The Compound Eye

Policy Focus

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002: 

The Biological Diversity Act was enacted to meet India’s international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Act's has two main purposes:  to regulate access to India's biodiversity and to ensure appropriate benefit sharing if the biodiversity if used for commercial purposes. 

Regulating Access: 

Under the Act any non-Indian (foreign national or company) would require permission from the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) for accessing Biodiversity in India. Section 3 (c) (ii) states a non-Indian company as a company "incorporated or registered in India under any law for the time being in force which has any non-Indian participation in its share capital or management." This is a stringent categorisation as compared to other Acts where a company has to demonstrate more than 50% foreign ownership to be deemed as a non-Indian company. Further there are no time lines to the approval system, increasing the barriers for a "foreign" company to invest in researching and commercialising Indian biodiversity.

Under Section 7, Indian companies can access biodiversity for research purposes, but have to intimate State Biodiversity Boards (SBB) before commercializing the research. This section is unclear, primarily because it does not state if SBBs can restrict or put conditions on commercialisation. 

Adding further to ambiguity section 40 states, "Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, the Central Government may, in consultation with the National Biodiversity Authority, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare that the provisions of this Act shall not apply to any items, including biological resources normally traded as commodities." The NBA website states "The Act excludes Indian biological resources that are normally traded as commodities. Such exemption holds only so far the biological resources are used as commodities and for no other purpose." This is confusing - tomato sold as a commodity is exempt from the Act, but is tomato sold for making ketchup exempt? 

The Act also excludes traditional uses of Indian biological resources and associated knowledge and when they are used in collaborative research projects between Indian and foreign institutions with the approval of the central government. 

Regulating Benefit Sharing: 

The benefit sharing facet of BDA has attracted most attention. In the last few years, a slew of cases have been filed by SBBs against companies citing non-compliance because these companies have not paid SBBs their due benefits. There are three main points of ambiguity 1) what is being regulated (in one quashed case the resource of contention was coal with the court observing that coal does not contribute to India's biodiversity) 2) How much do companies pay and 3)Who is the benefit sharing actually benefitting? 

Through draft guidelines released this month, the NBA is attempting to answer some of these questions. The guidelines formulate two modes of benefit-sharing - one requiring the company/individual to pay in the range of 3.0 to 5.0% of the purchase price of the biological resources or second, pay 0.5% of the annual gross ex-factory sale price minus government taxes. Further a breakdown of who gets the benefits is also mentioned in Section 10 (1):(a) 5.0% of the accrued benefits shall go to the NBA, out of which half of the amount shall be retained by the NBA and the other half may be passed on to the concerned SBB as administrative charges. (b). 95% of the accrued benefits shall go to concerned BioDiversity Management Committee(s) and/ or benefit claimers. How the money is to be used or how benefits claimers are to be identified would require further elucidation. 

However, the primary question that this Act and draft guidelines raise is what is to be regulated? In the absence of a comprehensively mapped biodiversity there is still going to be a lot of ambiguity in protecting this rich resource.

It's Controversial

US crackdown on Chinese Scientists

The US-China political conflict is spilling into areas of research. Since last year there have been delays and reduction in visas given to Chinese scientists travelling to the US for research conferences. 

But in latest news, scientists of Chinese descent at MD Anderson Cancer Center have been the first to be publicly dismissed following an effort of NIH to crackdown on that could threaten US national interests. This is a response to the FBI's notion that broad efforts are being made by foreign actors, in particular China, to steal the fruits of U.S. government-funded research and other valuable intellectual property. Last August, NIH director Francis Collins wrote a letter to the more than 10,000 US institutions that the agency funds, stating that it was concerned that “some foreign entities” were interfering in the funding, research and peer review of NIH-supported projects.

Issues raised in the investigations include setting up collaborations in China to receive funding through China's Thousand Talent grant, divulge information from confidential NIH grants application to scientists in China and in some cases, hiding previous or on-going connections with the Chinese People's Liberation Army. MD Anderson Cancer Center has moved to oust three senior researchers as a result of these investigations. Another 8 faculty members at the Baylor College of Medicine, UT Health Science Center and an undisclosed research university are also under scrutiny. Scientists belonging to the Chinese community have written a letter to NIH officials demanding more transparency in their operations, citing fears of racial profiling.

While economic espionage may be detrimental to US interests, racial profiling and distancing of scientists may have a worse result. As the scientists argue, stolen research could be improved on or alternatives found within the US, but if scientists feel unsafe in remaining in the US, a brain drain may start happening which could be irreversible. 

And more such policies that would affect a cohort of Chinese origin scientists and students have been slowly introduced in the US. For example, Chinese graduates wanting to studying robotics, aviation or high-tech manufacturing in the United States can no longer apply for five-year study visas: the policy allows these students to apply only for one-year visas. 

This rampant generalisation of espionage and steps to prevent Chinese scientists coming in may be detrimental to US interests. China, which has been a historically closed market for foreign companies, has though been very open with its universities, inviting students and scientists of foreign origin to research at its universities. If US gets the balance between promoting research and protecting proprietary interests wrong, China may well indeed end up gaining in its scientific pursuits. 

Science in India

The New Kilogram

On Monday 20th May 2019, India adopted a new global resolution redefining the kilogram. Why in the world is the world redefining the kilogram?

Over 100 countries have adopted the metric system of measurements, also known as the International System of Units (SI), which has been in practice since 1889. Since then the kilogram has been defined by a single mass of platinum-iridium which is held outside Paris. All modern mass measurements are traceable back to it - from micrograms to kilos to tonnes. More than a century of cleanings and exposure to air has caused this base measure — known as the International Prototype of the Kilogram, or “Le Grand K” — to lose about 50 micrograms

So instead of carrying on with this inaccurate measure, scientists voted to use a new definition for the kilogram based on the Planck constant, a tiny, unvarying number that plays a key role in quantum physics. This changes the definition of the kilogram from a solid mass to an abstract idea about light and energy. The new definition involves an apparatus called the Kibble balance, which makes use of the constant to measure the mass of an object using a precisely measured electromagnetic force. 

So how would it affect you? It will likely affect those who weigh out microgram quantities - be it pharmaceutical ingredients or radioactive substances. Deals of how this new system will be implemented are still awaited. But on the whole, this move does not change anything significantly, your kilo of apple will still weight the same and your weight on the scales will also remain the same. 

Meanwhile, in the lost and found section

Argentina and Algeria certified as malaria-free: Algeria is the second country in the WHO African Region to be officially recognized as malaria-free, after Mauritius, which was certified in 1973. Argentina is the second country in the WHO Region of the Americas to be certified in 45 years, after Paraguay in June 2018. Algeria (where the malaria parasite was first discovered by French physician Dr Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran in 1880) and Argentina reported their last cases of indigenous malaria in 2013 and 2010 respectively. 

Earthworms have wriggled their way into Earth's northen most forest: Native earthworms disappeared from northern North America about 10,000 years ago; but now earthworms from Southern regions are making home at forests in Northern parts of America and Europe. The steady rate of increase of earthworms inhabiting these forests has climate scientists worried - earthworms could convert the boreal forest, now a powerful global carbon sponge, into a carbon spout. As earthworms feed, they release the ground sequestered carbon and will impact the carbon dynamic in the next few decades. 

A 5000 year old beer: If you liked, did not like or were unaffected by the election results yesterday, you can now turn to the drink of the Pharaohs for solace. Research led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) examined the colonies of yeast from antique vessels settled in the pottery's nano-pores. They were able to resurrect this yeast and create a high-quality beer that would likely be similar to that being sold 5000 years ago! 

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