News this Week

Science  31 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6136, pp. 1024
  1. Around the World

    1 - Geneva, Switzerland
    New Biotech Center on Merck Site
    2 - Los Angeles, California
    Brain Imaging Lab Leaves UCLA for USC
    3 - Geneva, Switzerland
    No Coronavirus Hoarding, Scientists Say

    Geneva, Switzerland

    New Biotech Center on Merck Site




    Billionaires Hansjörg Wyss and Ernesto Bertarelli—ranked by Forbes as the richest men in Switzerland—have bought the former building of drug company Merck Serono in Geneva, where they plan to set up a biotech research center with two local universities. The announcement, made on 22 May, was welcomed by Swiss scientists as a boon for the Geneva area. It comes about a year after Merck Serono said that it would close down its Geneva headquarters and relocate R&D activities to Germany, the United States, and China.

    On 28 June, Merck Serono will hand over the property to a consortium called Campus Biotech, made up of the Bertarelli family, the Wyss Foundation, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). The Campus Biotech project includes the creation of Wyss Institute for Bio- and Neuro-Engineering, which will receive $103 million from the Wyss Foundation and will be modeled after a similar center for biologically inspired engineering that Wyss funded at Harvard University. (On 21 May, that institute announced that Wyss had doubled his gift, from $125 million to $250 million.)

    Los Angeles, California

    Brain Imaging Lab Leaves UCLA for USC

    Over 80 neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), will pack up their sophisticated brain scanners and hefty portfolio of private and public grants this fall when the $12 million Laboratory of Neuro Imaging moves across town to the University of Southern California (USC) Keck Medical Center. Led by neuroscientists Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson, who announced their decision to leave UCLA last week, the lab will get powerful new neuroimaging tools; larger, customized laboratory space; and more financial support from the well-heeled private university.

    Statewide financial troubles, which have plagued the University of California system for years, combined with waning federal funding for "big" neuroscience research projects, influenced Toga's decision to move the lab to USC, he says. "You have to consider that when you protect your program."

    Toga and Thompson did not provide UCLA an opportunity to make a counteroffer. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block expressed pride in the lab's accomplishments and disappointment about its departure, but stressed his university's continued investment in neuroscience. "The departure of one lab will not diminish our impact."

    Geneva, Switzerland

    No Coronavirus Hoarding, Scientists Say

    At last week's World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of the world's health ministers, Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish complained that intellectual property considerations were slowing down the development of diagnostic tests for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. The virus has sickened 49 people and killed 24 since it surfaced last year. "No IP intellectual property should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people," agreed Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, according to Agence France-Presse.

    But scientists working with the virus say the criticism is unjustified. Virologist Ron Fouchier's group at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, identified the coronavirus last June after receiving a sample from Ali Zaki, an Egyptian doctor at the Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Fouchier's group has shared the virus with labs that sign a "fairly standard" material transfer agreement (MTA), says David Fidler, a legal scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington. "There is nothing here … that's unusual or highly restrictive."

  2. Random Sample

    Earliest Birdie?


    Nearly all paleontologists agree that birds descended from dinosaurs, but spotting that crucial evolutionary transition in the fossil record has been difficult—especially because the ancestors of the earliest birds were feathered dinosaurs, some of which could even fly. Researchers, reporting in this week's issue of Nature, now claim that this beautifully preserved, 170-million-year-old skeleton from China's fossil-rich Liaoning province, dubbed Aurornis xui, is the earliest known-for-sure bird. If that's correct, its discovery also could help resolve the controversial evolutionary heritage of several other claimed early birds, including the famous Archaeopteryx, whose avian status has recently been challenged (Science, 29 July 2011, p. 511).

    Teachable Science in Popcorn SciFi


    In the new Will Smith flick After Earth, 60 years from now human activities have altered the planet's climate to the point where Earth is uninhabitable, prompting the remaining humans to flee to a distant world. It's a story line that might appeal to scientists—an ecological fable with a stark moral about humans' impact on the planet.

    But from a scientific standpoint, After Earth quickly goes off the rails. Fast forward 1000 years, when Will and son Jaden crash-land on Earth and find that it has become not only uninhabitable but downright hostile. "Everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans," note the After Earth press materials. Cue the eye-rolls from scientists at that evolutionary "goal." Other eye-rolling opportunities include radical day-night temperature shifts in a rainforest ("You literally see the jungle freeze over," says After Earth writer Gary Whitta), and plate tectonics gone mad (in just 1000 years, Africa and South America have recollided).

    "What we're presenting in the movie is grossly exaggerated," Whitta acknowledges. Science fiction, he says, requires "healthy doses" of both science and fiction.

