The cover page of the BJP manifesto released ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

(This blog post originally appeared in The Copernican science blog on April 7, 2014.)

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”

The nonsense in Wockhardt’s reply to the FDA

(This blog post first appeared in The Copernican on April 7, 2014.)

I love the nonsense that companies put in their replies to accusations of willful negligence. Consider this from Wockhardt after a US FDA inspection found piss, mold and samples tested “into compliance” [emphasis mine] at its Chikalthana manufacturing plant in Aurangabad, India.

We are also leveraging technology and deploying enterprise-wide software that will streamline the entire quality and compliance system. This is backed by a comprehensive compliance training program for all personnel responsible for manufacturing and quality control.

Over the last few days, speculation has been rife that Wockhardt will be able to reach a quick resolution with the FDA. Earlier today, Sun Pharma announced that it will be fully acquiring Ranbaxy Labs – two other companies that have come under fire from the FDA for maintaining unsanitary working conditions.

What Wockhardt has rambled on about in its reply should’ve happened before the plant received a license to manufacture drugs (goes to show how terrible India’s regulatory measures are). One of the drugs is a variant of metoprolol, a beta-blocker used to treat some cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and angina pectoris. It finds mention in a WHO factsheet of essential medicines.

In the US alone, 27 million prescriptions for metoprolol are filled yearly according to a US National Library of Medicine assessment. After the FDA find, exports to the US are likely to be stopped from Wockhardt. For India, I couldn’t find the exact amount of consumption, but according to many manufacturers, it’s a ‘high growth trajectory’ drug and its consumption through multiple variants could easily be in the tens of millions.

Of course, Wockhardt is not alone in this – its Waluj plant has also come under scrutiny. Last month, Sun Pharma’s Gujarat plant was barred from exporting to the USA as was, in 2013, Ranbaxy’s Toansa plant. Incidentally, a Bangalore-based facility of Canadian manufacturer Apotex, Inc., has also been banned. This goes to show that, even though the insignificant exports may not hit us financially, our regulations are sparse enough to allow both foreign and domestic players to operate in shoddy conditions and release their products into the domestic market.

That three companies manufacturing such an important drug were awarded a license to manufacture without what appears to be a lack of even customary inspections is startling, especially with the contrast painted by Wockhardt’s swanky Mumbai corporate office and the conditions in its manufacturing units strewn around suburban and rural India. A Reuters report mentions that,

There are just 1,500 drug inspectors responsible for more than 10,000 factories in India, where one in every 22 locally made samples was of sub-standard quality according to a study carried out two years ago.

Here’s FDA’s letter to Wockhardt CEO Habil Khorakiwala from November 2013 warning about the Chikalthana plant’s working conditions, and another letter about the Waluj plant’s from July 2013.

The Indian medical devices industry stays foreign

India has a burgeoning medical tourism industry which, according to some estimates, is going to be worth Rs.9,500 crore in 2015 and Rs.54,000 crore in 2020. This industry evidently relies on medical imaging and diagnostics. According to an article published in 2013 by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, over 75 per cent of India’s medical imaging equipment is imported, constituting a Rs.18,000-crore industry in 2011 and growing at a compounded rate of 16 per cent in 2010-2015.

There is an import duty on fully-finished devices averaging 10 per cent, which consumers pay. What is worse is that if device components are imported individually and assembled in India, there is an additional excise duty and VAT on the components, increasing the device cost. Therefore, taxation is not in favor of domestic production and against exports.

Another funny thing is that disposable medical equipment, which are technologically non-intensive, comprise less than 10% of our imports, i.e., we can locally produce the rest. Technology-intensive equipment make up around make up more than half of our imports, with the exception of X-ray imaging devices which comprise 25% of our exports. These are numbers from the Annual Survey of Industry, CMIE and the Department of Commerce (GoI).

The more some devices remain import-intensive, the more they could inflate healthcare costs in a country where only around 20% of it is publicly funded yet.

