News this Week

Science  24 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6071, pp. 896
  1. Around the World

    1 - Lausanne, Switzerland
    Swiss Satellite Would Clean Up Space Debris
    2 - Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania
    Gates Foundation Funds African Agricultural Impact Monitoring
    3 - Washington, D.C.
    Journals Warned Not to Publish Diesel Exhaust Studies

    Lausanne, Switzerland

    Swiss Satellite Would Clean Up Space Debris

    Space researchers in Switzerland are seeking funding to build a spacecraft, dubbed CleanSpaceOne, that would help reduce space debris in orbit around Earth. The spacecraft would home in on a redundant satellite, grab it, and drag it down to burn up when reentering the atmosphere.

    Researchers at the Swiss Space Center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have been working on the necessary technology for 3 years, says Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass. He also says the spacecraft would cost an estimated $11 million to build and launch and could be ready between 2015 and 2017.

    Clean air.

    CleanSpaceOne zeroes in on space debris.

    CREDIT: © EPFL/SWISS SPACE CENTER

    Using cameras, the semiautomatic probe would identify the target satellite and use ion microthrusters to move next to it and capture it. The combined object will have a new center of gravity, so the probe has to stabilize the trajectory and then guide itself onto a curve toward the atmosphere.

    The probe's potential first target would be a picosatellite called SwissCube, launched in 2009. “Switzerland is a country that likes to keep things clean,” Gass says. “So we decided to first get our own satellite down.”

    http://scim.ag/cleanspace

    Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania

    Gates Foundation Funds African Agricultural Impact Monitoring

    By boosting farm yields, Asia's green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s prevented millions of people from starving. But it also created social and environmental problems, such as contamination of ground water, in some places. To help Africans avoid making the same mistakes, the Gates Foundation today announced a $10 million grant over 3 years to monitor the effects of agriculture on people and the environment.

    Conservation International (CI) will set up computer infrastructure to handle data collected in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, and two other African countries that are not yet determined. With Columbia University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa, CI will give money to local universities, museums, and other institutions to gather information—on the ground and via remote sensing—about agriculture, ecosystems, and human well-being in five regions each roughly the size of Oregon. All of these data will be synthesized into a half-dozen indicators that will be relevant to policymakers. “We want to move forward quickly in implementing this,” says Sandy Andelman, director of the Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring Network at Conservation International.

    Washington, D.C.

    Journals Warned Not to Publish Diesel Exhaust Studies

    At least four journals have been warned by an attorney this month to hold off distributing health data they may have under review. The admonition—which concerns a large U.S. study of the effect of diesel exhaust on miners' lungs—came from Henry Chajet, an attorney at the Patton Boggs firm in Washington, D.C., and lobbyist for the Mining Awareness Resource Group, an industry coalition. Editors at two U.K.-based publications—Occupational and Environmental Medicine and The Annals of Occupational Hygiene—say they and others received a letter from Chajet advising against “publication or other distribution” of the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study (DEMS) until it is vetted by Chajet's industry clients and a U.S. House committee.

    Chajet and others involved in the DEMS fracas, including researchers, declined to comment, as a court decision is pending. DEMS has been entangled in litigation almost from its start in 1992. The mining coalition has argued that DEMS is flawed, and it won a court order enforcing their right to preview data for 90 days before publication. DEMS leaders have argued against the restrictions in the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana. A ruling is expected soon.

    http://scim.ag/dieselstudies

  2. Newsmakers

    MIT President Stepping Down

    Hockfield

    CREDIT: MIT

    The first woman and first biologist to run the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced last week that she is stepping down as president after 7 years. Susan Hockfield, who turns 61 next month, said in a statement that this is “an opportune moment for a leadership transition,” in part because the university is planning a new fundraising campaign that will require the “full focus” of MIT's president for years. Hockfield will stay on until the next president takes office.

    Hockfield came to MIT from Yale University, where she spent 20 years studying brain development and brain tumors and served as provost. MIT recruited her after a damning internal report, publicly released in 1999, charged that women at MIT often faced career roadblocks. Hockfield's appointment was also noteworthy because the engineering powerhouse had traditionally looked to engineers to lead it.

    During her MIT tenure, Hockfield helped raise almost $3 billion. She also worked to get engineers and life scientists to collaborate, and helped launch the MIT Energy Initiative in 2006. It conducts research into alternative energy sources and better ways to use existing ones. She also focused on boosting diversity at MIT, from undergraduates to faculty.

  3. Random Sample

    Road Scholars Solve Pothole Problem

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF ED ABOUFADEL

    The streets of Boston have met their match. This week, Massachusetts-based InnoCentive announced the winners of its latest Web-based challenge: to use smartphones to detect potholes. Building on a city of Boston app called Street Bump, which uses GPS and accelerometer data from a smartphone to record a car's location and sudden bounces, contestants vied to find ways to pool this data from many vehicles while distinguishing potholes from jolt-inducing features like railroad crossings.

    Winning strategies varied widely. Undergraduates Nathan Marculis and SaraJane Parsons chose mathematical techniques called wavelets and Kruskal clustering. The challenge “involves detecting spikes or jumps in data,” says their advisor, mathematician Ed Aboufadel of Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. “That's something wavelets are good at.” Kruskal's algorithm helps identify related reports from different vehicles. Somerville, Massachusetts–based researchers headed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad Michael Nagle took a different approach. Using a tennis ball for scale, they measured the size of the potholes. They also used common-sense insights, such as realizing that a pothole jolt has a horizontal component to it (unlike that of a railroad crossing).

