ESOF ends with appeal to care more about developing countries

July 24, 2008

On the last day of Third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF-3), participants gave particular attention to developing countries.

In the morning, a Building Networks session – titled ‘How to Support Science Journalists in Developing Countries’ – was organised by German Science Journalists’ Association (WPK) with a panel including Jan Lublinski (Chair) of WPK, Nadia El Awady of Arab Science Journalists’ Association (ASJA), Egypt, Gervais Mbarga, University of Yaounde Cameroon, Valeria Román from Clarín of Argentina, David Dickson from SciDev.Net and Diran Onifade of the African Federation of Science Journalists.

David Dickson’s presentation on the role of SciDev.Net in promoting science communication capacity-buildings in developing countries was paid particular attention.

The panels first presented the situation. While science journalism remains a big challenge in the developing world, there has been a major progress. More than 20 science journalism associations have been built or being done so; there have been two SjCoop (science journalist cooperation) by the World Federation of Science journalists (WFSJ); and there are regional science journalism federations. A group of science journalists in Africa, Latin America and Asia have risen up to be internationally famous.

But the situation remains serious, and participants discussed there is need to better fit the need of the developing countries, the efforts between the developed world and the developing countries to tweak together are to be diversified and the science communication workshops in developing countries must be better evaluated. One particular question is if the general situation of developing countries cannot be changed – say, the attitude of editor who continues to refuse science reporting – how can we evaluate the effect of science journalism capacity-buildings in these countries.

In the afternoon, the Bosch Foundation gave a summary of the feedback it has received from the journalist fellows it brought to ESOF. Participants said there should be more sessions on the developing countries. They also talked about the difference between ESOF and AAAS’ annual meeting, saying the latter has a wider worldwide perspective and a more professional public relations team.

In my presentation, I suggested that we cannot ignore Europe and developing countries. It is ESOF. So we should have more sessions on the role of Europe in helping the developing countries.

The five-day ESOF meeting ended without big celebrations, but attracted nearly 2,000 participants.

Jia Hepeng, China coordinator, SciDev.Net

Scientoons anyone?

July 23, 2008

This is a scientoon –  a cartoon on science and technology that helps you look at science with a dose of humour.

ESOF 2008 devoted an entire session on scientoons that have emerged as an innovative way to spread science messages. For a non-scientist who may just have a passing interest in a specific scientific topic, scientoons are a way to grab their attention and put a piece of information across quickly.

The ESOF session on “Scientoonics : a novel way to learn science having fun”  was put together by a group of ardent ‘scientoonists’ from India: Manoj Patairiya from the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) in Delhi; Pradeep Srivastava from the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow; and Abhay Kothari, a designer in Ahmedabad.

For ‘scientoonists’, their art is not only about making a caricature that draws a smile but also provides information about new research, subject, data or concept in a jiffy.

So a scientoon is slightly different in its structure from a cartoon. A cartoon has two elements: a caricature and a satire at the bottom or in the form of a balloon. A scientoon has an additional third element: a box that contains the science information that needs to be communicated.

And the scientoon need not be confined to a print magazine or daily.  Or for that matter a research journal or a popular science magazine.

India’s NCSTC has produced radio skits on science or ‘radio scientoons’, puppet shows on science or ‘puppet scientoons’ and ‘multimedia scientoon’ on the internet and video.

It is now trying to develop theme-based scientoon strips, films, books to suit a variety of audiences, including persons with special needs, such as ‘Braille scientoon’ for the visually challenged.

So just let your imagination flow and begin your scientoon.

Dr. Manoj Patairiya is a science writer based in New Delhi.

India debates, but IAEA cool

July 21, 2008

It turns out that while the Indian government has tied itself into knots explaining the Indo-US nuclear deal to Indian political parties, and is seeking a vote of confidence in the Parliament right now, at least some International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials seem to be a little more relaxed.

“I have not yet read the document,” commented Diane Fischer, senior safeguards analyst at IAEA, after a presentation on Monday (July 21) at the Euroscience Open Forum on how the agency tracks nuclear smugglers. A bit surprising given that entire rules are being re-written in the deal, and one would have expected at least some passing academic interest from IAEA officials in the matter.

Fisher was asked by Indian journalists about whether certain IAEA conditions on broader access to nuclear facilities apply to India-specific safeguards in the nuclear deal signed between the two countries in March 2006.

