Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ISRO’s Mission Mars set for tricky manoevre.

In football season, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is playing celestial soccer with its maiden mission to Mars, Mangalyaan. Today at 4.30 pm it will gently nudge India’s Mars Orbiter Mission closer to Red Planet! It is a risky operation and if things go wrong the Rs 450 crore mission launched on November 5, 2013 from Sriharikota could well get lost, extinguishing the dreams of a billion plus people of India! Almost twenty percent of the 51 global mission launched so far towards Mars have been lost en-route. Speaking to Pallava Bagla, ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan said `it is not a routine operation, great precision is required in calculating and correctly firing in the exact direction, the four small rocket engines on board the spacecraft’ adding Team ISRO is `confident’ of executing the commands such that Manglayaan hits `Bulls Eye’. In the process going ahead of its regional rival China in this 21 st century space race to reach Mars. ISRO confirms, India's mission to Mars is healthy and has covered about 466 million kilometre or about 70% of its treacherous journey, out of its arduous 680 million km journey to Mars. For the last six months after it departed from Earth almost like the demon `Kumbhakaran’ from the epic Ramayana it has been in a state of induced slumber. Today after waking it at 4.30 PM its rocket engines will be fired for a mere 16 seconds. It is a tricky manoeuvre and it has to be kicked it in the right direction. Solar wind yes there is something called solar wind, which makes inter-planetary spacecraft drift from course. The spacecraft can easily get lost if the firing goes awry. In this soccer season, the high flying Mangalyaan will be given just that gentle nudge by Bangalore so that it nets its goal on September 24, 2014 when it is supposed to rendezvous with the Red Planet. It will be first re-oriented and then commands that have been pre-loaded on to its computers will kick in to initiate the sequence. There are still a few more hazardous steps before ISRO can strike a `hole-in-one’ on its mission mars. Mangalyaan is currently travelling with a velocity of 28 km/s or about 100,800 kilometres per hour and is today under the influence of the Sun. It is now the fastest and farthest ever-traveling Indian object. It is so far away that it takes a radio signal almost 5 minutes to travel from Bangalore to the Mangalyaan. To be netted by Mars it has to reach within 440-560 km from the surface of Mars after its epic marathon. If it does India will be the third country in the world to achieve such an exacting target on the maiden journey. Pallava Bagla

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Big medical break through from India, After genome, the proteome: Bangalore lab maps human protein

From: The Indian Express Dated: May 29, 2014 Title: After genome, the proteome: Bangalore lab maps human protein By: Pallava Bagla

Meet India's new science minister -- Physicians Take the Helm at India's Science and Health Ministries

From: Science Title: Physicians Take the Helm at India's Science and Health Ministries Dated: May 27, 2014 By: Pallava Bagla Photo: Pallava Bagla All smiles on the first day. Science minister Jitendra Singh (center) has a word with top deputies Shailesh Nayak, secretary for earth sciences, and K. VijayRaghavan, secretary for biotechnology.

Indo-Pak dialogue -- SOS from monsoon chief: bring El-Nino on table

From: The Indian Express Dated: May 26, 2014 Title: SOS from monsoon chief: bring El-Nino on table By: Pallava Bagla

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Science in the time of elections: the BJP takes inspiration from a Muslim scholar; Congress forgets its `modern temples’; AAP sweeps aside ghost of Kudankulam!