    “We were impressed with the quality of the solutions,” says Nigel Jacob, co-chief of the city's New Urban Mechanics Office, which co-sponsored the competition with InnoCentive and Liberty Mutual. “The challenge format allows us to focus on quality rather than the size of the vendor.” The two teams and a third winner, Elizabeth Yip of Washington, will each receive a $9000 prize. Before making the pothole-detecting apps available to the public, the city plans to merge the best features of the three algorithms into a single program.

    Older Scientists Still Get the Grants

    CREDIT: © MAURICIO ANTÓN; NIH

    A graph posted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this month highlights the growing imbalance between the youngest and oldest researchers. In 1980, almost 18% of principal investigators (PIs) holding NIH's basic research grant, called an R01 grant, were 36 and younger, and less than 1% were 66 and older. But by 2012, those 66 and older made up almost 7% of grantees and the youngsters were at only 3%. “These are big changes,” wrote NIH extramural grants chief Sally Rockey on her Rock Talk blog.

    The average age of a PI, now around 51, tracks the aging of medical school faculty, Rockey reports. Faculty over 65 may be staying on because of an end to mandatory retirement, a longer U.S. average life span, and slumping retirement portfolios, she suggests. The data offer a new slant on NIH's worry that the average investigator doesn't get his or her first grant until age 42 (Science, 7 November 2008, p. 834). NIH policies since 2007 that give an edge to proposals from young investigators have not yet lowered that number, Rockey reports.

  4. AAAS Meeting

    The AAAS annual meeting attracted more than 11,000 attendees overall to Vancouver, Canada, from 16 to 20 February. For more on these meeting snapshots, plus additional stories, Q&As, online chats, and podcasts, go to http://scim.ag/aaas2012.

    Fracking Acquitted of Contaminating Groundwater

    A natural gas drilling tower.

    CREDIT: RUHRFISCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    A major review of fracking—the controversial practice of pumping fluids into tight shale formations to release natural gas—uncovered no direct evidence that it is contaminating groundwater. The review, released at the meeting, suggests that problems that have been attributed to fracking tend to occur closer to the surface, when gas and drilling fluid escape from poorly lined wells or storage ponds. Charles Groat, a former director of the U.S. Geological Survey who led the study, said that the $380,000 report was conducted only with university funds. Groat, now at the University of Texas, Austin, and four UT colleagues found no evidence of drilling fluids leaking deep underground and concluded that methane in water wells in some areas probably comes from natural sources.

    The review acknowledges that gaps remain in understanding fracking, including whether pumping wastewater into the ground causes small earthquakes. In addition, the cumulative and long-term impacts of the technique remain unclear, especially in areas where some gas naturally escapes from below ground. http://scim.ag/aaas-frack

    Eat or Be Eaten

    CREDIT: JENNIFER DUNNE

    For most of the past 5000 years, hunter-gatherers called the Aleuts lived on Sanak Island off of Alaska, surviving on fish, sea otters, clams, mussels, and more. According to ecologist Jennifer Dunne of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, who with colleagues has created a food web for the island's intertidal zone from a variety of data, those Aleuts were “super-generalists”, consuming the greatest variety of different intertidal prey—50 of 171 species—of any predator. In a broader marine food web for Sanak Island, which includes birds and additional animals, Pacific cod took the top spot, munching on 124 of the 513 species, although the Aleuts were not far behind with a diet of 122 species. “This is our first detailed picture of how humans fit into food webs,” Dunne says. “It is the first time that the roles of humans as predators are explicitly compared to the roles of other predators in food webs.” http://scim.ag/aaas-foodweb

    Ocean Changes Dried Out East Africa

    The development of large differences in the temperatures of the Indian and Pacific oceans 2 million years ago shifted rainfall patterns and dried out East Africa, replacing woodland with grassland and leading to an explosion in the number of species that grazed the region, results presented at the meeting suggest.

    CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    Peter deMenocal, a marine geologist and geochemist at Columbia University, and colleagues examined sea-surface temperature records from the western and eastern Indian Ocean and previously published temperature records from sea-floor sediment cores for the Pacific Ocean. Temperatures across the Indian Ocean were fairly uniform, hovering around 27° to 28°C, until about 2 million years ago. The western Indian Ocean near the Arabian Sea then cooled to 25°C, while the eastern Indian Ocean near northwestern Australia warmed to 28° to 29°C. At the same time, the western Pacific Ocean warmed and the eastern Pacific cooled. These changes coincided with less rain over East Africa. When deMenocal and his colleagues ran climate models that erased those temperature differences, they found that rainfall increased in eastern Africa, reflecting its once wetter past.

    “It was a lovely study,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada. “Something's going on 2 million years ago,” he says, “and the question is, ‘What's the big driver?’” http://scim.ag/aaas-dryafrica

    Reactor-Free Recipe for Isotope

    In recent years, hospitals worldwide have faced short supplies of technetium-99 (Tc-99), the most commonly used radioisotope in medical imaging scans. But a team of Canadian researchers now suggests Tc-99 can be efficiently made with a common medical cyclotron rather than via the current technique, which depends on nuclear reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium.