Since then, and even weeks before the signing, there has been much debate in the country about India-specific clauses in the deal, which basically allow India, which has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to buy nuclear fuel from the US for its civilian reactors. This would normally have not been permissible under the US Hyde Act.

After many a hand-wringing among strategic and nuclear science analysts over the India-specific clauses and umpteen changes in the text, officials from India’s Department of Atomic Energy went to IAEA headquarters in Vienna last week to seek approval of the deal. The board of governors at IAEA will meet on August 1 to decide on the issue.

Back home, the coalition government in India tottered, with the Communist parties withdrawing support to the coalition government.

At the time of writing the blog, the result of the Indian parliamentary debate and vote of confidence is yet to be out. And looks like not all IAEA safeguard officials are aware of what the document holds.

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Atomic detectives and the mystery of garden pellets

July 21, 2008

Here is (rather was) a case straight from an Agatha Christie mystery, ripe for a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to step in and solve, at least the way a nuclear forensic scientist Klaus Mayer, from JRC’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU),  narrated it at the  Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona on Monday (July 21).

A telephone call about 14 pellets of radioactive material in a garden in Germany last year. Who put them there, where did they steal it from and what sinister task were they meant for?

A crack team of ‘atomic detectives’ in Germany started unravelling the mystery. They were specialists in nuclear forensics that forms the backbone of nuclear safeguards and tracking illicit trafficking of nuclear material, both causes of rising global concern.

But back to our Christie mystery first. The pellets were sent to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre – at 6.30 p.m. local time in the evening, apparently a good time for the police to send radioactive pellets to a laboratory.

It triggered a nuclear forensic investigation to identify the origin of the material and its intended use. A series of tests on the samples’ compositions, isotopes present, structure, impurities and products formed after radioactive decay gave vital clues.

The pellets contained 3.5 percent enriched uranium. It was relatively pure uranium – the degree of purity a clue to the kind of facility used. The pellets contained some fine markings on one surface and digits on the other – again a clue to the kind of reactor used. The overall conclusion was the pellets were rejects of quality control procedures.

More investigations and more clues.

The findings were referred to an international database to check when the pellets were last purified and separated. So the pellets were diverted from the atomic plant after sintering and gravity.

To cut a long story short, this one had a harmless ending. The pellets were from a German reactor. And the garden owner was under psychiatric treatment, a drug addict who ended with the pellets during some drugs dealing and decided to come clean through a telephone call.

It is not clear how or since when nuclear pellets are being traded for drugs, but maybe that can be addressed some other day. But India can vouch some strange things do happen – way back in the 1990s, a disgruntled employee at an atomic power plant near Chennai (former Madras) took away some rods of radioactive material and dumped them in the Cooum river in the city to express his irritation!!

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Journal access schemes need to change

July 21, 2008

An organiser of a world’s major programme to help developing countries’ researchers access international journals agrees there is a need to make adjustments.

At the third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF-3) in Barcelona, a session on “Bridging the Digital Divide by 2015”, chaired by SciDev.Net director David Dickson on July 19, discussed how HINARI, AGORA and OARE, three unique public-private partnerships, are working in line with the UN’s millennium development goals to provide the developing world with access to critical research.

HINARI or Health Information Access to Research Initiative provides online access to one of the world’s largest collections of biomedical and health literature. Under the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO), over 5,000 journals are available to health institutions in 108 countries, benefiting many thousands of health workers and researchers.

AGORA, or Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA), enables developing countries to gain access to information in the fields of food, agriculture, environmental science and related social sciences. AGORA provides a collection of 1,275 core journals to institutions in 108 countries.

OARE, or Online Access to Research in the Environment (OARE), enables 108 low income countries to gain free access to over 2,000 environmental sciences journals.

Thousands of developing country researchers, such as Mohamed Jalloh from General Hospital of Grand Yoff in Senegal, a panel speaker, have benefitted from the programme.

However, there are problems. Read the rest of this entry »

Former UK scientific advisor comments on climate change and development

July 21, 2008

Sir David King, former scientific adviser to the UK government, dismisses fears that asking developing countries to cut their carbon emissions is a plot to curb their development.

At a media briefing on 18 July at the third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF-3) in Barcelona, King, currently director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, warned that climate change mingled with population explosion, would bring a series of global challenges, ranging from food and energy security to increased terrorism. The world must rise up now to act against climate change by reducing emissions, he said.

