Science commercialisation should be the new mantra: Dzinotyiweyi

October 20, 2010

Heneri Dzinotyiweyi (MDC)

Zimbabwe’s minister for science and technology development Heneri Dzinotyiweyi wants Africa’s scientists to adopt a new mantra of commercialisation of their research — indeed, devote about 20 per cent of their science efforts in commercialising and ploughing back the returns into research and development. This was his message at the ministerial round-table on India-Africa science collaboration on Tuesday (19 October).

For so long the buzzword at both national and international fora has been ‘capacity building’ on the continent.  Which is all very well, Dzinotyiweyi, a TWAS fellow and former mathematics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told me and Danny Schaffer from TWAS last night. But by now African scientists have some degree of ‘capacity’ in some science sectors at least, both within the country and among its diaspora. “What is missing is that we do not see significant transformation of our economy despite this capacity building in science”, he said.

“We are now in an era where we should seek to get immediate benefits, especially market benefits [of research],” he added.

Dzinotyiweyi also suggests a reverse thinking on science investment and national wealth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Policymakers are used to thinking in terms of percentage of GDP devoted to investment in science. “If we seriously address commercialisation of science and technology, we can tell on a year-to-year basis how much [a nation’s] GDP has grown due to commercialisation of S and T.”

Dzinotyiweyi uses diamonds as an example. There is nothing so complex about diamond processing techniques that African scientists cannot master and emerge as major players in the international markets, he said.

So far so good. But as India’s experience — a rise in GDP but fall in global hunger index — shows, developing countries still need to go a long way to ensure a more sustainable development that ensures a more equitable distribution of economic gains.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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Not just microbes, missing micronutrients culprits too

October 20, 2010

Countries that have adopted zinc as national diarrhoea treatment programmes (Zinc Task Force, 2007)

Conventional wisdom assumes a clear direct link between a bacterium or virus and the infection it causes. Then how does one explain why the same microbe may not cause much illness in a developed country, but could wreak havoc in a developing country?

The answer lies in deficiency of zinc, a crucial micronutrient (needed by the body in trace amounts). Zinc deficiency weakens immunity against infectious diseases, and could have important implications for not just poor response in developing countries to oral vaccines against polio and cholera; but also other infections such as malaria and tuberculosis, Maharaj Krishan Bhan, secretary of India’s department of biotechnology (DBT), told the TWAS meeting on Tuesday (19 Oct).

“An infectious disease can be initiated by a microbe. But the outcome of an infectious disease in developing countries depends entirely on nutrition, as opposed to a developed country,” Bhan said.

The link between zinc deficiency and weakened immunity came to light thanks to collaboration among nine developing countries that pooled their knowledge together for over a decade; and took part in WHO trials to provide sufficient study data to identify the crucial link between zinc and diarrhoea. Currently, diarrhoea kills over a million under-fives in Africa and Asia.

Zinc deficiency has up to 43 per cent prevalence in India, 68 per cent in Mexico, 80 per cent in Lima (Peru), and 37 per cent in Papua New Guinea. Much of the deficiency in the body and diet can be traced to deficiency in soil — for example, half of arable land in China, India and Turkey is deficient in zinc; and so is 60 per cent in Iran and 70 per cent in Pakistan.

Thanks to the data from different country studies, scientists have now clearly established that zinc supplements can, not only treat diarrhea, but also help reduce pneumonia incidence, and deaths in babies with low birth weight.

Zinc supplements have now been adopted as part of national programmes to treat diarrhoea in several countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

That does not mean the problem has been solved. A study in Bangladesh showed that despite mass media campaigns, children still miss out on zinc treatment. And as Bhan observes, zinc deficiency in pregnant women will have implications for the foetus and the new born.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net


The Toymaker at TWAS

October 20, 2010

Arvind Gupta with his toys (http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/)

“I am a toymaker,” Arvind Gupta cheerfully introduces himself. Gupta, one of India’s leading science popularisers, is being modest. This ex-alumni of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in fact, received a TWAS-ROCASA (Regional Office for Central and South Asia) regional prize on the opening day (18 October) of the TWAS annual meeting. Gupta, a former electrical engineer, has been making toys for the past 25 years and his students science centre  operates from the campus of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune.

Gupta’s passion is toys, more so toys made from trash. He believes the best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it (“children are the last curious cats we have,” he says). In fact, I would urge you to check out his toys website: http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/toys.html.

So what have toys got to do with a meeting of serious and senior scientists? For one, Gupta’s passion for science popularisation is winning accolades both nationally and now internationally. As he told me over dinner last night, there are thousands of bright, inquisitive young minds in developing countries, for whom poverty is the major barrier to a decent education. Their poverty keeps them out of the exciting pursuit of their scientific curiosity and learning as they cannot afford fancy science books or have access to nice school laboratories the urban elite’s children enjoy.

This is where Gupta steps in. His technique of using toys to explain science covers topics from astronomy to beginner’s biology, pressure, light, electricity, magnetism, even ‘Newton Unplugged’ and many more.

Gupta is also a staunch believer in ‘copy left’ philosophy (in which authors forgo copyrights and make their work freely accessible to all.) His website hosts a collection of 2500 science books — his and those that he simply buys and puts up on his website. They have been translated into 13 Indian languages so that poor students in remote areas with no access to well equipped public libraries can read them. As he explains to the original authors, what matters is that their books are being read by hundreds of thousands of poor children with an interest in science. And they end up agreeing with him!!