    At the meeting, Paul Schaffer, head of nuclear medicine at TRIUMF, a nuclear and particle physics laboratory in Vancouver, Canada, described how his group used a popular GE cyclotron to fire protons at a stable isotope of molybdenum, generating Tc-99. The demonstration holds out the hope that existing medical cyclotrons, which hospitals already use to make other radioisotopes, could generate enough Tc-99 to fulfill Canada's entire demand, Schaffer says.

    “This is wonderful for Canada,” says Robert Atcher, director of the National Isotope Development Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, although he questions whether the approach will work in the United States, where the population is more diffuse, and many outlying hospitals don't have access to an appropriate cyclotron. Tc-99 decays within 6 hours, so those hospitals would need to be continuously resupplied, he suggests. http://scim.ag/aaas-tc99

  5. Science in India

    India Rising

    1. Richard Stone*

    India excels in rocketry and nuclear science but has produced few breakthroughs in other fields. Now, free of sanctions and swimming in cash, the world's largest democracy is gunning for status as a scientific powerhouse.

    BANGALORE, INDIA—When A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the father of India's missile program, inaugurated a center of excellence in aerodynamics here last November, he emphasized how the new facility would boost the nation's defenses. Indo-Russian missilemaker BrahMos Aerospace helped bankroll the center at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore as a testing ground for its next-generation BrahMos-II missiles and hypersonic space vehicles. Indeed, after the ceremony, Kalam, the octogenarian former president of India, urged BrahMos to think grander and pioneer a reusable hypersonic cruise missile that would return after dropping a payload—a feat that could rival technology under development in the United States.

    In a hangar here on the IISc Bangalore campus, BrahMos projects and other sensitive ventures are hidden behind black curtains. The military R&D is the center of excellence's raison d'être and a jewel in the crown of India's vaunted defense R&D establishment. But what's out in the open in the cavernous laboratory is far more revealing about the rapid development and entrepreneurial spirit of Indian science.

    “I want to show you our latest invention,” says aerospace engineer K. P. J. Reddy, head of IISc's Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research. He walks past a 16-meter-long steel shock tunnel, stops at a lab bench, and picks up what looks like an ordinary medical syringe. It's outfitted with a “Reddy tube”: a shock tunnel writ small that's capable of generating shock waves traveling at twice the speed of sound. Applications abound. One Reddy tube called “Super Bull” boosts the success of livestock artificial insemination by slinging sperm deep into the uterus. A micro–Reddy tube delivers DNA through a nuclear membrane for cell transformation. Another is a juicer: Aim it at an apple, and shock waves disintegrate pulp while leaving the skin intact. “Juice doesn't get any fresher,” Reddy says.

    Such bench-top derring-do may seem incongruent with India's reputation as a champion of Big Science. After the nation's first atomic bomb test in 1974, the United States and other countries slapped sanctions on India that squeezed its supply of high-tech equipment and materials. Over the next 3 decades, India grew an indigenous civilian nuclear power industry and a space program on par with those of leading nations. In 2008, a landmark civilian nuclear pact between India and the United States beckoned Indian scientists in strategic sectors to come in from the cold; access to imported precision instruments is allowing India to make up ground in areas such as nanotechnology and supercomputing.

    Now the government intends to lift all disciplines on a rising tide. At the Indian Science Congress in Bhubaneswar last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to hike R&D expenditures during the 5-year plan that begins this spring, from around $3 billion last year to $8 billion in 2017. In an exclusive interview with Science (see p. 907), Singh explained how his government plans to “increase gradually the proportion of money that is spent on R&D and at the same time create a system of incentives which will induce the private sector to increase their spending on science and technology.”

    The windfall is meant to turbocharge initiatives under way to create elite research institutions, bring expatriate Indian scientists home, enrich science education, and equip smart new laboratories. Included in this push is South Asia's first biosafety level–4 lab for handling the most dangerous pathogens, slated to be up and running at the National Institute of Virology in Pune this spring. “Funding is no longer a constraint. What we once had to do abroad we can now do here,” says Govindaraju Thimmaiah, a chemist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research here. Over the next 5 years, an estimated $1.2 billion in public funds will be funneled to a new National Science and Engineering Research Board. Modeled after the U.S. National Science Foundation, the board is just now getting off the ground and is expected to fund its first competitive grants this year. “It's critical to our future, because it's run by scientists for scientists,” says Raghunath “Ramesh” Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a national network of 37 laboratories.

    Researchers will have to clear some daunting hurdles, though. India's legendary bureaucracy can snarl grant proposals and expenditures in red tape for months. The anticipated R&D budget boost “will be useless if structural reform is not undertaken,” warns vaccine specialist Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, the central government's main conduit for supporting applied biology in India. Another woe is that scores of universities are deteriorating or riddled with corruption. They nurture few stars and are overburdened with dead wood. “On a day-to-day basis, people are discouraged from doing breakthrough research,” says Raghavendra Gadagkar, a sociobiologist at IISc Bangalore. “Our system creates followers, not leaders. That's our biggest problem.”

