From nanoscience to navigation satellites and sanitation to antibiotics resistance, the potential of science in tackling development issues was discussed, but what did the Congress achieve?
The 104th session of the Indian Science Congress concluded on January 7. The five-day conference was attended by as many as 1300 scientists and students. Along with them, 500,000 school students visited the Pride of India pavilion which exhibited the work of India's public research institutes and industry. The chief guest of the valedictory function Vidyasagar Rao, Governor of Maharashtra, asked the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) to reward and recognise the best science universities and science leaders in the country.
Guest of honour, YS Chowdary, Union Minister of State for Science and Technology and Earth Science, asked the ISCA TO improve the content of the conference and provide direction to science in the country. He also asked the organisation to set a system to provide feedback on the recommendations made during the conference.
The next session of the conference would be held in Bhubaneshwar in 2018.
The first four days of the Congress saw discussions and deliberations on a range of issues on what India can achieve and what could be the road map. However, Down To earth raises concerns about the trend to shy away from specifics and harping on generics.
Investment needed for converting prototypes to products
The theme of the 104th Indian Science Congress could be ‘Science and Technology for National Development’ but an interactive session with the industry and academicians suggested that this kind of development could be far off in the future. The fate of nanotechnology demonstrates this very well. India has invested as much as US$ 300 million on research on nanotechnology. However, there is no investment in startups.
The IIT Bombay realised this when it did not find anyone to produce the product for detecting markers for Acute Myocardial Infarction (cardiac muscle damage that accompanies a heart attack). This product is important as it can detect multiple markers in a single reaction and reduce the cost of performing the test. Similarly, it faces failure in marketing its soil moisture sensors. The IIT has now set up a prototype manufacturing facility, NanoSniff Technologies, which is likely to be functional in a few months.
"The biggest challenge now is to convert the prototypes to products," says V Ramgopal Rao, director of IIT Delhi, who had developed these prototypes when he was at IIT Mumbai. We have not invested enough in product manufacturing facilities, he says. Overall, we put in very little money in research, he adds. Just two universities in China have more funds than whole of India. However, for the money we have, our output is more than other countries, he explains.
Providing this service to research is not on the industry's agenda at present. At the meeting, experts from industries such as Bharat Forge Ltd and Titan Company Ltd talked about how they worked in collaboration with researchers. For example, Bharat Forge provides its employees an opportunity to work in research labs in India and outside. Bharat Forge has worked closely with India's Defence Research and Development Organisation.
Technologies to curb Ganga river pollution revealed
Researchers at the Indian Science Congress discussed technologies that could help the country achieve its goal of cleaning River Ganga and the Swachh Bharat mission. Technologies, which are generally used to reduce pollutants, sewage and industrial waste that enters river, are crucial for this. To this effect, the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in Chennai has developed some technologies that are ready for commercialisation. Dry tanning, which eliminates the use of polluting chromium and water, is one of the techniques.
Enzymes are used for dehairing and opening up of the leather fibres for further treatment. Calling it a game-changing technology, B Chandrasekaran, director of the institute, informed that it has been given to 50 tanneries in Kanpur. According to him, the industry is not only controlling pollutants, but it is also saving 20 per cent of the operational cost as they now do not have to import chromium.
To adopt the technology, the industry would need to modernise. However, according to Chandrasekaran, the Centre is providing it with subsidies. By using reverse osmosis, the industry can now be zero-liquid-waste premise. "It should take the industry around two years to clean up," says Chandrasekaran. In addition, the CLRI has ensured that they use the waste to produce wealth. They are in talks with a Delhi-based industry to use the animal hair to produce a blended cotton material. The collagen from the skin is being turned to medical products like sutures.
To further ensure that the goal of Swachh Bharat Mission is met, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Hyderabad is using remote sensing to monitor the river Ganga. They have carried out ground tests, too, and based on the continuous monitoring data provided by the Central Pollution Control Board, they have tried to figure out the level of turbidity, vegetation and other parameters from space.