May Gupta’s tribe increase.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net


Minority report

October 19, 2010

Women in a lab (Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory)

At the registration counter for the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India, this morning, a young volunteer mistakenly assumed that I must have come as a delegate’s spouse.

This reminded me of one of my favourite anecdotes about a French teenager’s description of a science academy as a club of old gentlemen. French physicist and former co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel, the global network of science academies, Yves Quéré wrote in Nature that the teenager unwittingly zeroed in on three problematic features of science academies: few women, few young people and their modus operandi being akin to private clubs.

Shrugging sniggers from men, I will focus on the first point: few women. At this meeting women participants form about a tenth of the entire meeting. This, some women participants assured me, is a generous estimate.

A 2004 report on science careers of Indian women, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, says women form less than 5 per cent of fellows of each of the three major science academies in India: Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

This seems reflective of the more general gender malaise. A 2006 report of the InterAcademy Council says 95 per cent of science academy members world over are men.

In the United States, the proportion of women scientists in the National Academy of Sciences is around seven per cent, and in the UK’s Royal Society only 4.5 per cent.

Recent years have seen repeated calls for more incentives for women in research.

I must say the Philippines is refreshingly ahead of India on this front. The National Academy of Science and Technology in the Philippines has had a woman head for at least two terms.

“Academies must set an example for all of the world to see of welcoming women scientists and engineers to their ranks and treating them as full partners with men,” the IAC report said four years ago.

I am not confident that the academies have taken this seriously yet.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net


India too big for a science straight jacket?

October 18, 2010

Prithviraj Chavan (TWAS)

 

“India’s too big to be straight-jacketed into a single framework for science and technology [S&T],” said India’s science minister Prithviraj Chavan, in an interview for TWAS, ahead of the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India.

Chavan said that “some areas of Indian S&T will continue to develop at a steady pace, while other areas will experience accelerated growth — at times leading to the discovery of ‘leapfrog’ technologies that will have a dramatic impact on the economy”. That would be welcome, but not quite everything.

I do not want to be a wet blanket, but somehow improvement in India’s economy has not translated into equitable growth. Chavan’s facts about seven per cent increase in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is true. Equally true is that the country has slipped down the global hunger index (GHI), ranking 67 out of 88 nations in the 2010 report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October. Home to 42 per cent of underweight children under five years, the country still lags behind Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan in the GHI. Maybe that is why the Indian jacket’s fit in general is not quite so good.

Even on the science front, there have been a couple of disquieting reports of late. One is about the country slipping down (and a nasty fall that too) in the technology index, though some experts did tell SciDev.Net that different methods of measuring science performance could yield a different result.

The latest Goldman Sachs report confirms India lagging on R&D intensity front. Chavan also noted the need to increase, rather double, India’s spending on research and development (R&D) from the present less than one per cent of the national wealth to two per cent. For some reason this “doubling” of India’s R&D spending, as a per cent of its GDP, has not occurred, although one has heard it often, from prime ministers, their scientific advisors and senior scientists.

On the other hand, the Research Councils of UK’s latest report, based on a survey from 1981 to 2008, says India’s scientific output is growing rapidly, and its science citation impact — a measure of how often its papers are cited by other scientists — has doubled. Although India’s share of the global output remains low, it has nevertheless, shot up fast.

That is possibly why the Indian science jacket is a bit tricky to judge at first glance.

What’s your view?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net


TWAS comes to India

October 14, 2010

Welcome to the blog from the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India.

So is this yet another developing countries’ meeting on their science struggles? Not exactly. The mood is upbeat, as several developing countries that have witnessed enormous changes in science since TWAS held its first meeting in Trieste in 1985 can testify.

Take Hyderabad, for example. A somewhat sedate city when TWAS was founded over two decades ago, Hyderabad today is host to cutting-edge biology institutes such as the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics; and a global biotechnology and information technology hub. Brazil, China, Rwanda and South Africa have similar success stories to tell.

TWAS meetings are changing too.

Their initial major goals were to provide a forum where scientists from the developing world could discuss critical issues of common concern and showcase their science, and to create a bridge between scientists and science policymakers.

 

TWAS's 1st international conference on 'South-South and South-North Cooperation in Sciences' (5-10 July 1985)

 

The second TWAS meeting was held in Beijing, with 150 participants from 50 countries. The Beijing meeting featured in Nature as one of a handful of scientific meetings in the second half of the 20th century that had a significant impact on scientific discourse.

TWAS 2010 will have 350 participants from 54 countries. The emphasis is shifting to strengthening the research–policy interface, expanding South-South collaboration and on the work of young scientists. There is growing concern, too, that discussions need to focus more on countries and scientists that have yet to fully participate in the growing scientific capabilities of developing countries.

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh will open the meeting, followed by an Africa–India ministerial round table. Other key developing countries’ concerns on the agenda include tuberculosis, typhoid vaccine and zinc deficiency. And there is other exciting science stuff — I personally like the sound of munching black holes (yummy!) and growing galaxies.

SciDev.Net blog will be updating you daily,  so please watch this space.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net


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