    Still, the scientific outlook is brightening rapidly. From 2000 to 2010, India's peer-reviewed publications more than doubled to 40,000 a year, its world share rose from 2.2% to 3.4%, and citation impact improved from 40% to nearly 60% of the world average, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge database. Moreover, Indian scientists are keenly aware of the need for research that raises living standards in the world's largest democracy, home to 1.2 billion people. “We are promoting what we call ‘inclusive innovation,’” says Mashelkar, who like other top scientists here believes that a new day is dawning for Indian science.

    Big bang theory

    For many Indian researchers, a long night preceded the dawn. When Mashelkar, a chemist, returned to India in 1976 after a postdoc stint in the United States, he says it was a struggle to keep pace with his field. Scientific journals took 4 months to arrive by mail. “We were out of competition before we started,” he says. Everything was difficult and slow. Mashelkar waited 6 years for installation of a phone line because he refused to pay an exorbitant fee for faster service. C. N. R. Rao, Singh's science adviser and a chemist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research here, recalls that as a young professor decades ago he would receive the equivalent of about $60 per year for research. “I got my first spectrometer 17 years into my career and first electron microscope 30 years into my career,” he says. Rao—éminence grise and India's most-cited scientist—was exceptionally productive. In the sprawling field of biology, “I don't think there were any breakthroughs in India” for decades, says L. S. Shashidhara, a geneticist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune.

    The long view.

    K. P. J. Reddy has devised a miniature version of his lab's shock tunnel (above) for applications as diverse as artificial insemination and cell transformation. Over the past 20 years, Indian scientists have expanded their reach in the literature.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF K. P. J. REDDY; R. STONE/SCIENCE
    CREDIT: ELSEVIER SCOPUS

    While basic research and living standards languished, India was pouring massive resources into two strategic areas: rocketry and nuclear science. The former gave rise to both a sophisticated missile program and a civilian space program that intends to send a probe to Mars and astronauts into space then onto the moon (see p. 906). India's early research on nuclear power, meanwhile, led the way to an atomic arsenal.

    India's first atomic test ignited a nuclear arms race with China and Pakistan—and turned the nation into a nuclear pariah: Western countries banned most high-tech exports to India. Self-reliance promoted technological ingenuity, as India's nuclear and space programs have demonstrated on numerous occasions. India's research on using thorium as fuel for nuclear power reactors is nonpareil, and this year it will bring online a homemade prototype fast breeder plutonium reactor. Denied access to radiation-hardened computer chips and lightweight silica tiles for satellites, Indian space researchers developed their own.

    The demise in 1991 of the Soviet Union, then India's main ally, was a turning point. India narrowly averted a financial meltdown. “CSIR had a tough time even to pay its electricity bills,” recalls biophysicist Samir Brahmachari, CSIR's director general. Singh, as finance minister in the early '90s, engineered radical reforms that steered India from socialism to a free market economy. A few years later, the country's information technology industry took off—and “started taking away all the bright students,” says chemical biologist Krishna Ganesh, director of IISER Pune.

    Another signature Singh accomplishment was the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, which paved the way for the export of high-tech instruments and sensitive materials to India. Institutes across the country have since gone on a spending spree.

    Muscling up

    In a corner of IISc Bangalore down the road from the aerospace hangar, workers are putting the finishing touches on a $30 million, 1300-square-meter clean lab for nanotechnology. It's instrumented to the hilt. “Money is not much of a problem,” says materials scientist Srinivasan Raghavan, one of four IISc Bangalore researchers who are helping midwife the new lab. All is not flawless: Raghavan and his colleagues suffer “supply-chain” delays due to Indian import regulations, he says, and a sanctions hangover. It took several months, for instance, to import a 2-centimeter-square piece of ultrathin zirconia foil for experiments with nanoporous zirconium. That foil is used in the nuclear industry, and despite the easing of restrictions, some countries still hesitate to export high-tech equipment and materials to India, says IISc Bangalore's S. A. Shivashankar, who got the ball rolling on the nanotech lab a decade ago. It will be fully operational next month and is expected to churn out 50 Ph.D. scientists a year.

    State-of-the-art facilities are popping up far and wide. Ensuring their smooth operation is a challenge, however. “We readily can purchase expensive equipment,” Shashidhara says. But he and others are frustrated over Indian regulations that limit spending on reagents and other research materials. “The government tells us to cut down consumables. It's considered waste.”

    The main impediment, scientists often say, is the bureaucracy. “Even the best of intentions can disappear without a trace in the quicksands of officialdom,” IISc Bangalore Director Padmanabhan Balaram penned in an editorial last month in India's premier journal, Current Science. There's a lack of transparency. And bureaucrats sometimes demand that researchers give a regular accounting of progress on their grants. According to IISc Bangalore's Gadagkar, who studies social behavior of wasps, “I will be evaluated as if I was building a road. They want a report every 3 kilometers.”

    Dreaming small.

    IISc Bangalore's Srinivasan Raghavan and S. A. Shivashankar will roll out their nanotechnology clean lab next month.

    CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE

    On the bright side, Indian researchers will have more opportunities to explain how they are spending their money. Major directions in the next 5-year plan include a $350 million Neutrino Observatory in Theni—India's single largest investment to date in basic research—a novel open-source drug discovery program (see sidebar), a $1 billion supercomputing initiative, and an effort to improve forecasts of the summer monsoon (see p. 910). At the science congress last month, Singh also vowed to double public and private R&D spending as a percentage of GDP to 2% by 2017. That will require much higher expenditures from the private sector, which currently contributes a mere 33% of total R&D spending.