In this way, water quality maps have been developed. V Venkateshwar Rao, project director of National Remote Sensing Centre's Water Resources Information System, revealed that the stretch of the river between Kannauj and Kanpur has been chosen for the pilot project. It has also developed an app to help the community report pollution to the central body and this helps them crowdsource the data. All the information is available on its portal Bhuvan Ganga—Geospatial Support for National Mission for Clean Ganga.
Chronic underfunding in scientific research highlighted
The 104th session of the Indian Science Congress was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi today at Tirupati. The theme of meeting this year is Science and Technology for National Development. In his speech, Modi talked about the importance of scientists to respond to change. He said that a deep-rooted curiosity-driven scientific tradition will allow quick adaptation to new realities.
He identified clean water, energy, food, environment, climate, security and healthcare as the important challenges that India faces.
General President of the Indian Science Congress Association, D Narayana Rao, talked about how science and technology holds the promise to transform India.
He also highlighted chronic underfunding and understaffing in this sector and stated that it was important to redefine the role of science in national development in the time of globalisation. He said that technological independence is needed along with political independence.
Union Minister for Science & Technology & Earth Sciences, Harsh Vardhan, said that drastic changes in our thinking are needed to bring about fundamental changes.
Does Science Congress provide direction to research?
Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest health problems in India. The gravity of the subject did not seem to escape the organisers of the 104th Indian Science Congress. They called Ada Yonath to deliver one of first lectures. Yonath received the Nobel Prize in 2009 along with two more scientists for their work on structure of ribosomes and showing how different antibiotics bind to them. These models can be used to develop new antibiotics. However, other than this, only two papers were presented. One of these was on natural antibiotics like curcumin in turmeric and the other on susceptibility of microbes on cell phones to antibiotics. If the science congress is a reflection of the best research in the country, then we surely need to worry.
Sports science and sport medicine was identified as a national priority at the meeting and a plenary was dedicated to this. However, outside this plenary, the subject was not even mentioned. Obviously, it is not a priority for the researchers at present.
So what does the science congress achieve? Does it inform the government on what it should focus on? What do researchers and students want?
Recommendation from the last year, when the theme was "Science and Technology For Indigenous Development in India", were either too generic or just too specific. The two recommendations from a plenary session on nanoscience (this is the first set of technical recommendations circulated by the organisers) ask for more funds for research to ensure that India becomes competitive internationally.
The next recommendations were about efforts that should be made to include experiments on nanoscience in curriculum of bachelor’s and master’s programmes. Specifics on what nanotechnology the country should focus on or what researchers want to focus on were not provided. What is more perturbing is the fact that both failed to point out how this would help in indigenous development. It should be pointed out that research on nanoscience has been going on around the world for more than 25 years.
Wasting an opportunity to create safer alternatives to fossil fuels
For India, shifting to a methanol economy could be an easy way to reduce its carbon footprint, experts said at the 104th Indian Science Congress. In a methanol economy, methanol and dimethyl ether replace fossil fuels and raw material for synthetic hydrocarbons and their products. Methane and ethanol are safer alternatives to difficult-to-store hydrogen. VK Saraswat, member of NITI Aayog, said that even if India replaced 10 per cent of its fuel requirement with methanol, we would have huge savings of foreign exchange being used for importing petrol.
Converting atmospheric carbon and waste into methanol that can be used as a fuel and raw material for many more chemicals seems like the easiest solution to climate change and environmental issues like solid waste management. An added advantage is that it does not break down and release greenhouse gases. China amounts for 50 per cent of world's methanol production and consumption.
NITI Ayog has set up an expert committee under Saraswat to find ways for shifting to methanol. This chemical can also be converted into gas and used for cooking purposes. Transportation is not difficult as it is a liquid.
