research studies.

The endearing part of Saini’s narrative is the research. The journalistic effort to get to the bottom of things shows in details — from the Bakhshali birch inscription to the Vaimanika Shastra, an early 20th century Sanskrit text on aeronautics, which she analyses to get an insight into the history of Indian science. It shows in the hop-skip-jump tours that take her to a wide range of places — a TB research centre, a nuclear reactor site, the suburban home of an academic topper, the headquarters of an IT company, a geek township in the wilderness and a missile launch site.

The book itself is different from the more incisive texts that have attempted to answer similar questions. It delves on a serious theme — how Indian science is taking over the world — but does not really bother too much about the whys or whos or whats. This is the beauty of its random observation. It tries to weave a method into this madness.

Saini has the potential of becoming the Xuanzang of Indian science — picking up bits and pieces from a slice of history when India’s science is truly coming out of its cocoon to take wings. She turns these anecdotes into a highly readable travelogue. The book will have its place in history as one that recognised the trends of the time and scribbled interesting notes on the margins.

Indian girl, interrupted

Here’s a scientific confirmation of what we knew all along, forming the basis of India’s skewed sex ratio.

New research published this week in The Lancet says more and more Indian families with a girl as their first child abort their second if it turns out to be a girl in prenatal testing. The ghastly act presumably aims at ensuring at least one boy child in the family.

Surprisingly, the decline in girl to boy ratio is more in better-educated and richer households than in illiterate and poorer households.

The authors have analysed census data to determine absolute numbers of selective abortions and examined over 250,000 births from national surveys to estimate differences in the girl-boy ratio for second births in families in which the first-born child had been a girl.

Researchers from Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Canada and colleagues from India – Post Graduate Institute of Medical Research and Education, Chandigarh; International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai; National Population Stabilisation Fund, New Delhi and the government of Maharastra – have come to the conclusion that the selective abortion of female fetuses, usually after a firstborn girl, has increased in India over the past few decades. Reliable monitoring and reporting of sex ratios by birth order in each of India’s districts could be a reasonable part of any effort to curb the remarkable growth of selective abortions of girls, they feel.

The 2011 Indian census showed about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged 0–6 years. This gap was 6.0 million in the 2001 census and 4.2 million in the 1991 census.

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Poster of a Hindi movie condemning female foeticide

The Indian Government implemented a Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1996 to prevent the misuse of techniques for the purpose of prenatal sex determination leading to selective abortion of girls. Obviously, the act has seen some shoddy implementation. Civil society agitation, popular media interventions including cinema; and aggressive public health programmes — nothing seems to be making a dent.

What will?

What do we, as a nation, have against the girl child?

Clean energy awards

A 50 million dollar Indo-US collaboration has been announced in the clean energy sector. India and the U.S. will split the funding commitments in half to support the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center (JCERDC).

The JCERDC will be located in existing facilities in both countries. It is the first collaborative research effort of its kind.

The idea is to fund research in three three priority areas: biofuels, building energy efficiency, and solar energy through awards. These awards will support joint consortia of American and Indian private sector companies, non-governmental organizations, research labs, or other organizations. Selected consortia will leverage government resources by contributing matching funding.

The applications for the award are due by August 16, 2011, with selections expected later this year. More information is available here.

Planet show

Word from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune has just arrived regarding a spectacular show about to begin in the dawn sky this month-end. The show, to last ten days beginning Arpil 30, will feature four planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter — along with a special appearance by the moon on the first two days. Show timings: about half an hour before sunrise.

IUCAA’s Arvind Paranjpye sent us this digitally-created image series to depict the changing position of the planets during this rare phenomenon. The planets are drawn together at dawn. So that’s the time to set your alarm clock and catch a glimpse of the quartet.

Happy skywatching!

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© Arvind Paranjpye, IUCAA, Pune

Write science

The news of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s winning the Pulitzer for general non-fiction was recieved with as much aplomb as the Nobel for chemistry to Venki Ramakrishnan in 2009 — both non-resident Indians doing the country proud with science as their tool.

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Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of Maladies chronicles the history of cancer. Using his skills as a cell biologist and his passion for writing, the physician-author draws from his experiences as a keen researcher of the science and history of cancer. Nature Medicine carried a review of the book last month and Nature featured it last year. The cancer physician and researcher from Columbia University has co-authored a number of papers in Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine.

The fact that Mukherjee has spun a book around something as conventionally non-appealing as cancer (and won a Pulitzer for it) is terribly encouraging for science writers.

This brings us to the question of the quality of science and medicine books written in India. Which is the last science/medicine/technology book by an Indian author that you enjoyed reading?

The bug returns

The superbug controversy sprung back this week with the publication of a fresh report on the NDM-1 bacteria in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. India’s health ministry was quick to negate the report calling it “unsupported by any clinical or epidemiological evidence”.

The story began in August 2010, when British scientist Timothy Walsh and colleagues reported finding the antibiotic-resistant superbug NDM-1 in India, Pakistan and the UK. The Indian government went on a denial mode, displeased with the naming of the microbe (New Delhi metalloßlactamase 1) and contending that it could ruin the country’s medical tourism prospects.

On April 7, 2011, Walsh and colleagues claimed in another report that “not all patients infected with NDM-1-positive bacteria have a history of hospital admission in India, and extended-spectrum β-lactamases are known to be circulating in the Indian community.” They measured the prevalence of the NDM-1 gene in drinking water and seepage samples in New Delhi to find bacteria in environmental samples. This, they say, has important implications for people living in the city reliant on public water and sanitation facilities. The Indian health ministry maintains that its water supplies are fine and people need not panic over the report.

As of now then, the issue seems like it needs some intensive follow-up. The Indian government may choose to ignore it at its own peril.