    Some observers wonder whether India's scientific community can make good use of the windfall. By Western standards, few disciplines or institutes have built up a critical mass. “The entire biology community of India is smaller than that of Boston,” Shashidhara says. In genetics and development, he says, “many people are just doing gap-filling work.” Researchers in other disciplines voice similar complaints. “In any given area of science or engineering, the number of experts is rather small in India,” says Rao, who says that nationwide only five or six researchers are studying graphene—one of the hottest areas of materials science.

    To build capacity, the government is wooing overseas talent through fellowship programs. “There's a concerted movement to bring people back,” says Savita Ayyar, head of the research development office at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) here. And scientists on their own have organized “Young Investigator Meetings” in U.S. cities meant to entice newly minted Ph.D.s and postdocs.

    Feeling caged in.

    The Indian system discourages breakthrough research, says sociobiologist Raghavendra Gadagkar, who studies wasp behavior.

    CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE

    Science for the masses

    The flip side of the shortage of well-trained researchers is the inadequacy of labs and institutes. Most of the 350-odd state universities “are terribly run,” Ganesh says. Few can brag of worldclass research. “They're broken down,” says physical chemist Sourav Pal, director of the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. This is a legacy of the Cold War years. After independence in 1947, India adopted a Soviet-style academic system in which “undergraduate teaching was decoupled from research,” Ganesh says. Then a decade ago came a “great awakening,” he says: “We realized we needed to merge teaching and research.”

    One obstacle to reform is India's employment laws. Researchers of any caliber can easily gain tenure. At the same time, scientific stars have limited opportunities to advance in salary or rank. “Administrations must follow the policy of benign neglect with respect to high performers, even while turning a blind eye to the significant dead wood accumulating in our institutions,” Balaram noted in his editorial.

    As a cure, the government has opted to spawn new institutions. In the past 5 years, Singh has presided over an expansion of the education and research system not witnessed since the 1940s. Back then, the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw research labs as the “temples of modern India” and set in motion the creation of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology.

    An impressive new phenomenon is the Indian Institutes of Scientific Education and Research, of which there are now five. The decision to establish them was controversial. “A lot of people were against the IISERs. They thought, ‘Why not upgrade existing universities?’” Pal says. Skeptics warned that there wouldn't be enough skilled instructors to go around. The rapid buildup in fact has meant uneven faculties at some institutes. “If you can't get teachers who are qualified, you start compromising,” Mashelkar says. Critics also say that the IISERs will skim off talented high school science grads, leaving impoverished universities in worse condition.

    “We need to find ways to attract intelligent students into science,” Ganesh says. Toward that end, the government's Department of Science and Technology hopes to hook youngsters on science through INSPIRE—Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research—a 5-year, $500 million program that hands out $125 grants to top science students at every high school in the nation. “We hope to catch them young and build a cadre of top-quality researchers,” says T. Ramaswami, secretary of the Department of Science and Technology in New Delhi. He spearheads this ambitious scheme, which aims to have supported 1 million students by the end of next year.

    Minding the gap.

    Krishna Ganesh is melding teaching and research.

    CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE

    Institutes, meanwhile, are striving to close the gap between education and research. IISER Pune, for instance, encourages its undergraduates to join labs and author publications. And CSIR is venturing into the teaching business. Last year, it established an accredited institution that's gunning for 6000 students. “It's a very important break from the Soviet model,” Pal says.

    One long-standing problem for science faculties is that many top graduates turn up their noses at academic careers. They flock to information technology, where companies offer large entry-level salaries. Meanwhile, those who stick with science tend to go overseas for postdocs, depriving Indian labs of the creative sparks that are the hallmark of labs in Europe and the United States. Stints in overseas labs are seen as a ticket to a decent position back in India. “People think you need to go abroad to get a job here,” says NCBS neuroscientist Sumantra Chattarji.

    Hoping to show that's not necessarily the case, the Department of Biotechnology and the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust teamed up in 2008 to create a 5-year, $140 million fellowship program for up to 375 young investigators in India. “Now we're able to create an environment and mechanisms for postdocs to stay here,” Ayyar says. “You might think this is a small step. But it's about changing the way people think.”

    As India's economy roars and Western nations limp along, the trickle of talented expatriates returning home may turn into a flood. “You can be richer in India as an assistant professor than in the United States,” says Ganesh, who says that new recruits to IISER Pune receive royal treatment. “We give them whatever they want to start up a lab.” His institute may be a new kid on the block. But considering the climate for science in India these days, Ganesh says, “I have no excuse to fail.”

    • * With reporting by Pallava Bagla.

  6. Science in India

    Ad Astra, With a 'Uniquely Indian Flavor'

    1. Pallava Bagla

    India's space program has a bold agenda this year: It aims to launch five rockets and four satellites, all built at home.

    BANGALORE, INDIA—India's space program has a bold agenda this year: It aims to launch five rockets and four satellites, all built at home. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) already has 11 remote-sensing satellites in orbit—the largest constellation of civilian eyes in the sky. This record puts India securely in the global space club.

    Part of India's achievement is to have joined at a modest cost. ISRO's $1.5 billion annual budget is almost 10 times smaller than NASA's. But its dreams are not modest. In the coming years, ISRO plans planetary exploration missions, a reusable launch vehicle, and a program to send astronauts into space. “In a very tough economic environment, India remains one of the few countries in the world which maintains and even reinforces its space program,” says Jean-Yves Le Gall, chair and CEO of Arianespace in Paris. “This is absolutely remarkable.”