While all organic wastes like bagasse and wet municipal waste can be converted, India seems more interested in using low-grade coal for raw material. We have huge reservoirs of such coal and even if we mine only till a depth of 300 metres, we would have enough, Saraswat explained at the meeting.
Coal provides a concentrated source of carbon unlike waste. But the latter needs to be collected and segregated before being broken down.
However, if we decide to use coal, we would be wasting an opportunity to use and dispose of the waste material. As an added advantage, the residue after the production of methane can be used as manure. It seems illogical not to set up a system for using waste and instead go of environmentally-destructive mining.
According to GK Surya Prakash, Department of Chemistry at the University of Southern California, a combination of sources could be used to generate methane in India. This might be a more rational choice than to pin hopes only on coal. Prakash had written a book on the subject.
Why no debate on independence of research?
The audience at the inaugural session of the Indian Science Congress was neatly divided into manageable chunks. Security was high and crowd control was important.
As many as 18,000 delegates and 200 scientists were present. We waited patiently for the PM to arrive. It was only after the promotional video on ISRO's satellites was replayed at least five times and three false alarms were sounded that the PM arrived and the programme began.
The theme of this year's congress, 'Science and Technology for National Development', seemed to resonate with the research community, state government and the centre alike. Make in India was talked about. But their optimism seems misplaced as the same scientists have been talking equally optimistically ever since the debut of this Congress 104 years back.
Using science and technology for developments is a major goal. However, the researchers and politicians at the inaugural meeting had very few examples. Other than the success of ISRO's mission, other examples are pretty weak.
Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu's example of the use of biometrics in the public distribution system and use of LED lights, though helpful to the general public, are imported technologies.
PM Narendra Modi said that to ensure we have technologies we need in future we need to invest in researchers now. He was joined by General President of the Indian Science Congress Association, D Narayana Rao in talking about ease of research.
But we should figure out how we can provide this ease. Modi's suggestion was to promote PPP model to ease access, maintenance, redundancy and duplication of expensive equipments in scientific institutions.
But how will it affect independence of research? Is this the only way? This should be one of the debating points at the meeting, however it is not.
'ISRO's nanosatellites can become a global system for navigation'
In 2016, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) created an independent Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) for national applications. This system, NavIC, has seven satellites which provide positioning, navigation and timing service over India and its neighbourhood. However, to expand the coverage to entire earth, efforts are needed. Vibha Varshney talks to Vinod Kumar, deputy project director, AOCS (Attitude and Orbit Control System), control dynamics and simulation group of the ISRO on the sidelines of 104th Indian Science Congress on what can be done to make NavIC a global navigation system.
Can you make NavIC a global system?
The seven satellites that are part of the system are placed above 35,786 km from the Earth’s surface called geostationary earth orbit. So far, the NavIC signal is available only in India and in its neighbourhood covering 1,500 km. It is proposed that multiple nanosatellites can be launched at low earth orbit which would work in collaboration with the existing NavIC satellites. These nanosatellites will be in touch with the stationary satellites only for some part of the day to recalibrate their equipment like quartz clock. A discrepancy of 100 nanoseconds in clock would affect the positioning by 30 metres. These satellites will use NavIC signal as measurement and we can then use mathematical models during NavIC non-visibility periods.
We are still in the study phase. These nanosatellites at low earth orbit along with existing NavIC in GEO/GSO can become a global system for navigation. We can think of putting around 50 satellites that can be networked together.
Why should a common person shift from GPS to your system?
A person who has a NavIC receiver can use this service across the world. This receiver could even be part of mobile phones if industry shows interest. We have seen that during critical times GPS and navigation service providers can deny the service to other countries. At present only four countries have such navigation satellites.
The Indian system would help a common person, too, as the GPS satellites are dynamically changing their position with respect to an observer on earth, but NavIc satellites are stationary and are more accurate in Indian region.
Moreover, satellites that provide positioning services carry costly and heavy atomic clocks but these high fidelity mathematical models can offer same information provided by the clocks and thus, avoid this cost.
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