This seems a weird position to be in. On the one hand, we plan to expand our public healthcare system to more than 500 million people by 2020, and on the other, don’t reduce costs of the devices that will form the spine of this system. There was a situation in 2010, ahead of the presentation of the Union Budget, when the Department of Pharma sought a cut in the customs duty on some medical devices to facilitate imports while the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry sought a hike in the customs duty to promote domestic innovation.

Thanks to our population, per capita expenditure on medical technology is a frugal $2-2.5. This is an important figure because it highlights how lucrative the Indian market must seem like to giants like Siemens and GE. Further on the downside, urban centers are the primary consumers of high-quality, ‘high-technology’, high-price medical imaging/diagnostic equipment and implants. A July 2010 report from Deloitte explained this well:

One example to illustrate low penetration is sales of pacemakers. At 18,000 units per year, India’s pacemaker penetration is just 1% of western levels. According to Dinesh Puri, CEO, MediVed, India should be selling a million pacemakers a year, considering heart disease is a major killer in India.

Photo: Special arrangement

‘Poverty first, Mars next’ is a non-idea

(This post originally appeared in The Copernican on April 4, 2014.)

I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.” – Treebeard, Lord of the Rings

Thanks to two wonderful pieces in the April 3 edition of The Hindu (by D. Balasubramanian andR. Prasad) talking about how scientific enterprise in India has been constantly undermined, it’s pretty clear that there is a perception schism between the fantasies of and the reality of publicly funded scientific development in the country. The underminers in question have been bureaucracy and, periodically, ignorance by the Indian polity – of late, in the form of political manifestos choosing to leave out scientific agendas in favour of more populist schemes.

But with bureaucracy, that is only to be expected. What is not is that, beyond a circle of scientists and science communicators, people seem to be okay with it, too. And this exclusion from the scheme of things has become two-pronged. Among the people, science has been malleated into the form of an unpredictable tool to further our developmental goals. Among the politicians, science has become a thing whose fundamentals can be called into question to pander to political expediency.

Sadly, scientific research and development has been instrumental to India’s progress since even the British Raj, when the construction of factories, transportation routes and communication lines (including what is still one of the world’s largest railway networks) helped dismantle feudalism. After Independence, however, a series of unfortunate mistakes have come together to knock the scientific temperament out of its rightful place in governance.

As Dr. Mathai Joseph told The Hindu, “The fact that scientific departments are modelled on the rest of the bureaucracy has turned out to be a big mistake. That’s because bureaucracy is not designed to encourage innovation.”

Who runs the science?

In August 2012, Colin Macilwain had touched on a similar topic with a piece in Nature titled ‘What matters for science is who runs the country‘. Working on the reasonable assumptions that a) researchers would want someone in the government to further their interests, and b) a government would want a scientist on its side to hone policies, Macilwain suggested that the role of a Scientific Adviser was to bridge the political and scientific classes.

Over the years, however, the Indian chief SA’s role, though continuing to attempt to bridge this divide, has become steadily less effectual. At least as far as C.N.R. Rao is concerned: he set up the IISERs and the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), which serve important goals in their own right but also fall prey to the effects of a bureaucratic administration. Moreover, though there has been a growing demand from the scientific community to get the Indian government to spend more than 1% of its GDP on R&D, there is no concerted call from either side to establish a mechanism to ensure that grants are allocated purely on merit, and thereafter to ensure accountability in spending.

In the Vote of Accounts presented by FM P. Chidambaram on February 17, point #74 did proposesomething remedial (albeit as a tax-redemption measure): “I … propose to set up a Research Funding Organisation [RFO] that will fund research projects selected through a competitive process. Contributions to that organisation will be eligible for tax benefits. This will require legislative changes which can be introduced at the time of the regular Budget”

Incidentally, when Rao helped set up the SERB in 2008, its stated aim was to promote research in the basic sciences and provide financial assistance to those who engaged in it. Detrimentally, its Board is chaired by a secretary to the Government of India, and 7 of its 16 other Board members are government agents. As for how likely the next government is to pursue the RFO: I don’t know, but I don’t have my hopes up. For as long as grant-allocation and the government remain strongly coupled, not much is likely to change.

