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Academies eat Brinjal pie!

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Found a nice article by Pushpa M. Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology on bt-brinjal (eggplant), more specifically the report of the science academies, which I had mentioned earlier. (Scroll down to below the first article by Shanthu Shantharam, who represents the pro-GM crop industries.) Bhargava discusses the scientific demerits of the report much better than I have, and it is a must read for anyone interested in this debate.

I also discovered another interesting fact, that Bhargava had resigned his membership of all the three science academies in 1994, because he considered them, among other things, “intellectually sterile” and “instruments of personal gratification”. What he did not mention was that these days, IITs and various institutes pay an additional Rs.25000 per month to any faculty who is a member of two academies. Since one can become a member only by being nominated and then elected, the academies have also become `instruments’ of corruption in a more conventional sense. The members can `help’ the appropriate people to get about a 25% increase in salary.

I knew that Richard Feynman became so exasperated [at the National Academy of Sciences] that he resigned his membership, saying that he saw no point in belonging to an organization that spent most of its time deciding who to let in. I did not expect anyone to have said anything similar in the Indian environment. My respect for Puhspa Bhargava just went up a notch or two.

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BT Brinjal: safe to eat?

September 24, 2010 1 comment

It seems that six Indian academies have declared bt brinjal safe. It is not at all clear if they have done so by making any kind of experiment on the seeds or the plant — my guess would be that they have not. More accurately, my guess is that none of the members of any of these academies have actually done a thorough testing of the seeds and the plants of bt brinjal in their laboratories. They may have asked their students or post-docs to run a series of tests, but I would be doubtful of even that.

More importantly, they have only said, apart from some babble about how “all genetically modified (GM) items pose a risk if the science behind them is flawed” which serves only to protet their own backsides, that they have “found no evidence that the protein used in creating Bt brinjal, Cry1Ac, is unsafe”.

That is not the issue! The genetically modified (GM) crop carry a special gene called a terminator gene, included in crops developed by Monsanto, like this one. The terminator gene ensures that the plant grown from the GM seeds will not be fertile themselves, and the seeds they produce cannot be used to produce the next generation of crops. This infertility is built into the genes, and these genes can migrate to nearby plants, rendering them infertile. It would seem that any gene that makes a plant infertile is not likely to propagate very far. But a new gene does not necessarily manifest itself in one generation. What if the genes transmitted through cross-pollination show up a few generations later? when it may be too late to do anything? And could such genes affect the fertility of animals who eat the plant or its seeds?

The academies do not seem to have said anything about these. I suspect they have no idea about these issues either. In fact I would be very surprised, based on the extrapolation of behaviour of my colleagues, if more than a handful of the scientists who comprise our academies ever think, except in terms of getting more funding, about the relevance of their research to society.

The least the academies can do is to put up the report as a pdf file somewhere, and let the people decide if bt brinjal should be allowed in.

Complaints about Calcutta Telephones

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

For various reasons, I needed to look up a way of filing a complaint with Calcutta Telephones. Their telephone helpline gave up after a while and told me that any further complaint would have to be forwarded to `the concerned department’.So I went to their website looking for an email address or pone number of the department I was interested in.

What I found is that they have a `public grievance’ webpage, but the information given is all wrong. The phone numbers for the nodal officer (for the Calcutta telephone District) are not valid numbers, and the email address (or phone numbers) for the appellate authority are not valid either.

Looks like a good way to keep the complaints down.

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.

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.