    But Whitta also points to the movie's ecological message—and yes, thinking about it that way, the movie has teachable moments, says biologist and science educator Joseph Levine of the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica. Levine, at the behest of Sony Pictures, devised an After Earth–inspired educational curriculum that delves into the actual science behind human impacts on the planet, including climate change, biodiversity, and land-use changes (

    "Obviously, scientists are not going to agree that there is going to be a sudden crisis," Levine says. But like the much-maligned The Day After Tomorrow, which increased public awareness of climate change, he notes, any movie with a scientific premise is an opportunity for scientists to grab an interested audience's attention to counter the wealth of misinformation online.


    Join us on Thursday, 6 June, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat with astronaut Buzz Aldrin on Mars travel.

  3. Newsmakers

    Cycles, Stats Earn Shaw Prizes





    Rhythms, instabilities, and statistics are the focus of this year's Shaw prizes. The discovery of the molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms nets the prize in life science and medicine for Jeffrey Hall of the University of Maine, Orono; Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University; and Michael Young of the Rockefeller University. Steven Balbus of the University of Oxford and John Hawley of the University of Virginia are sharing the astronomy award for their work on magnetorotational instability, a concept describing the turbulence of astrophysical accretion disks. Stanford University's David Donoho earns the mathematical sciences award for the development of optimal algorithms for statistical estimation. Hong Kong media entrepreneur and philanthropist Run Run Shaw established the Shaw Prize in 2002. Each prize carries a $1 million award.

  4. Science for All

    1. Pallava Bagla,
    2. Richard Stone

    With 400 million people earning less than $1.25 per day, India is home to a staggering one-third of the world's poor. Can scientists do more to lift people out of poverty?

    Homespun innovation.

    A new rotavirus vaccine developed in India could be a boon to public health.


    CHENNAI, INDIA—In March 2012, Ashok Jhunjhunwala invited 45 young hotshots in India's electronics industry to this southern Indian city to brainstorm on a challenge: Could they design a tablet computer with Internet connectivity that would sell for 2500 Indian rupees—about $50—and still allow their companies to turn a profit on the device? To Jhunjhunwala, an electrical engineer here at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, it wasn't merely the fortunes of India's Silicon Valley that hung in the balance. India's future was at stake.

    India has made strides in extending education to all strata of society. According to the Ministry of Human Resources Development, in 2010, 50% of children attended school through grade 12—up from 37% just 8 years ago. Equality is taking root in higher education as well. "The poorest children are getting into engineering colleges. That was inconceivable a decade back," says Jhunjhunwala, who serves on a science advisory council to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But India is failing, Jhunjhunwala says, in what it offers up to those young minds in the classroom. "We have made zero progress, even negative progress, in the quality of education," he asserts. Steering away from rote instruction and raising the bar, he says, "is our biggest challenge."

    Jhunjhunwala didn't expect a cure-all from the computer jocks he coaxed to Chennai. But he knew that an inexpensive tablet, purchased en masse by the government and distributed to students, would be a powerful teaching aid. Two previous attempts had not lived up to their promise, and half the companies represented in the room, Jhunjhunwala knew, "were dead opposed to the idea" of a cheap tablet. It was hard to erase memories of the first cut-rate handheld alternative to laptops developed in India: the Simputer, which flopped a decade ago. The industry needed a reboot. But after huddling with the group all day, Jhunjhunwala recalls, "we felt confident that we could do something."

    Unlike in past efforts, competition is the name of the game this time. As Science went to press, a dozen companies were racing to refine prototypes of a $50 tablet. These are undergoing dozens of performance tests here at IIT Madras's research park. Based on the benchmarking outcome, the Indian government is considering making an initial purchase this fall of 5 million tablets from the five top-performing manufacturers; all of their machines will be marketed under the name "Aakash 4." The price for each unit: Twenty-five hundred rupees, plus taxes. With educational applications that will initially enhance and someday possibly even supplant printed textbooks, the Aakash 4, Jhunjhunwala predicts, "will be an integral part" of India's effort to raise education standards.

    The Aakash 4 is at the vanguard of India's drive to use science and technology to raise millions of people out of poverty. The aim is to bypass hidebound approaches and link talent and ideas in a push for rapid economic growth. S. Shankar Sastry, dean of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues envision the emergence of a new academic discipline—development engineering—aimed to assemble a toolkit of methods to find sustainable solutions to poverty. India, where 833 million of the country's 1.21 billion people live in villages sorely deficient in health care, sanitation, electricity, and educational opportunities, is a natural crucible for such experiments.

    In this impoverished landscape, Singh, an academic at heart, is sowing the seeds of an intellectual revolution. Last week, speaking about his vision of inclusive growth, Singh said: "The glass was almost empty when we started. The important point to note is that it is being filled." High on the agenda are plans to extend a $1.2 billion National Knowledge Network—a high-speed Internet backbone now linking 1000 agencies and research institutions—to every one of India's 630,000 villages.