In fact, the government’s involvement is not limited to grants but also extends to issues of autonomy, such as in the appointment of Chancellors or Vice-chancellors, all of which together directly affects the quality and direction of research undertaken. And the situation is only likely to worsen, as D. Balasubramanian mentions in his article, when educational institutions like IITs and IIMs are proposed to be set up to make political amends.

I write all of this, of course, keeping in mind the following lines from the April 3 Speaking of Sciencecolumn in The Hindu: “The central finance ministry, with one stroke of a pen, has cut the operating budget of all science departments by almost 30 per cent of the originally sanctioned amounts. As a result, the science ministries and departments have defaulted in their grant payments and in some instances even salaries. Many young research students are yet to be paid their monthly fellowship money.”

Good idea, bad implementation

Simultaneously, it would seem the government has acquired a bias over the years about the sectors it considers strategic and those it considering available for politically expedient manipulation. The former section accommodates areas like social policies, domestic policies, defence, PDS, employment, etc. The latter accommodates areas like scientific research – but not all of it.

Consider how areas like telecommunication and nuclear physics have received substantial monetary and infrastructural support from the government, while astronomy and materials science lag behind. This divisive addressing of different disciplines has also resulted in a fractious working environment for scientists: collaborations are too few and far between, and interdisciplinary R&D is stifled. If thewords of Luiz Davidovich, a Brazilian researcher speaking at the World Science Forum in Rio de Janeiro, are to be believed, this is a problem plaguing the world’s emerging powers. Perhaps this is one of the most important lessons we should be learning from the USA and the EU.

The government, in its choice of subjects, has also been limited by its own middling knowledge of how likely these enterprises are to elevate sections of the Indian population out of poverty and toward better access to the basic amenities (if not to further vested interests, of course). This is again an instance of expediency and is not sustainable for the scientific community because it implies a support-structure that requires scientists to submit to the government’s agenda. The ideal situation would have the roles well balanced, to see scientific research blossom to improve the quality of all walks of life.

Now, the country’s any meaningful scientific output geared at improving the quality of life in the country is becoming poisoned by government mismanagement. For instance, while many countries have been able to engender a healthy debate on whether a nuclear power plant should be built or if GM crop seeds should be sold, a pall of negativity has descended on these subjects in India because we are unable to separate the DAE from nuclear power generation and the DBT from genetic modification. We must thank a stubborn lack of transparency for this.

Scientific research as an industry

If the fantasy of a fully decoupled government support and government funding were to be realised, and the screen of bureaucracy lifted from our institutions, we would have the chance to be better organised with our research interests. Put practically, we wouldn’t have to fund a fusion project in France because we’d have the temperament to develop a low-cost alternative in India itself (where labour continues to be cheap).

Those in power should know that science, as an organised articulation of human curiosity, is capable of developing products, services and technologies that go beyond alerting farmers of approaching storms or reducing the cost of a smartphone to less than one-plumbed-toilet. Scientific research can also found industries (opening up the thousands of jobs that campaigning politicians promise to the marginalised sections of the electorate), engage graduating scholars (the number of research degrees awarded increased by over 50% between 2008 and 2011, to 16,093, according to a UGC report), elevate the quality of education in the country, promote innovation (by reducing the time taken for a prototype engineered in the lab to a product mass-produced – an important mechanism for labs to prove useful in the eyes of the tax-payer), and cure diseases (did you hear about the Foldscope?).

In fact, those who clamour that India should be alleviating poverty before launching satellites to Mars should shed a sadly prevalent impression of scientific research and technological development that precludes incentives such as job-creation and technology-transfer. Scientific R&D is an industry – rather, can be – like any other. By launching a satellite to Mars (hopefully Mangalyaan will make it), technicians at ISRO now have the capability to coordinate such sophisticated programs. They could also possibly bring in revenue in the future by affording high-load launch-vehicles like the GSLV for developing countries that can’t cough up for the American/European coffers. And in the midst of all this, we must not over-celebrate the frugal budget with which we achieved this feat but use it as an opportunity to ask for incrementally more funding.

