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Archive for December, 2009

Ramakrishnan on Indian science

December 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The nanopolitan posts some excerpts from reports on Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan’s trip to India, his first after winning a Nobel Prize.

I like the way he answers questions — about whether he felt responsible to India and would return to help Indian research, he said essentially that the Indian public (including the Press and the Government) did not care about his views on this before he got the Nobel Prize, so he did not feel bound to take any sort of responsibility to help Indian science. Quite excellently put, I thought. The government (and the public) should look for opinions and suggestions from the indigenous scientists, and more importantly, consider those opinions seriously, especially those critical of the establishment.

Another thing Dr. Ramakrishnan said was that his experience as a teacher was limited to two years at Utah, and he did not teach any more. This is worrying by implication — the top brass at most research institutes have been undermining the teaching programs there, both by not rewarding those who teach and by rewarding those who refuse to take part in teaching activities. These comments would only strengthen their position, even though such a position is quite indefensible in a country like India where the teaching programs at most universities are in a state of deep decay.

His views on `meritocracy’ are as expected, and despite his lack of exposure to the ground realities in India, he is not too far from the truth when he mentions that a lot of nepotism is at work here. Had he spent some time at one of our research institutes, he might have found a few more of the obvious problems.

Governance by telepathy

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass (often spelt Byepass by the authorities) has a new speed limit, and cameras to enforce it. Someone I know was fined today for driving at 73 km/h. Pictures of his car were taken by automatic cameras mounted somewhere on the E.M.Bypass, and he was fined Rs. 300 for driving above the speed limit of 60 km/h. That sounds all right, until you realise that the E.M.Bypass does not have a traffic sign displaying the speed limit, at least not anywhere on the stretch this person was driving.

Presumably the drivers need to have telepathic powers so that they can know and obey the speed limit.

RTI question: How many traffic signs clearly showing the speed limit are posted on the E.M.Bypass, on the stretch guarded by the automatic cameras?

BT is profitable for BT companies!

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

But is it safe for humans?

This news article says that `scientists’ have declared BT brinjal to be safe for consumption, and also more profitable for farmers. So who are these scientists? The main organizers of the event are All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA), Environment Resource Research Centre (ERRC) at Thiruvananthapuram, and Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE) at Bangalore.

I tried to look up these agencies on the internet. AICBA is the New Delhi based representative of 15 seed companies. At another site it says about AICBA: Formed in 2003, the All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA) is an industry association of the major companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology in India …

ERRC: There is no information available on the ERRC, except this piece of news, where a minister says that ERRC is a registered NGO which has cleared a major hydroelectric project, saying that environmental impact would be negligible, and this document which claims that ERRC gave reports on the environmental impact of the Athirappilly hydroelectric project without actually carrying out any study.

FBAE: This seems to be mostly scientists past the age of retirement, currently working for biotech companies.

AICBA and FBAE are clearly funded by large multinational corporations, while ERRC seems to be either shady, or thoroughly incompetent, or both. So why should anyone take the pronouncements and allegations by these `scientists’ seriously? Would you believe a doctor funded by the tobacco industry if he says smoking is good for health?

But one thing is certain — biotech must be enormously profitable for the biotech companies. Is that a good enough reason for the rest of humanity to believe them?

Update: Found a report on this conference at Devinder Sharma’s blog, which highlights the unscientific approach of these `scientists’ to questions asked of them.

Was the Indian H-bomb a damp squib?

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Anil Kakodkar, the former chief of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, was yesterday accused of lying by K. Santhanam, a retired scientist of the DRDO. Santhanam had said earlier that India’ s claim to have exploded a thermonuclear device, or H-bomb, in 1998 (Pokhran II) was a false claim (Outlook magazine has an interesting take on this). That was countered by former president Kalam, but Santhanam did not back off from his claim. Older scientists like Homi Sethna and P.K. Iyengar, who had overseen the 1974 Pokhran tests, came out in support of Santhanam.

Now Kakodkar, in an interview with Karan Thapar, says that Santhanam basically did not know what he was talking about. This annoyed Santhanam enough to call the press and tell them what he thought about Kakodkar and other `Bombaywallahs’, meaning the directors of BARC or chairman of DAE.

This story struck me with a feeling of deja vu — the original British H-bomb was a bluff. Indian defence scientists (DRDO) should not take Kakodkar’s (and Kalam’s) claim at face value, but should check all the data very carefully. It is one thing to not have nuclear weapons at all, like many signatories to the NPT. But to have nuclear weapons which do not work is much worse, it gives a false sense of confidence.

Nilekani contradicts himself on UID

December 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Just saw a piece of news saying that Nandan Nilekani, the Czar of the unique identification number program, has claimed that the UID will improve national security. How? If everyone has a UID, the state can `track’ everyone. Aside from the Orwellian images this statement conjured up, it also contradicted Nilekani himself from not so long ago, when he said that the UID would be optional.

Is he even planning to do his job, or is he simply happy to be an unelected cabinet minister?

CSIR-Tech Report: A familiar story?

December 10, 2009 1 comment

The CSIR-Tech: Path Forward report prepared by Shiva Ayyadurai and Deepak Sardan has been made public here, with the addenda here. I had a look at the report, and found it to be a very unprofessionally prepared report, even for a draft. Shiva Ayyadurai seems to have several degrees from MIT, including a PhD, even if he is not a faculty there. From  a childish `dedication’ and a haphazard table of contents, to a badly prepared list of meetings called the `historic timeline’, the quality of  the report is terrible. I would not expect a report of this quality to get a passing grade in a course at any  reputable university, let alone MIT or ANU (where Sardana had his PhD).

But irrespective of the quality of the report, and the quality of the writers, there are some points in it which are all too familiar from any number of scientific institutions in the country. I specifically looked at Chapter 7, the one which reportedly caused all the ruckus. It seems to be based on some findings of a different expert, Ian Dean, some sort of a `Leadership consultant’.

Several points here are very familiar to many of us who suffer the authorities in scientific institutions. Directors do not respond to emails or even written communications, and when they do, it is by word of mouth to which they cannot be held accountable. Director’s meetings, especially with scientists, tend to become monologues; disagreements are often shouted down or ridiculed, and minutes of meetings read like lecture notes, without any details of discussion or feedback. And massive disorganization? In the institutes there are committees, often headed by scientists, meant to take care of administrative issues. The scientists are often not terribly interested in the particular issues they have been asked to oversee, and the non-scientists in the committee get away with not doing any work by making the scientist the fall guy. Only purchase and finance committees get their work done in a reasonable time, other committees take forever to achieve anything.

The other problems noted in this chapter also seem quite familiar, maybe I could discuss them at another time. What I do find interesting is that in various blogs like this one and newspapers, the discussion is about the personality of Shiva Ayyadurai, and not the very real problems listed in his report (which may have been actually pointed out by Ian Dean in any case).

Dubious medicines

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I  was checking up on the side effects of some medicines on the net, and found this list of dubious fixed-dose combination medicines sold in India. These are not approved in any developed country, and most of these are not approved by the Drugs Controller of India, hence illegal.

I am a little worried about the `most’. Is there any reason why any combination in this list is approved by the DCI? Especially since the rationale seems to be that these are not approved for use in any developed country? And why are these not marked in this list?

But there is a more important question. If some of these are illegal combinations, and they are being manufactured by established companies, why does the government stop at printing a list? They can easily take action against these companies. Why is no action being taken against the manufacturers and sellers of illegal medicines?