    Another push is coming from the National Innovation Fund, established last year with a $50 million pot of money to bankroll promising technological solutions for societal woes. "The fund is built on the principle that innovative enterprise can engage citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid," says Sam Pitroda, chair of India's National Innovation Council, which helps oversee the fund. For example, using a grant from the fund, villagers coping with periodic droughts spawned by deforestation in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand are teaming up with scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai to identify where ground water is more readily recharged in the watershed. The nuclear scientists are mapping underground water flow using isotopes of oxygen and tritium, enabling villagers to pinpoint locations to build recharge ponds.

    Other initiatives that promise to transform India include agricultural extension services that use cell phones to broadcast best practices and prevailing market prices for crops to farmers and fishers; a national ID program that will extend the welfare safety net to the nation's poorest corners; and vaccines against diseases whose toll is highest among the most deprived. All told, experts say, India in 2013 will spend about $6 billion on science-based efforts to raise living standards: half of its total R&D budget.

    Leading the charge.

    Ashok Jhunjhunwala, holding an Aakash tablet, hopes the cut-rate computer will transform Indian education.


    In a nation known for its prowess in rockets and atomic bombs, poverty alleviation is not something that most researchers gravitate to, says nuclear scientist Rajagopala Chidambaram, principal scientific adviser to the Government of India. "Active scientists are not the best suited for grassroots intervention," he argues. The lion's share of work, he says, should be left to nongovernmental organizations led by scientists. Others feel differently. "We have a moral responsibility to help the poor," Pitroda says. For years, Pitroda, who helped establish India's modern telecom industry in the 1990s, doubted whether significant inroads were feasible. "The problems of poverty weren't drawing talented researchers," he says, and the government approach was at times piecemeal, at times negligent. However, India's rapid economic development is rewriting the script. "I didn't think it was possible to do much to help," Pitroda says. "Until now."

    Vaccinations for all

    To Krishna Ella, Indian science is a study in contradictions. For decades, he notes, India has excelled in basic research in chemistry and a few other fields. But many of the nation's most pressing needs have lain neglected. Particularly deserving of opprobrium, he argues, is India's track record in disease research. Thousands of Indians die of malaria each year, he notes, yet, "Why have we not developed a single good antimalaria drug?" Typhoid, cholera, dengue: "Nobody was touching these poor man's diseases," Ella says.

    His father was a farmer in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, so Ella knew how hard it can be to scratch out a living from the land. After earning a doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1993, Ella spent a brief period as a research assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston before heeding the wishes of his wife, Suchitra, and his mother, and returning with his family to India in 1996. In a lab that he set up in Hyderabad, Ella developed a hepatitis B vaccine by inserting genes for viral surface proteins into yeast. With seed funding from the Industrial Development Bank of India, Ella and Suchitra in 1996 founded Bharat Biotech International Ltd. The company scored its first triumph just 2 years later, when India's president, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, came to Hyderabad to unveil Revac-B+, a recombinant hepatitis B vaccine that Bharat put on the market for about $1 per dose—a fraction of the price of hepatitis vaccines made by Western firms.

    Over the next decade, Bharat Biotech built a portfolio of cheap vaccines against scourges such as polio, typhoid, and rabies, and the company anchored a high-tech enclave in Hyderabad that Krishna christened "Genome Valley."

    The company stumbled in September 2011, when the World Health Organization, in an audit of Bharat Biotech's production plant in Hyderabad, found "deficiencies in the implementation of good manufacturing practices and in the quality management system of the company," WHO said in a statement that December. WHO, which noted that Bharat Biotech's vaccines on the market were deemed safe, asked for the audit in response to the company's applications to include two vaccines on a roster of products approved by WHO for bulk purchase by the U.N. Children's Fund and other U.N. agencies. Ella insists that the problem is merely about documentation and that quality was never an issue. Company officials are in discussions now with WHO on getting their firm approved as an authorized vaccine supplier.

    Mass appeal.

    Bharat Biotech, led by Krishna Ella (left), has made cheap vaccines a profitable venture. Indian telecom pioneer Sam Pitroda (right) believes scientists have a moral responsibility to help the poor.


    In the meantime, Bharat Biotech achieved a milestone earlier this month when the Indian government announced that the company's homegrown vaccine against rotavirus had scored high marks in clinical trials. In the United States, the virus is a public health nuisance, causing severe diarrhea in infants and young children, but few deaths. In India, rotavirus is a menace that easily spreads through contaminated food and water. It infects some 20 million children in India every year, claiming more than 100,000 lives. Most of those deaths are preventable—children become dehydrated and fail to receive adequate treatment.

    At a press conference in New Delhi earlier this month, K. Vijayraghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, announced that ROTAVAC, Bharat Biotech's vaccine against the predominant rotavirus strain circulating in India, had compiled an "excellent safety and efficacy profile" in phase III clinical trials—the first time such trials were conducted in India for any vaccine. In a statement, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, hailed the results as "a significant victory for India's scientific community." (A partner in the collaboration, NIAID provided one of the strains tested in the ROTAVAC trial.)