    Chandrayaan-1

    CREDIT: ISRO

    In its 5-year plan submitted last month, ISRO sets some concrete goals. One is to see that its big rocket—the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)—becomes “a reliable vehicle.” The GSLV can put a 2-ton communications satellite in orbit; a new version is designed to launch 4-ton satellites. But GSLV's record is spotty. Only two of seven launches have been fully successful. One of the liquid cryogenic upper stages—designed in India—packed up within seconds after ignition in an April 2010 launch. Retooling it is a top priority.

    On the scientific front, last October, India launched Megha-Tropiques, an Indo-French satellite to collect data on water and energy balance over the tropics. This mission marked the 19th consecutive successful launch of India's smaller rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. After lengthy delays, ISRO plans to use that rocket in 2013 to orbit its first dedicated astronomy satellite, Astrosat, which will be equipped with a suite of telescopes to view the sky in optical, infrared, ultraviolet, and gamma wavelengths.

    ISRO's greatest claim to fame is the scintillating finding of water on the moon. Instruments aboard the 2008–09 Chandrayaan-1 probe, a bargain at about $100 million, uncovered water molecules on the lunar surface. The finding demonstrates that “the moon can support long-term human presence, a discovery of vital significance to man's future in space,” says Paul D. Spudis, a lunar scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who ran a radar experiment aboard Chandrayaan-1 that detected traces of water. India is planning a return trip to the moon with a lander and rover in 2014. Also in the works is a solar mission in 2014 called Aditya and, in the next 5 years, an asteroid flyby. And while NASA earlier this month revealed that it has canceled a pair of upcoming Mars missions, ISRO is sketching out a robotic mission to Mars within a decade.

    Whereas the United States has given up on shuttles, India now wants to build its own. Recyclable technology would sharply reduce launch costs, ISRO says. A first-generation vehicle would lift off vertically and land in the sea; later models would glide to a runway. A prototype is housed at a secret facility in Kerala, says ISRO Chair K. Radhakrishnan.

    The defining moment for India's space program will come when India sends humans into space, Radhakrishnan says. ISRO has proposed a massive $2.5 billion project. Within 7 years of receiving government approval, India could orbit a few astronauts for a week, then later send them to the moon, Radhakrishnan says.

    The government has approved about $25 million for preliminary studies “to wet our hands” with technology involved in human space flight, Radhakrishnan says. The big project may run into resistance. Asked whether this is the right thrust for Indian science, C. N. R. Rao, science adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said, “I have nothing against man going anywhere, but I am more worried about people on this earth.” In an interview with Science, Singh declined to endorse the human space flight program (see p. 907).

    Radhakrishnan is confident that ISRO's vision will prevail. “India is poised to soar higher in space,” he says. “But it will be done with a uniquely Indian flavor.”

  7. Q&A: Manmohan Singh

    India's Scholar-Prime Minister Aims for Inclusive Development

    1. Pallava Bagla,
    2. Richard Stone

    Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh plans to increase the government's R&D spending and create incentives for the private sector to increase spending on science and technology as well.

    Academic to the core.

    Manmohan Singh is reshaping the higher education landscape.

    CREDIT: CHANNI ANAND/AP PHOTO

    NEW DELHI—Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed last month to more than double the nation's R&D spending to $8 billion a year by 2017. The pledge was no bolt from the blue. Since taking office in May 2004, Singh has launched initiatives to entice overseas scientists to return home, create elite universities, and establish a grants agency modeled after the U.S. National Science Foundation (see p. 891).

    But the largesse announced at the Indian Science Congress comes with a sobering assessment. “Over the past few decades, India's relative position in the world of science had been declining, and we have been overtaken by countries like China,” Singh declared. In an exclusive interview with Science, Singh reiterated that concern, observing that “China is in many ways far ahead of India.”

    In academic circles, Singh enjoys a form of street cred. “He's a scholar, a thinker,” says Raghunath “Ramesh” Mashelkar, former director general of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Born in 1932 in Gah, now part of Pakistan, Singh walked to school and studied by the light of a kerosene lantern as a boy in his unelectrified village before becoming a professor at the Delhi School of Economics. As finance minister from 1991 to 1996, Singh presided over reforms that have transformed India into one of the world's fastest growing economies.

    Gentle and modest, Singh's soft-spoken demeanor belies the grit he has shown on some issues of importance to scientists. He staked his government's future on nuclear power when, overriding fierce opposition, he inked a controversial deal with the United States in 2008 that opened India's civilian nuclear industry to the outside world. He has struck a cautious stance on genetically modified (GM) foods; in 2009, he did not intervene when his former environment minister rejected a scientific panel's advice and banned commercial planting of GM eggplant, or brinjal, until additional safety trials are completed.

    On balance, Indian scientists give Singh high marks for his tenure as prime minister. Last month, they elected him general president of the Indian Science Congress Association during its centenary year—the first prime minister to receive that honor. In an interview at his residence here with Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, Asia news editor Richard Stone, and India correspondent Pallava Bagla, Singh shared his thoughts about competing with China, foreign interference in the GM food debate, and how to tightly harness R&D to development in a country in which 42% of children are malnourished. The following transcript is edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q:At the Indian Science Congress last month, you said that “we need to do much more to change the face of Indian science.” Please elaborate.