In another example, India designed and manufactured some of the superconducting magnets, accelerator heater protection systems and cryogenic facilities used to operate the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Such components are also commonly used in medical imaging and diagnostics, and India already has a burgeoning medical tourism industry which, according to some estimates, is going to be worth Rs.9,500 crore in 2015. Thus, it seems we also stand to gain if only we could leverage local talent in devising products tailored for the Indian consumer.

As Rahul Sinha, a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, remarked: “Physics is a technology developer.” So this schism between ‘blue sky’ scientific research and India’s developmental hurdles is one that, in an ideal world, doesn’t exist. That it does in our country is thanks only to a government’s mismanagement of its powers.

An elusive detector for an elusive particle

(This article originally appeared in The Hindu on March 31, 2014.)

In the late 1990s, a group of Indian physicists pitched the idea of building a neutrino observatory in the country. The product of that vision is the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) slated to come up near Theni district in Tamil Nadu, by 2020. According to the 12th Five Year Plan report released in October 2011, it will be built at a cost of Rs.1,323.77 crore, borne by the Departments of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Science & Technology (DST).

By 2012, these government agencies, with the help of 26 participating institutions, were able to obtain environmental clearance, and approvals from the Planning Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission. Any substantial flow of capital will happen only with Cabinet approval, which has still not been given after more than a year.

If this delay persists, the Indian scientific community will face greater difficulty in securing future projects involving foreign collaborators because we can’t deliver on time. Worse still, bright Indian minds that have ideas to test will prioritise foreign research labs over local facilities.

‘Big science’ is international

This month, the delay acquired greater urgency. On March 24, the Institute of High Energy Physics, Beijing, announced that it was starting construction on China’s second major neutrino research laboratory — the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO), to be completed at a cost of $350 million (Rs. 2,100 crore) by 2020.

Apart from the dates of completion, what Indian physicists find more troubling is that, once ready, both INO and JUNO will pursue a common goal in fundamental physics. Should China face fewer roadblocks than India does, our neighbour could even beat us to some seminal discovery. This is not a jingoistic concern for a number of reasons.

All “big science” conducted today is international in nature. The world’s largest scientific experiments involve participants from scores of institutions around the world and hundreds of scientists and engineers. In this paradigm, it is important for countries to demonstrate to potential investors that they’re capable of delivering good results on time and sustainably. The same paradigm also allows investing institutions to choose whom to support.

India is a country with prior experience in experimental neutrino physics. Neutrinos are extremely elusive fundamental particles whose many unmeasured properties hold clues about why the universe is the way it is.

In the 1960s, a neutrino observatory located at the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka became one of the world’s first experiments to observe neutrinos in the Earth’s atmosphere, produced as a by-product of cosmic rays colliding with its upper strata. However, the laboratory was shut in the 1990s because the mines were being closed.

However, Japanese physicist Masatoshi Koshiba and collaborators built on this observation with a larger neutrino detector in Japan, and went on to make a discovery that (jointly) won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002. If Indian physicists had been able to keep the Kolar mines open, by now we could have been on par with Japan, which hosts the world-renowned Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory involving more than 900 engineers.

Importance of time, credibility

In 1998, physicists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, were examining a mathematical parameter of neutrinos called theta-13. As far as we know, neutrinos come in three types, and spontaneously switch from one type to another (Koshiba’s discovery).

The frequency with which they engage in this process is influenced by their masses and sources, and theta-13 is an angle that determines the nature of this connection. The IMSc team calculated that it could at most measure 12°. In 2012, the Daya Bay neutrino experiment in China found that it was 8-9°, reaffirming the IMSc results and drawing attention from physicists because the value is particularly high. In fact, INO will leverage this “largeness” to investigate the masses of the three types of neutrinos relative to each other.

So, while the Indian scientific community is ready to work with an indigenously designed detector, the delay of a go-ahead from the Cabinet becomes demoralising because we automatically lose time and access to resources from potential investors.

“This is why we’re calling it an India-based observatory, not an Indian observatory, because we seek foreign collaborators in terms of investment and expertise,” says G. Rajasekaran, former joint director of IMSc, who is involved in the INO project.