    This effort originated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, where Maharaj Kishan Bhan, a vaccine researcher, in 1985 identified a nonpathogenic strain of rotavirus. Thirteen years later, the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program selected Bharat Biotech to develop the vaccine. Since then, the Indian government and foreign partners, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have poured about $100 million into the project. ROTAVAC is expected to be on the market in early 2014, priced at about $1 per oral dose for a three-dose series. Two Western-manufactured vaccines now on the market in India each cost about $40 per dose.

    Toward total inclusion

    In his 2008 book Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani, a tycoon who co-founded the Bangalore-based software and information technology giant Infosys in 1981, made an intriguing proposition. Biometrics technology had become reliable and cheap enough to deploy nationwide in India; Nilekani proposed entering people living below the poverty line into a database that would help them access benefits. "Millions of people become adults in India without an identity document," and they are unable to tap into the country's welfare system, Nilekani says. "We had to find a way to make society more inclusive." Toward this end, he argued, biometrics could be a powerful tool.

    Prime Minister Singh threw his weight behind the venture, and in July 2009 the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was formed. Its ambitions have since grown: UIDAI is now striving to assign a random 12-digit "Aadhaar" ID number to every resident of India, based on photos, iris scans, and a full set of 10 fingerprints. Some critics blast the program as far too ambitious to succeed. Others say it feels like Big Brother; they point out that security agents will have access to the database. Nevertheless, 300 million people have received Aadhaar numbers since the authority's enrollment centers, scattered across the country, opened in September 2010.

    Biometrics with benefits.

    A boy in New Delhi gets his thumbs scanned for an Aadhaar ID number.


    The system's raison d'etre is authentication: Biometrics offers a simple and more reliable way to verify a person's identity. With corporate partners, UIDAI is now rolling out a micro-ATM system in which welfare payments and other government benefits are directly paid into the ID holder's account, rather than getting routed through leaky and often corruption-ridden government channels. Beneficiaries will be able to receive their payments at shops equipped with fingerprint or iris scanners. And students may be required to have Aadhaar numbers when sitting for nationwide tests.

    Nationwide connectivity is transforming India in other ways as well. Today, the country has 900 million cell phones. "Only about 35% of Indian homes have toilets. About 60% have mobile phones," says Jairam Ramesh, who as India's minister for rural development is searching for innovative solutions for poverty alleviation (see p. 1034).

    Text messaging services now alert farmers to prevailing market prices, enabling them to decide how and where to sell commodities before leaving the farm. In the past, they would have to lug their wares to a market and hope for the best. Fishers, too, are reaping the benefits of technology. Using data gathered by its satellite fleet, the Indian Space Research Organisation maps plankton-rich zones within 20 nautical miles of India's coast where fish are likely to congregate. It then feeds daily fishing forecasts, as well as wave height and other data, to Village Resource Centers pioneered by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) here. "We're getting a lot of feedback from fisher folk," says MSSRF information specialist Nancy J. Anabel. "Now they are even asking for species-specific forecasts." Communities see the resource centers "as a source of empowerment," adds V. Selvam, program director of MSSRF's coastal systems research.

    A more efficient information flow to farms should also help safeguard the gains of the Green Revolution. In the 1960s, millions of Indians lived from "ship to mouth," surviving on boatloads of wheat imported from the United States. Thanks to the introduction of high-yield dwarf varieties about 40 years ago, India has since become a net exporter of wheat, but there are concerns that a strain of wheat rust called Ug99 could devastate harvests. Wheat farmers across the country now use their cell phones to send pest sightings and general growing conditions to the Directorate of Wheat Research in Karnal. So far, Ug99 has not been seen in India, says Indu Sharma, the directorate's head.

    Knowledge flows both ways.

    Anil Gupta (left) of the National Innovation Foundation points to the Bhils tribal community's nonstick cookware as a technology worthy of wide dissemination.


    The essential role of farmers in crop disease surveillance underscores the point that knowledge flow goes both ways. In Ahmedabad, the National Innovation Foundation gathers local wisdom in "people registers": local technologies honed over centuries or millennia. One recent find is a nonstick surface for cookware developed by the Bhils, a tribal community in Madhya Pradesh state. They coat earthenware pots with a resin secreted by insects that infect certain plants. The nontoxic preparation is being commercialized; profits will flow back to the Bhil. It's an example of how "minds on the margins are not marginal minds," says Anil Gupta, the foundation's executive vice president.