    M.S.:Well, we need to spend a lot more on research and development. Our share of GDP which we spend on R&D is about 1%, and I said that we should raise it to about 2% of GDP. We need to spend a lot more money on the areas where our development needs are actively served by developments in science, technology, and innovation. So in our country today we have a situation where as far as the public sector is concerned, our proportion of GDP going into R&D in science and technology is roughly the same as the other developing countries, but it is the private sector in our country which has to do a lot more.

    Q:What kind of incentives might work for industry?

    M.S.:These matters cannot be decided upon merely in a short period. It is a medium-term process. We have a plan which will be launched from April for the next 5 years. Our effort will be to increase gradually the proportion of money spent on R&D and at the same time create a system of incentives which will induce the private sector to increase their spending on science and technology.

    Q:In the United States, 17% of total research and development spending is spent in higher education systems, whereas in India the number is about 4%. It is the lowest percentage of any of your peers. Is this a problem that needs to be fixed?

    M.S.:Well, we need to spend a lot more money on education, more so on higher education. We have increased the number of IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology]. We have increased the number of Indian Institutes for Information Technology in a massive way. We are going to increase the number of what we call innovation universities. So I am confident that the landscape of higher education in India will change enormously in the next 5 to 10 years.

    Our real problem is quality teaching staff. We are trying to induce more people to go for Ph.D. degrees in science and technology. I think we are making some impact, but not as fast as we need in order to meet the needs of our higher education system. Therefore, we must also find innovative means to draw upon the Indians working in the universities abroad, particularly in the United States, to find some time to spend teaching in our country.

    Q:You also mentioned in your speech at the science congress about the need to do more to address the developmental needs of India through research. A good example is [agricultural scientist] M. S. Swaminathan's efforts to bring the benefits of science to Indian villages. Does India need to do more to invest in that kind of science and if so, how might it be done?

    M.S.:We need to pay a lot more attention to the development of our agriculture. That will accelerate the tempo of rural development, which will help to increase the opportunities for our scientists to work in rural areas in development of water-management technologies, in development of environment-friendly technologies, and also communicable diseases. We have to pay a lot more attention to R&D, tackling the problems of communicable diseases. We are victims of a double whammy. There are diseases which are peculiar to developing countries, but there are also diseases, which I think know no level of development, and in both these areas we have opportunities.

    Candid exchange.

    In an interview with Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and colleagues, Manmohan Singh shared his concerns about GM foods, nuclear activists, and China.

    CREDIT: PALLAVA BAGLA

    The Indian agricultural research system could also be made much more productive in tackling problems of what I have often described as ushering in a second green revolution. We have difficulties in increasing the productivity of dry land agriculture. That means technologies which will save water and technologies which will conserve energy also should get a lot more attention.

    Q:Why did your government put a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal?

    M.S.:Biotechnology has enormous potential, and in due course of time we must make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture. But there are controversies. There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces. But we are a democracy, we are not like China.

    You know, for example, what's happening in Kudankulam [in southern India, where local NGO-led protests have stalled commissioning of two 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors]. The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.

    Q:After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, do you still think that nuclear energy has a role in India?

    M.S.:Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.

    Q:At the science congress, you mentioned your feeling that China has overtaken India in science. Are you competing with China?

    M.S.:Well, we are competing, yes and no. India and China are engaged in a stage of development where we have both to compete and cooperate. We are the two largest developing countries and the two fastest growing countries. China is our great neighbor. Now, we've had in the past problems way back in the 1960s, but we are finding pathways to promote cooperation.

    Q:India has invested very large amounts of money in space.

    M.S.:And it has paid off.

    Q:The country wants to put astronauts in space. Indian astronauts from Indian soil using Indian rockets. Is that something you support?

    M.S.:We supported the Chandrayaan lunar missions. And satellite technologies, rocket technologies—those are, I think, highly favorable outcomes of the Indian space program, and we need to do more.

    Q:But what about the astronaut program? The Indian Space Research Organisation is asking for $2.5 billion. You talk of inclusive growth. In that inclusive growth, how does human space flight fit in?

    M.S.:Well, ultimately science and technology must be viewed as an instrument of raising the standard of living of our people. Now, if information technology can be seen to promote the development of our country, particularly in the inclusive style of development, I think people will see space technology also as a new way of dealing with the ancient scourges of poverty, ignorance, and disease. Science and technology are the ultimate salvation for finding meaningful new pathways of developing our economy.

    Q:Where do you see the future of Indian science in 20 years?

    M.S.:Indian science has a very bright future. I have no doubt that we will scale new heights, we will explore new frontiers, and more and more young people will take to science as a career. Things are already changing for the better.

    One has to be optimistic. In poor countries, unless one is optimistic, one is overwhelmed by the dimension of the development task that we have to accomplish.

  8. Science in India

    Crowd-Sourcing Drug Discovery

    1. Pallava Bagla

    The Open Source Drug Discovery network's army of volunteers is building a kind of Wikipedia on tuberculosis, which is the leading cause of death in India for those in the prime of life.

