The Compound Eye

Policy Focus

Scientific Social Responsibility

The Ministry of Science and Technology has released draft guidelines for the inclusion of Scientific Social responsibility (SSR) on the lines of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated scientific social responsibility for leading scientific institutions to "promote scientific excellence in all stakeholders, including educational institutions". 

According to the guideline, every knowledge worker would be liable for at least 10 person-days of SSR per year. There is a range of different activities that have been included under the SSR umbrella including promoting access to S and T infrastructure, skill development and awareness workshops. The policy is applicable to public and private knowledge institutions (laboratories, institutes, universities and colleges) and their knowledge workers, science centers, Central Ministries, State Governments, their departments and associated autonomous agencies. This is an ethical obligation, not a legal requirement. Identified beneficiaries of the programme include: any community, group, entity or individual benefitting out of the SSR activity, including students; school/college teachers; local bodies; communities; women’s groups; farmers; self-help groups; self-employed; informal sector enterprises; micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); startups; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); anganwadi workers; bio-diversity management committees (BMCs). The guideline also directs funding agencies to include expenses for SSR activities in their budgets. 

The CompoundTake: The intention of this policy is to increase science-society connect and spread scientific temper and knowledge to the society. This is a good initiative and considering most of our academic research is government-funded, a just demand made of our scientists. However, some points need to be clarified before deploying the guidelines:

1. Knowledge workers would spend a lot of time preparing for activities - this time should also be considered as part of the SSR activity. 

2. An outcome based assessment should be made to ensure that SSR activities are having desired impact. 

3. Institutes should be able to hire dedicated personnel to identify opportunities and co-ordinate SSR activities. 

It's Controversial

Mosquito vs Mosquito

Not many people are fond of mosquitoes, the most deadly animal in the world. Mosquito-borne diseases are a global problem - from Brazil to India. Some countries including Sri Lanka and most recently Uzbekistan have been successful at eradicating single mosquito-borne diseases. Amongst the many attempts being made to curb diseases such as Dengue, Zika, Malaria, is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes. This technology comes in two flavours - one, where the GM male mosquito carries a lethal protein that kills any larvae formed through mating with wild-type females and second, where the GM mosquito contains genes that preclude it from hosting disease-causing pathogens. 

A British company Oxitec has been experimenting with the first approach of GM in Brazil and Cayman Island. In a field trial in Brazil, the company used mosquitoes derived from Cuba and Mexico, genetically modified to include the lethal gene and a fluorescent marker. Release of this strain in large numbers has been effective in reducing populations of Ae. aegypti by up to 85%. But a new study has demonstrated that surviving mosquitoes in the field trials contain genes of both the indigenous species and the release strain. Mosquitoes were collected at 6 months, 12 months, and 27–30 months after releases began. In the laboratory, about 3-4% of the progeny resulting from GM males mating with wild-type females do survive, but are weak.  

The authors of the study indicated that the resulting hybrid mosquito could perhaps have increased vigour. Their statements were used to create headlines such as "GM Mosquito Progeny Not Dying in Brazil: Study" and "Transgenic mosquitoes transfer genes to native mosquito species". The resulting media coverage led to backlash against GM mosquitoes and strong pushback from Oxitec. “We’re not surprised by the results, but what we are surprised by are the speculations that the authors have made,”  Nathan Rose, head of scientific and regulatory affairs at Oxitec said. The company has asked Nature Research, which publishes Scientific Reports, to “address the range of misleading and speculative statements” in the study. On Tuesday, the journal added an editor’s note to the paper saying its conclusions “are subject to criticisms that are being considered by editors.”

The CompoundTake: Genetically modified organisms have remained controversial, be it crops, fish or mosquitoes. Oxitec has also begun trials in Maharashtra for GM mosquitoes. If it works, the technology could significantly alleviate costs associated with vector-borne disease and increase human productivity. But policymakers need to be able to separate the narratives from the science. GM mosquitoes might not be a magic pill and to expect it to completely get rid of mosquitoes/vector-borne diseases may be a fallacy. But to misconstrue the results and create fear is downright criminal. Scientists, journalists and policymakers need to be more responsible in interpreting results and disseminating the information. The study highlights "importance of having in place a genetic monitoring program during releases of transgenic organisms to detect un-anticipated consequences." This is probably the most important takeaway from the study, but is lost in all the narrative of "to GM or not".

Science in India

Welcoming PhD students beyond India: 

On 25th January 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, commemorating 25 years of ties between India and ASEAN, announced 1000 fellowships for ASEAN citizens to pursue PhD programmes in IITs. On 16th September 2019, this programme was officially launched. 

The initiative will fund 250 scholars this year (first batch expected to start working from January 2020), 300 in 2020 and 450 the year after. The present scheme has an initial budget of Rs. 300 crore. 

The scheme is open exclusively to citizens of ASEAN - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam. 23 IITs are participating in the programme and IIT-Delhi is co-ordinating the application process. The programme provides a fellowship at INR 31,000/- for the first 2 years, INR 35,000/- for the next three years, a research grant of up to INR 170,000/- for research expenses such as travel, books, contingency and accommodation expenses. 

Applications are open at: Last date to apply: October 31, 2019 

The CompoundTake: The influx of PhD students from ASEAN countries is welcome news. It will expose Indian students to foreign cultures and aid exchange of ideas. This programme will also help set up collaborations between India and ASEAN countries. Hopefully as the programme expands, it will not remain limited to the IITs but also include central universities and other research institutes which also stand to benefit from the inclusion of diverse students. 

Meanwhile, here is some weird and/or wonderful news:

The Denisovan look: Evolutionary biologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have reconstructed skeletal morphology of a young Denisovan girl using DNA methylation patterns.The ancient girl's little finger was discovered in 2008 and is part of very limited set of Denisovan fossils. Ancient DNA analyses indicate that Denisovans, who inhabited parts of Asia from around 300,000 to 50,000 years ago, were more closely related to Neandertals than to Homo sapiens. Some present-day human populations carry small amounts of Denisovan ancestry.  

CSR funds for research purposes:  The Union government has decided to allow corporate India to use their mandatory corporate social responsibility spending on publicly-funded incubators and contribute to research efforts in science, technology, medicine and engineering at major institutions and bodies. This will not compensate the government underspending on R & D, but hopefully spur a culture of sponsoring research in our corporates.  

Massive Bull Semen Explosion in Australia: A huge fire at a cattle breeding facility in Yarram Herd Services in Gippsland, Victoria has caused severe damage after at least 100 cylinders containing bull semen were destroyed. Reports of firefighters having to dodge "flying projectiles" were made to the news and the Country Fire Authority Gippsland commander added "that he has never had 'anything to do with the artificial insemination (AI) side of things before' during his career."

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