    Crucibles of ideas

    Two young blackbuck antelope lock their twisting horns in a violent clatter. Several meters away, placidly grazing, a rare albino blackbuck seems to pay no heed to the sparring match. IIT Madras students in the vicinity are also blasé: They get to experience a cervid safari every day. A half century ago, IIT Madras's 2.5-square-kilometer campus was carved from Guindy National Park. Although the institution's coexistence with nature hasn't always been harmonious—a troop of bonnet macaques that prowls the leafy grounds has tested the administration's tolerance—it has nevertheless helped IIT Madras stand out in Indian academia.

    No single institution in India can lay claim to the mantle of doing the most to help the neediest. Indeed, as Pitroda and others have pointed out, academia's track record at tackling societal ills is spotty at best. But as awareness of the need for action grows, IIT Madras and a handful of other centers have become test beds of new ideas. "Our focus today is on transformation research," says IIT Madras Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi.

    One area in which they hope to make a difference is affordable housing. "We have a huge housing shortage in India," says Devdas Menon, an IIT Madras civil engineer. In the center of campus, Menon's team last month finished putting up a model house divided into four apartments built from glass fiber-reinforced gypsum. It took a mere 29 days to erect, at a cost of $2000. The technology is not new. Australia pioneered the concept more than 20 years ago, in which gypsum, a common waste in industries such as fertilizer production, is milled with glass fibers to form water- and fire-resistant paneling. Despite the fact that the paneling is much lighter than concrete or other traditional building materials, it can be used to construct earthquake-resistant structures up to 10-stories tall, Menon says. A several-story building would take less than 6 months to build, he says: about one-fifth the time it would take to put up a steel and concrete building.

    The model home will also accommodate a pie-in-the-sky idea: village-level direct current (DC) electricity supplies. One half of the model home will run on AC, the way power is commonly supplied from a grid, and the other half will run on DC: how batteries generate power and how communities across India were supplied with electricity several decades ago.

    Energy is a critical limiting factor in efforts to boost rural livelihoods. "Energy demand is rising dramatically. People throughout India are buying air conditioners so fast, it's scary to think where we're heading," says Ramamurthi, an electrical engineer by training. Solar and other renewable energies have "great potential in the countryside," he says, but they are hard to stably feed into a power grid. Thus, he and Jhunjhunwala are working on a prototype in which villages can run off-grid, on solar-powered DC power stations. They say that they will know within 6 months whether their concept is feasible.

    A more pressing concern for Jhunjhunwala is the Aakash 4 debut. If the tablets can meet performance standards on 151 benchmark tests, "the project will be successful," predicts computer scientist Rajat Moona, director general of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing in Pune. "The project is headed in the right direction now," he says. Even more bullish is Kannan Mani Moudgalya, a chemical engineering professor at IIT Bombay. "Aakash is a great idea," he says. As software applications for Aakash mature, he predicts, the tablet, "without any doubt," will help give Indian children a richer, higher quality education.

    Just beyond the walls of IIT Madras's research park, where the Aakash 4 prototypes are being put through their paces, a sprawl of tenements is haphazardly strung with laundry drying in the sun on a steamy day. It's the sort of scene that Jhunjhunwala and his colleagues hope to transform through education, as fast as they possibly can. "We're racing against time," he says.

  5. A Role for Science in Poverty Alleviation?

    1. Pallava Bagla,
    2. Richard Stone

    Science spoke with Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh about the role of science in poverty alleviation.

    NEW DELHI—With more than 400 million people in India earning less than $1.25 a day, poverty reduction in this sprawling nation is an urgent task. Perhaps that's why the ruling United Progressive Alliance turned to one of its deep thinkers to tackle the intransigent problem. In July 2011, Jairam Ramesh was tapped to lead the Ministry of Rural Development, an $18 billion agency focused on the plight of the 70% of India's 1.2 billion people who live in the countryside.

    Reaching out.

    Jairam Ramesh's main task now is helping rural poor.


    Ramesh, 59, is no stranger to India's scientific community. He garnered headlines in January 2010, when, as environment minister, he imposed an indefinite moratorium on the introduction of genetically modified eggplant (Science, 12 February 2010, p. 767). A mechanical engineer by training who's known for his wit and biting remarks, Ramesh is also a China expert; in 2005 he published a book on the relationship between the two Asian powers, Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China and India.

    Last month, Science spoke with Ramesh in his office here about the role of science in poverty alleviation. His remarks were edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q:Is science in India helping the poor?

    J.R.:People are coming out of poverty because of agricultural growth, better wages, and better infrastructure. Science played an important role in creating new varieties of rice and wheat; that has lifted farmers out of poverty. Science has created mobile phones that are giving farmers and wage seekers links with markets. But if you are asking me if there is a direct relationship between investment in science in India and rural development, my answer is no.

    Q:How would you get scientists more involved in poverty alleviation?

