Published: Wednesday 15 May 1996

Pat on the shoulder

The article on neem patents (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 20) is a welcome piece on the subject. It is well- balanced because - without shutting the door on anything - it indicates what kind of pro-active action needs to be taken on the question of neem patents.

The article highlights many points of the current patenting imbroglio. Much work has been done on neem as an insecticide in India. Apparently, indigenous research is being keenly tracked by industry outside India.

Unfortunately, over-advertising, a keenness to inform the press and the over zealousness in proving the usefulness of Indian science, have all been factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs. There is a natural tendency to demonstrate our capabilities to foreign agencies and scientists which cannot be faulted, but if overdone, can lead to unwelcome situations.

The bulk of the patent deals on neem, concern its properties as an insecticide. Such a trend is not at all surprising since so much has been written on this subject, over the years, Resistance to insecticides and the problem of toxicity are both good reasons to look for alternatives. This, coupled with the broader tendency - in the world as a whole - to move towards natural products, explains the current wave of interest in neem. I do not think we have missed the neem boat. That it is a virucide, effective against many organisms which produce sexually- transmitted diseases, makes its future all the more promising. A little more care taken by Indian scientists and research agencies would help channelise the benefits of this knowledge to India's advantage. Without compromising on the fact that science is universal, scientists must protect national interests in this economically competitive world.

The issue of traditional knowledge and the payment for that knowledge to traditional societies, is currently attracting attention and should be capable of resolution on its own merits. I suspect that much of the knowledge on neem has already been published and there has also been a lot of interaction amongst scientists on this subject. Altruism in science is a worthy goal but it is the age of commercial opportunism rather than service opportunism, that rules the world and it may be necessary for scientists to observe some limits. Biodiversity is now being recognised as a national resource and Agarwal's article is a timely reminder of the issues facing science and patents, and the manner in which one goes about serving humanity without disregarding national interest.

National Research Professor
Department of pathology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences New Delhi - 110 029...

The trouble with scientists

This is regarding the Editor's page on the Indian scientific community not being open and not publishing their findings (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 21).

You may wish to give greater c()V_ crage to issues related to science, but I really do not feel you should be doing so. Down To Earth in my opinion, rises above magazines like Science Today because it does not concentrate on just science. Rather, the focus is much more multi-disciplinary, covering other subjects of interest like environment. The magazine has a very appropriate title too, which makes it clear that it is not an Indian counterpart of the New Scientist.

But if you do want to cover more of science, then your complaint about Indian scientific institutions is unfortunately true. Enhancing public awareness is not part of their policy and celebrating science day' once a year, is not the solution. Moreover, we do not have many science journalists. It is also true that not many of the country's scientists have the ability to translate the scientific jargon marking their research papers, into more familiar terms.

To increase science coverage and evoke a response from scientists, the magazine could perhaps request scientists to contribute to it.

School of Physics, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad - 500 046...

Exchanging trade secrets

I recently came across Down To Earth, Vol 3, No 11, which featured the work of the New Delhi-based Jan Sewa Ashram. I am particularly interested in learning more about making wall-hangings out of woven plastic waste from them, since we are also involved in re-cycling old plastic carry-bags. I would be very grateful if you could give me the address of Jan Sewa Ashram so that I could correspond with them.

Managing Trustee Sharehouse Charitable Foundation, Calcutta - 700 045...

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