King, however, does not think cutting emissions will curb the development of the emerging economies such as China and India. “If your development repeats our energy intensive road in the past, the development is both a disaster to environment and a big threat to energy safety,” he warns

He also pointed out that levels of permissible emissions considered safe to the environment were not decided by politicians and negotiators, but by scientists at IPCC who have reached global consensus.

“It is not European nations which pressure on China’s development by asking it to reduce emissions. This (pressuring) is mainly done by the United States, which until now did not accept any emission reduction obligation. So it is not a plot at all,” King said.

Jia, Hepeng, China coordinator of SciDev.Net

European nations a barrier to commercialise China’s GM

July 21, 2008

A leading Chinese scientist has appealed to European nations to adopt a more positive attitude on genetically modified (GM) food because their views affect policies in countries such as China that urgently needs to decide on whether to commercialise GM crops to feed its hungry people.

“The attitudes of the Chinese policymakers are deeply influenced by your views and I appeal to you to reconsider your stance so that modern agricultural technologies can benefit more people in the developing countries,” says Yang Huanming, director of Beijing Genomics Institute and one of China’s leading scientists in human and rice genomics. Huanming was speaking at a 18 July session organised by European Action on Global Life Sciences (EAGLES) at the ESOF meet in Barcelona.

Yang’s remark was made days after the Chinese government approved of a huge genetic engineering project to improve plants’ nutrition, and their tolerance to drought and floods.

Details of the research project have not been revealed, but the official China Daily reported the funding for the long-term research programme (2006-2020) could be up to 20 billion yuan (US$2.92 billion), with about 20 percent of the funds used for biosafety inspection and infrastructure construction.

Yang believes that the big research funding programmes will make the approval of GM crops – especially GM rice , several varieties of which are under pre-commercialisation trials in China – easier. “The big research programme, plus the softer attitude of some European leaders on GM crops, may push ahead the application of GM technologies, but there are not without barriers,” Yang says.

He told SciDev.Net that one of major barriers is fears on biosafety raised by the environment organisations such as Greenpeace, which he described as a “export” from Europe to China.

“They say the majority of Chinese agricultural products will be polluted by the modified genes and so this will seriously influence Chinese exports to Europe,” Yang says. “This claim is threatening enough to some policymakers although there is no scientific evidence for the “gene pollution”.

David McConnell, a professor of biotechnology at Trinity College Dublin and co-vice chairman of EAGLES, welcomed Yang’s appeals, saying the voices from the developing world would help scientists in Europe deliver more correct approaches, such as the scientific basis of GM foods, to the European public.

“The widely cherished GM-free organic farming in Europe relies on huge government and financial supports and cannot be realized among small farmers in the developing countries who urgently need modern agricultural biotechnologies to improve their productivities and reduce their inputs,” McConnell told SciDev.Net.

Jia Hepeng, China coordinator, SciDev.Net

Data ‘tsunami’ from the world’s largest atom smasher

July 21, 2008

European scientists are gearing themselves up for what they describe as a ‘data tsunami’ from the world’s largest atom-smashing project, which researchers hope will unlock some of the biggest unsolved puzzles about the universe.

Results from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN’s) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, the world’s biggest scientific collaboration in particle physics, are expected to roll out this year to provide insights into some fundamental unsolved problems such as the origin, evolution and composition of the universe

Indian physicists are excited too – they have contributed hardware, software and skilled manpower to evaluate some of the sub-systems in the project. The Centre for Advanced Technology (CAT) at Indore in central India, under the Department of Atomic Energy, is India’s nodal agency for the LHC project that marks a sound record of collaboration between CERN and India.

The results are poised to change our views of the universe in a profound way, says Tejinder Virdee, professor of physics at the Imperial College, London. Virdee gave a keynote lecture at the ESOF meeting in Barcelona on Friday (18 July).

The LHC, located at the Franco-Swiss border, is the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It has two giant superconducting magnets, 27 kilometres in girth and cooled to two degrees above absolute zero of temperature.

Two beams of protons – positively charged ions – will circulate in these rings for several hours, smashing into each other head-on, at an energy level of 14 Tera-electron volts, higher by a factor of seven compared to current levels.

Four large detectors will record the debris from the collisions. The collisions are expected to recreate matter as it was billionths of seconds after the Big Bang.