    J.R.:Almost 60% of all open defecations in the world are in India. And open defecation and poor sanitation has a direct link with malnutrition and stunted growth. But we've had no innovation whatsoever in the field of toilets. So when Mr. Bill Gates came to meet me a couple of months ago, we said, why don't we collaborate together and have a global challenge? Challenge the world's inventors to come up with low-cost toilets for use in trains, for use in our homes. You take four or five crucial areas and certainly you can throw the market open for ideas.

    Q:Why is poverty so entrenched in India?

    J.R.:It has nothing to do with science. It is the failure of land reform. We have not ensured equal access to land. We've had a horrendously iniquitous caste system, which is still very much prevalent in our country. Public health successes in India have reduced mortality rates drastically, but we've had a tripling of our population since independence. So the causes of poverty are complex, and the causes of poverty are not linked to the availability or nonavailability of science and technology.

    One shouldn't make the mistake of giving science and technology more power than it actually has to alleviate poverty. Sure, it has a place to reduce drudgery, for example, if you can develop improved cookstoves. But how do you disseminate 150 million cookstoves?

    Q:What about a McDonald's of cookstoves?

    J.R.:McDonaldization has taken place in a few areas. Mobile telephones are the most ubiquitous instrument of rural transformation today. But in other areas, we have not been very successful. Cookstoves is a classic example. We've been at this cookstove game for almost 40 years. But whether improved stoves have actually penetrated rural households, I find no convincing answer.

    Q:Will the universal ID (see p. 1032) make a major difference?

    J.R.:It is a very big technological intervention that will have a major transformative effect in rural areas. All pension payments will be delivered electronically to the doorstep of the beneficiaries.

    Q:How long will it take for everyone in India to have a universal ID?

    J.R.:It is a huge priority issue. We hope that by the end of 2014, all subsidy payments, whether it is a kerosene subsidy or cooking gas or whatever subsidy, will be through this route, through micro-ATMs.

    Q:So you need 600,000 micro-ATM machines, one for every village?

    J.R.:At least. From a rural point of view, this is a game changer. It gives you a channel for delivery: cash benefits in a relatively hassle-free environment.

    Q:India helped find water on the moon. But it struggles to provide clean drinking water to its people. Why?

    J.R.:Water is a good example of where science is coming to our rescue. In 1987, there were about 50,000 villages in India without drinking water sources. Satellites helped locate sources for these villages within 1.5 kilometers. This was one of the earliest examples of a quick win for science in rural development.

    I am not a worshipper of science. I realize the potential of science and the power of science. But I also realize that there is more to life than science itself. And the constraints to the diffusion of knowledge, the societal barriers, those have to be addressed.

  6. Social Science

    The Numbers Game

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    In China, statistics have long been skewed by their use in rewarding performance; social scientists say they are beginning to remove those distortions.

    Street cred.

    A researcher gathers data on household income in a rural area of Shandong Province.


    SHANGHAI, CHINA—When economist Gan Li set out in 2009 to survey thousands of Chinese households on income and assets, he had a modest goal: Expand the nation's scant information about its economic life. No detailed household survey data were available that could offer a fair picture of the situation nationwide. Everything from household wealth to the percentage of Chinese owning multiple homes was unknown. China had—and still has—"very little knowledge about its baseline," says Gan, who splits his time between Texas A&M University, College Station, and Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu. His project, called the China Household Finance Survey, got little direct support from China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), effectively the only source of household income information then, Gan says. But the bureau didn't try to block his work.

    Gan's ability to quietly research vanished, however, when he and colleagues used their data to estimate China's Gini coefficient, a common index of income inequality. It runs on a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being severe inequality. Accepted wisdom held that a Gini coefficient above 0.4 yields societal instability, and Gan had assumed that anything above 0.6 would be "maybe revolutionary." NBS had last released a Gini value in 2000, when it was 0.41. In findings released last December, Gan and colleagues calculated it at 0.61.

    High on disparity.

    A 2012 study placed China among the nations with the largest income differences.


    NBS officials countered Gan's research by pointing to his small sample size and the fact that he employed novice student interviewers. (Gan says that his sample has an error of only 1%, and the surveyors underwent 56 hours of training.) A mere month after Gan and colleagues published their findings, NBS released its own, lower estimate for China's Gini coefficient: 0.47. At a press conference in January, bureau Director Ma Jiantang explained that although it was high, inequality in China had been declining since 2008—a claim that is impossible to check because NBS did not release its sample selection method, complete data at the individual respondent level, or the nonresponse rate for the surveys underlying the calculations.

    The bureau's attempt to steal the spotlight flopped. Chinese media seized on Gan's number, prompting an outcry online. The reported yawning income gap caused a big sensation, says Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Peking University, who is not affiliated with the survey. The controversy highlights just how volatile a reaction to new data can be in China. And it shows how difficult it is to derive accurate statistics when reports are distorted by government incentives and cloaked in secrecy. "The research community is really starving for data," says Zhao Yaohui, an economist with Peking University's China Center for Economic Research.