    NEW DELHI—Each year, India tallies an astounding 1.7 million cases of tuberculosis (TB). Some 400,000 people succumb to the disease, making it the leading cause of death in India for those in the prime of life, from 15 to 45 years old. Most victims are poor, and pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to develop new drugs against the bug that causes TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But the Indian government has a big incentive to reduce the disease burden.

    Open-source guru.

    CSIR's Samir Brahmachari.

    CREDIT: PALLAVA BAGLA

    Faced with this conundrum, Samir Brahmachari had a brainstorm a few years ago: crowd-sourcing. “That means looking for experts you don't know exist,” he says. “I wanted to do something very different.” So in 2008, Brahmachari, a biophysicist and director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India's largest network of scientific laboratories, launched the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) network. Modeled after the open-source software community, OSDD's army of volunteers is building a kind of Wikipedia on TB. Some 5500 participants in 130 countries respond to “work packages” posted by OSDD: questions on everything from the biology of M. tuberculosis to leads on drugs; answers are tagged and credited.

    “OSDD is an exciting new approach to drug discovery,” says Melvin Spigelman, president of the TB Alliance in New York City. “It provides the opportunity for virtually a limitless number of scientists to contribute to the solution of any given problem.” The Indian government gave OSDD $12 million in seed money; CSIR has requested $200 million over the next 5 years as the program ramps up for clinical trials and expands to other neglected diseases such as malaria and leishmaniasis, and possibly even cancer. “Drug discovery,” Brahmachari says, “is too serious a business to be left solely in the hands of pharmaceutical companies.”

    The first challenge that OSDD's cyber-community assigned itself was to glean more information from the M. tuberculosis genome. It was sequenced in 1998, but researchers had clues to the functions of only a quarter of its 4000 genes. In December 2009, OSDD set out to reannotate all possible genes. Some 500 volunteers got the job done in a mere 4 months. Now OSDD is trying to exploit these data. “The more people you put to work on the problem, the more chances you will have to identify the set of compounds that will likely make it through compound optimization, animal models, preclinical, and, eventually, clinical trials. If you increase your success chances, then your overall costs decrease,” says Marc Marti-Renom of the National Center for Genomic Analysis in Barcelona, Spain.

    OSDD's iterative approach has identified two drug candidates that it has contracted for testing. Under OSDD rules, data from program-sponsored clinical trials must be open for all to see—“a clear alternative,” OSDD states, “to expensive clinical trials conducted in secrecy at high costs.” OSDD drugs will be available in the developing world as generics, Brahmachari says. “When it comes to health, we need to have a balanced view between health as a right and health as business,” he says. For TB and other neglected diseases, drug companies might embrace that philosophy. For cancer, all bets are off.

  9. Science in India

    Drawing a Bead on India's Enigmatic Monsoon

    1. Pallava Bagla

    This year, India's Ministry of Earth Sciences is launching a 5-year, $75 million "monsoon mission" to improve the study of complex ocean-atmosphere interactions.

    NEW DELHI—India's booming economy is still a gamble on the monsoon. In any given year, if rainfall climbs more than 10% above a long-term monsoon average, floods ensue. If it declines more than 10% below average, a drought is declared. Slippage in either direction brings misery. For example, a drought in 2002 shrank India's GDP by an estimated 5.8%. Every meteorologist's dream here is to accurately predict the monsoon's arrival, distribution, and departure. Toward that end, this year the Ministry of Earth Sciences is launching a 5-year, $75 million “monsoon mission” to improve the study of complex ocean-atmosphere interactions.

    India receives 105 cm of rainfall on average per year, 80% carried on southwest winds that sweep in from the Indian Ocean from June to September. A winter monsoon also brings moisture from the northeast. Farming is heavily dependent on the exact timing of the rain, especially where it is needed to germinate seed. Since official record-keeping began 137 years ago, the monsoon has never failed to arrive, and it has never delivered less than 75 cm of rain. But the spatial and temporal variations are vast—and this is what befuddles scientists. “Every year, the monsoon is peculiar in its own way,” says atmospheric scientist Jayaraman Srinivasan of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

    Extreme misfortune.

    A farmer in Orissa examines his parched field in 2003.

    CREDIT: PALLAVA BAGLA

    The India Meteorological Department here issues monsoon forecasts but has not been able to accurately predict when the worst floods and droughts will occur. “Extremes are really difficult to forecast,” says Ajit Tyagi, the department's former director general. Everything needs closer study: how clouds form, develop, and die—and, crucially, how global warming will change the monsoon.

    India's “current prediction capabilities are inadequate,” concedes geologist Shailesh Nayak, secretary for the Earth Sciences Ministry. A big bottleneck, he says, is a shortage of trained scientists. By Nayak's estimate, over the next 5 years India will need about 1200 skilled meteorologists, but today has only about 350. The ministry has just launched a recruitment campaign.

    In the new initiative, Indian scientists and overseas colleagues will try to adapt computer models developed by the U.K. Met Office and the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction for long-range forecasting in India. The mission will also make use of data pouring in from Megha-Tropiques, an Indo-French satellite launched in October to monitor water and energy balance over the tropics. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune will take the lead in seasonal forecasts and prediction of active and break periods of the monsoon. A key aim is to produce a prediction model that uses open-source software such as Linux.

    The collaborative effort, Tyagi hopes, may at last “unravel the enigma that surrounds the Indian monsoon.”

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