On the other hand, China appears to have been both prescient and focussed on its goals. It purchased companies manufacturing the necessary components in the last five years, developed the detector technology in the last 24 months, and was confident enough to announce completion in barely six years. Thanks to its Daya Bay experiment holding it in good stead, JUNO is poised to be an international collaboration, too. Institutions from France, Germany, Italy, the U.S. and Russia have evinced interest in it.

Beyond money, there is also a question of credibility. Once Cabinet approval for INO comes through, it is estimated that digging the vast underground cavern to contain the principal neutrino detector will take five years, and the assembly of components, another year more. We ought to start now to be ready in 2020.

Because neutrinos are such elusive particles, any experiments on them will yield correspondingly “unsure” results that will necessitate corroboration by other experiments. In this context, JUNO and INO could complement each other. Similarly, if INO is delayed, JUNO is going to look for confirmation from experiments in Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

It is notable that the INO laboratory’s design permits it to also host a dark-matter decay experiment, in essence accommodating areas of research that are demanding great attention today. But if what can only be called an undue delay on the government’s part continues, we will again miss the bus.

Forget me. I’m there.

You don’t have to walk up to stand next to me, you don’t have to hug me. You don’t have to want to kiss me. You just have to look at me in the eye, Stranger, when you walk past. You needn’t smile either. You just have to acknowledge that I exist. That’s all I need.

You just have to drive your car in front of mine and switch on your indicator when you’re taking a turn. Even if there’s no other car on the road except ours and it’s dusk. Turn on your indicator all for me and I’m yours. Tell me you’re closing up for the day just when I’m about to step in your store. Don’t bring the shutters down on my face without a warning. Tell me you’re sorry without meaning it but just because I’m there about to enter your store. Tell me and I’m all yours.

Share an umbrella with your friend when it rains and whisper into her ear about how I’m getting wet, standing in the middle of the road like that. Giggle behind my back about the fool I look and I will thank you. Be annoyed when I set my glass of orange juice on your glass table without a coaster and I’ll know you know I’m here.

Fix the automated doors at the mall to open when I’m approaching them and I will kiss one goodbye. Flash a marquee on the TV asking me to stay indoors because a storm’s coming and I’ll die happy that night. Give me a dial tone when I pick up the phone because I don’t want you to assume nobody’s listening. Somebody’s listening, somebody’s listening all the time. I think that’s me.

So… don’t walk up to me to shake my hand. Don’t bump into me and then act like you’ve forgotten me. Forget me, but when you see me, smile.

A map of Middle Earth.

Lord of the Rings Day

Today is Lord of the Rings Day. On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee reach the Sammath Naur and cast the One Ring into Orodruin, in whose fires the ring was first forged. Thus, the ring is destroyed and leads to the downfall of Sauron, the Dark Lord. However, this doesn’t mark the end of the War of the Ring (although it does in the movies) – that happens when Saruman is defeated in the Battle of Bywater by the hobbits on November 3 of the same year.

Why do I still remember the date? I don’t know. Tolkien’s books were good, three of the best, in fact, and much better than the trope to come after. There were a few notable exceptions, but nothing has came to being just as original until, I’d say, GRRM and Erikson. I was briefly excited by Robert Jordan but his more classical narrative combined with a droning style bored me. It was never the length because one of my enduring favourites is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which has seen 10 books and one part of a trilogy already out (all kickass – you should check them out).

Nevertheless, reading Lord of the Rings in 2003 was an important part of my life. In the years since, I have taken away different morals from the book – which, thankfully, aren’t as mundane as Jordan’s nor as multi-hued as Erikson’s (or as gruesome as Martin’s or as juvenile as Feist’s). Beyond the immediate take-away that is good-versus-evil, there are tales of friendships, sacrifices, trust, humility and leadership. And what a great epic all of it made! As it happens, Lord of the Rings Day is actually Tolkien Reading Day. So if you haven’t already read the trilogy, or its adorable prequel The Hobbit (or Silmarillion, for that matter), grab a copy and start. It’s never too late.