    The accuracy and availability of data in China vary by field. But some themes crop up again and again: Cases are under- or over-reported, data are obtained but not released, and definitions and methodologies shift from one use to the next. These problems are more pressing now, as fields like sociology and economics are rapidly developing. The lack of access to good data, Zhao says, has become a "major hindrance to the advancement of the social sciences in China."

    Deconstructing the data

    The roots of China's problems are partly systemic; statistics get both too little and too much respect. A numbers-driven country, China has an "old, centralized administration that collects data on everything," says Carsten Holz, an economist who specializes in Chinese statistics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Government officials are evaluated on indicators such as environmental protection rather than on their overall performance. Under the yi piao fou-jue, or "one-vote down," system introduced in 1991, local officials who poorly perform in one of several key areas can face wage cuts or dismissal. As the saying goes, shuzi chu guan: "Numbers make leaders."

    Reaching out.

    In rural Henan Province, a survey on household income sent interviewers out to gather data from a broad sample of citizens.


    As a result, notes Liu Junguo, a hydrologist at Beijing Forestry University, the inverse is also true: guan chu shuzi, or "leaders make numbers." Scholars say that outright cooking of the books is rare, perhaps because it's a red flag: With data released consistently every month or every year, says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, "it's very difficult to fake something in a systematic way without being caught." Instead, officials may change definitions so that one year's data are not comparable to previous years'. "Local officials are manipulating a little of the gray area rather than outright fabricating," says Kam Wing Chan, a geographer at the University of Washington, Seattle. But for scholars seeking accurate figures, this can be infuriating. As a result of political incentives, "all indicators of well-being" are suspect, Xie says.


    Gan Li's group found significant income disparity in China.


    For instance, in determining per capita gross domestic product (GDP) or the unemployment rate, a mayor may conveniently exclude millions of struggling migrant workers. Because they lack an urban residence permit, migrants are not counted in a city's population. When they are included, a city's report card can change dramatically, says Chan, who studies migration in China. With migrants excluded from the population of Shenzhen, a booming industrial city near Hong Kong, the city had a per capita GDP of about $21,700 in 2000. When migrants were counted, Chan found in a paper for the July 2007 issue of Eurasian Geography and Economics, the figure plummeted to $3900.

    Compounding China's data woes are policies that encourage concealing information. Because of limits imposed by the one-child policy, some parents do not register births of second and third children, complicating attempts by demographers to track population changes. "If you want to get a timely number you have to rely on local numbers, and everyone knows those numbers are not reliable," Cai says. For a more accurate birthrate, demographers often wait a few years to see if unreported children crop up at the age when school enrollment begins.

    NBS makes corrections to aggregate data for such misreporting. "They are aware of the limitations of data," Xie says. But because the bureau does not typically release complete data sets or detailed methodology, it is impossible for scholars to check how the numbers are modified. "They don't tell you how they got to where they got," says Avraham Ebenstein, an economist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who studies China. "So you don't know if the data are good and bad." An NBS spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the bureau publishes information about the "subjects, survey methods, [and] statistical range" of its data.

    NBS occasionally releases household income microlevel data, or data at the individual respondent level, but it does so only for a handful of provinces at once, according to several scholars—a tactic that prevents independent calculations of the Gini coefficient from official statistics. "The government is tremendously tight-fisted with these data," Ebenstein says. "It's as if, 'We want you to do research, but we don't want it to be too good.' "

    Global repercussions

    Statistics are hardly the only research tool that Chinese officials view as dangerous in the wrong hands. Detailed topographic maps and GPS devices are tightly controlled as well (Science, 25 January, p. 384). But holding back data has a broader impact by tainting research not exclusively focused on China. Because global indices compiled by the United Nations and World Bank often incorporate figures furnished by Chinese government agencies, misleading statistics can skew global comparisons.

    China's birthrate is a case in point. To correct for underreporting by parents and local officials, Cai says, NBS adjusts its estimate of the crude birthrate, but "we never know the mechanism." China's National Population and Family Planning Commission, which was recently combined with the health ministry, issues separate population projections that are even sketchier. Working backward from the figures, demographers can derive a total fertility rate, or the number of children the average woman is expected to have over her lifetime—and they contend that officials deliberately overestimate the rate. A high birthrate keeps the family planning commission in business: "High fertility is the very foundation of its existence," Cai says.

    In 2008, the population commission's estimates sparked a debate when the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) released its biannual World Population Prospects report, with projections to 2050. Cai and demographer Gu Baochang of Renmin University of China in Beijing noticed that UNPD's estimates put China's total fertility rate for 2000 to 2005 at 1.77, close to the family planning commission's estimate of 1.73—and predicted that fertility would increase from there. The two demographers suspect that UNPD relied on a 2006 population commission survey that scholars widely consider biased. Invited to comment, they suggested lowering the estimate to about 1.5.