A huge avalanche of data is expected, ESOF delegates were told. The gigantic task ahead for physicists will begin with tracking, finding and identifying the particles.

Scientists will next reconstruct the data and use computer simulations for analysis of the complex information.

Computer simulations of the huge volume of data and the high collision rates means a massive computing capacity. The task is no longer being done solely by CERN, with scientists realizing the importance of collaboration at such times. Instead, it is being distributed to 11 computing centers round the world.

Scientists are not taking any chances either. A second copy of the raw data and massive data reconstruction sets will be stored in Spain.

The second tier of copy data means an additional 120 computing centres in 35 countries.

Little wonder then the expected massive data is being compared to an avalanche and, much worse, a tsunami.

T V Padma, South Asian coordinator, SciDev.Net

Europe keen to project its science in China, India

July 21, 2008

For the first time, a group of Asian science, health and environment journalists, mainly from China, India and Japan, are covering the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Barcelona,  thanks to fellowships by Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation.

This marks an attempt by the Bosch Foundation to expand the science journalist exchange programme to countries beyond Europe.  For the first ESOF event in Stockholm in 2004, the foundation provided fellowships to German journalists to cover the event, as well as the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in 2005.

For the second ESOF conference in Munich in 2006, the foundation added a bilateral touch to the programme, offering reverse fellowships to ten US and three Canadian journalists to cover the event.

This year, the geographical outreach for the fellowships has expanded to Asia, with eight from China, nine from India, four from Japan journalists. They join 20 colleagues from Germany and ten from India.

Rainer Hoell, science programme officer from Robert Foundation, says they are open to the idea of expanding the fellowship programme to Africa and other regions.  May the tribe increase!!

Journalist exchange apart, Europe is increasingly, recognising the emergence of China and India as major science and technology competitors and the importance of projecting its scientific achievements and scope for collaboration in these countries, says James Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association.

The continent is somewhat concerned that the US has stolen a lead over it in science and technology collaborations in India and China, and is now keen to make up for it.

T V Padma, South Asia coordinator, SciDev.Net

Vaccines for drug addiction

July 19, 2008

Scientists are turning to vaccines to combat addiction to drugs and tobacco, and imaging the brain to understand what drives a person to lose their will to say a ‘no’ to these substances.

Lest you think this is a problem of developed countries, think again! National surveys in India, for example, have shown a rising incidence of HIV in injecting drug users (IDUs) in cities such as Chennai, while the epidemic has been driven by IDUs in Thailand. Similarly, China has one of the highest smoking rates in the world.

Nora Volkow, director of National Institute of Drug Abuse at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, US, who is attending the ESOF 2008 conference in Barcelona, says NIDA is funding phase II trials on vaccines to combat cocaine and nicotine addiction.

NIDA is also conducting animal studies on a vaccine to counter addiction to heroin that is widely used by IDUs in countries with a high incidence of HIV.

Molecules such as cocaine are too small to stimulate formation of antibodies produced by the body’s immune system to fight foreign substances. Researchers therefore tag cocaine to bigger protein molecules -for example, proteins involved in drug transport – to create antibodies.

Animal studies had shown cocaine-induced antibodies interfered with the movement of the drug to the brain, and eliminated the drug’s effect on it.

Volkow and Rafael Maldonado, professor of pharmacology at the University of Pompeu Fabra, Spain, who also researches on addiction, say scientists are also closer to finding the exact mechanism behind drug addiction. “Different drugs enter through different doors, but they finally come to the same place,” she observes.

Scientists are now looking at ways to block the general, non-specific mechanisms leading to addiction, and zero in on the specific molecules that play a role in addiction.

“We have identified some components that represent a specific mechanism for drug addiction and could lead to new drugs to cure addiction,” she says.

An area in the brain called the cortex, which plays a key role in memory, attention, self-awareness, consciousness, thought and language, is involved in the addiction process. A specific front area in the cortex normally regulates an area in the brain that is involved in the sensation of pleasure.

Disruption of this area in the cortex makes a person lose his or her ability to exert one’s will and resist drugs.

“We often hear of addicts saying they are not even aware they had taken a drug and were not in control of their actions,” points out Volkow.

The ongoing vaccine studies and advances in brain imaging could help throw some solutions to a problem that has a social and economic dimension, says Maldonado.

T V Padma, South Asia coordinator, SciDev.Net

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