    The appeal may have had some impact. Projections in UNPD's revised World Population Prospects in 2010 imply a total fertility rate of 1.70 for 2000 to 2005 and shows births declining after that. The shift is significant: The difference between the two reports' estimates for global population in 2010 is 12.81 million people. "That can almost entirely be attributed to the adjustment of the Chinese population," Cai says.

    Inside China, drama surrounding Chinese statistics extends beyond numbers. In 2006, NBS head Qiu Xiaohua was removed from his post after being investigated for involvement in a pension fund scandal. A Chinese Communist Party commission expelled him from the party for accepting bribes and keeping multiple wives, issuing a statement saying he had exerted "vile social and political influence." In recent years, NBS has become a favorite target of Chinese social media users. In one popular online jibe, commentators referred to the bureau as tongji ju, a homonym for its official name that means "the Bureau of Dicking Around."

    Playing the numbers.

    Critics say data-driven goals—such as China's one child policy touted in a poster have fueled statistical errors.


    Such jabs at the government's lack of transparency are gradually yielding change. Much as Gan's study appears to have provoked NBS to release its own Gini coefficient, outcry over incomplete air pollution data prompted the government in January to begin measuring concentrations of harmful particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter for many Chinese cities (Science, 11 January, p. 124). "The government is under more and more pressure to release data of public interest," Xie says. In 2009, China introduced a regulation stipulating punishment for concocting statistics or encouraging others to do so (Science, 7 August 2009, p. 675). NBS also now regularly sends teams to check the methods of its local branch offices.

    Some scholars say that data quality in their fields is improving. Liu notes that in recent years, when China's environment ministry was strictly monitoring water quality—boosting the incentive for local officials to clean up polluted rivers and lakes—official data nonetheless show a deterioration. For China-oriented researchers accustomed to reading the tea leaves, such depressing statistics are actually an encouraging sign that "the quality of statistics is improving," Liu says. Certain economic calculations are progressing as well, says Holz, who is editing an upcoming special issue of the China Economic Review focused on Chinese statistics. China has long been accused of doctoring its national GDP figures to maintain the impression of continued high economic growth. But although no evidence so far definitively shows that the NBS figures are correct, "nobody so far has been able to prove the NBS data wrong," Holz says.

    But Chinese agencies are still a far cry from their U.S. counterparts, many of which employ scholars on rotation and staff liaisons to facilitate use of government data by outside experts. Ebenstein says that China is "just much more cautious" about letting results fall where they may. It doesn't help that intense pressure to publish makes many Chinese scholars reluctant to share what they have. "Traditionally," Zhao says, "people collect data and hold on to it—and don't let others use it." Xie agrees: "There is no norm for data sharing."

    Upstart surveys

    A growing number of scholars hope to change that culture by challenging what Xie calls NBS's "monopoly." The China Household Finance Survey is just one of several notable efforts to generate independent microlevel data. In the past 5 years, a number of similar longitudinal, nationally representative surveys have cropped up in China to fill the vast data holes. Among them are the Chinese General Social Survey, a project spearheaded by Renmin University's National Survey Research Center in Beijing that queries respondents on questions like religion, social inequality, and health; the Chinese University Student Learning and Development Follow-Up Research project, a survey tracking university students throughout their lives led by Tsinghua University in Beijing; the Chinese Family Panel Studies, a survey of 60,000 respondents on everything from child care to election participation run out of Peking University in Beijing (Science, 30 April 2010, p. 554); and the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), also overseen by researchers at Peking University, which aims to shed light on issues faced by China's rapidly aging population.

    Increased funding for social science research, both at universities and at China's government science institutions, is behind the new wave of surveys, says Zhao, a co–principal investigator for CHARLS. Her survey, which covers 17,500 respondents over age 45, is modeled in part after the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study. It benefited from an $813,000 grant from a program launched by the National Natural Science Foundation of China in 2012 to fund research that generates large data sets. CHARLS aims to release data within a year after a survey round, which is faster than many similar surveys in other countries. The independent surveys can be "used to either validate or check against government statistics," says Xie, who helped design the Chinese Family Panel Studies survey.

    Officials need not instinctively fear the emergence of such upstart fact checkers, says Gan, who is planning to launch a new survey round for the China Household Finance Survey in July that expands his sample size by 50%. When he and colleagues arrived at a high Gini coefficient, he went back to find the study that, years ago, determined that 0.4 is the threshold for instability—and came up with no published papers on the topic. Instead, he found numerous studies suggesting that it is opportunity inequality, and not simply income inequality, that sparks instability. Although Gan believes that China should redistribute wealth, the explanation for its stability, he says, is that people in China "believe that they can move up, and there are also institutions helping them move up." For the moment, at least, "there is this mobility" in China.

    Numbers like the Gini coefficient are not inherently threatening, Gan contends. It all depends on their interpretation.

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

Navigate This Article