Pallava Bagla Science and Technology may not form part of the daily vitriol that is spewed in election speeches, but scientists need not despair. In the science section of their political manifestoes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) draws inspiration from an Islamic scholar, the Congress has almost forgotten about Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘modern temples’ and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has failed to even mention its allergy to nuclear energy. The fruits of indigenous science and technology, the 1.4 million electronic voting machines (EVM) made in India, form the bedrock for the efficient management of the general election. The indelible Indian ink on voters’ fingers, flaunted in selfies everywhere, is another great Indian innovation. This brings us to the question: how do science, technology and innovation fare in the various manifestoes of political parties? Space in manifestoes The Congress, whose first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru coined the phrase ‘scientific temper’ and described dams and power plants as ‘modern temples,’ in its 2014 election manifesto barely even has a paragraph on science and technology (S&T). It merely says: ‘The Indian National Congress will increase the annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2 per cent of GDP. This has to come from both government and industry. Steps will be taken to encourage the corporate sector to invest in Research and Development.’ This promise of doubling the budget, made possibly for the first time in 1989 by Rajiv Gandhi and repeated over the last decade, still remains a distant dream. In contrast, the BJP has devoted more than two full pages on issues relating to S&T. The party, often described as ‘Hindu nationalist,’ in the manifesto’s preface draws inspiration from and quotes an 11th Century Spanish Muslim scholar Al-Andalusi, saying that ‘the first nation to have cultivated science was India.’ The BJP promises an ‘innovative and technologically-driven society’ in its pledge. Not surprisingly it says ‘India has been a knowledge economy and has been a leader in S&T from ancient times’ and adds that the ‘BJP recognises the need to create an ecosystem for fundamental research and innovation …scientific education and technology needs to be encouraged, promoted, practised and leveraged with renewed vision and vigour.’ This should be music for India’s vast science, technology and innovation network. The BJP promises to build world class regional centres of excellence in the fields of nanotechnology, materials science, and brain research, seeking to establish ‘institutes of technology for rural development.’ It also aims to establish a central university dedicated to ‘Himalayan technology,’ whatever that means. However, the AAP, which has captured the imagination of the middle class and many well-meaning scientists, has not even mentioned in its manifesto what it promises to do for S&T. The section has been swept aside completely, probably by the party’s symbol. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has about a third of a page on S&T and promises to ‘enhance public funding of indigenous research in science and technology to 2 per cent of GDP as against 0.8 per cent to promote self-reliance.’ True to its DNA, the CPI(M) says it will ‘stop training and orientation of Indian Patent office personnel by U.S. and European Patent offices.’ Genetically Modified Organisms: A hot potato The Congress does not mention what it plans to do with policies relating to genetically modified organisms (GM), even though the party’s nominee in 2010, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, imposed an indefinite moratorium on the release of genetically modified Bt Brinjal. Taking a highly precautionary position on this issue, the BJP says: ‘Genetically Modified foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.’ This seems to fly in the face of the so-called success of the much touted Narendra Modi-led ‘Gujarat model,’ where India’s first GM crop, the Bt Cotton, has been a ‘runaway success.’ Even the AAP takes a cautious stand on the issue. ‘We will regulate genetically modified crops to ensure that safety to food, human health and environment is ensured before the introduction of irreversible technologies,’ the party’s manifesto says. If the manifestoes are an indication of which way the wind is blowing, the going may not be easy for the widespread diffusion of GM crops in India. Power of the atom speaks loud The future of his government was at stake when, in 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted nuclear energy; yet, in the 2014 manifesto, it appears merely as a passing footnote. The manifesto states: ‘We will give a new thrust to new and renewable energy, including hydel, solar and nuclear energy.’ What a climb down. Today, we do not even know if Rahul Gandhi loves or hates nuclear energy or whether he even knows the difference between ‘fission and fusion energy,’ as he has never spoken about it openly. In contrast, the AAP, whose party ideologue advocate Prashant Bhushan stridently argued in the Supreme Court against the opening of the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, does not even mention what its policy is on issues related to nuclear energy, despite nominating the activists who spearheaded the agitation against the Kudankulam atomic reactors as the party’s candidates for the election to the Lok Sabha. Even the CPI(M) that pulled out of the United Progressive Alliance says it will be ‘revising the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, will not import foreign nuclear reactors, and pursue self-reliance in civilian nuclear energy based on domestic uranium and thorium reserves.’ The BJP has thrown up a surprise in the area of nuclear energy by seeking to ‘study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it,’ even though party chief Rajnath Singh and prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi have clarified that there will be no ‘rethink’ on the policy related to ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. On the side of nuclear energy the BJP asserts more than once that it will ‘invest in India’s indigenous thorium technology programme,’ while also stating that it ‘will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear program, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence.’ True to its form, the party also cites the presence of ‘vast thorium deposits’ which would form part of its ‘consideration’ when it decides on the Sethusamudram channel, which might cut across the much revered, yet mythical, Ram Setu in the Palk Strait, off Tamil Nadu. A close reading between the lines of the BJP manifesto suggests that the import of light water reactors from the U.S., Russia and France could be in for a major reassessment. There is, however, unanimity among most mainstream parties in accepting that India cannot abandon its pursuit of fission power. So, the country’s abiding love affair with the power of the atom remains steadfast. Science matters While S&T may not form part of the daily vitriol that is spewed in election speeches, Indian scientists need not despair as it at least matters to the ‘big two’ of the political spectrum. The Congress in its manifesto may not have found enough space for S&T, but its leaders say they still believe in the sage advice of Jawaharlal Nehru: ‘It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy … the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.’ But the youth of today seek to hear a more catchy tune; hence the BJP manifesto, which has the stamp of physicist Murli Manohar Joshi, chairman of its manifesto committee, states: ‘India innovates and India leads.’ When the dust finally settles, the true winner is the voter who casts his vote on the simple briefcase-sized EVM: the hallmark of a free and fair election. (Pallava Bagla is a correspondent for Science and the Science Editor of NDTV. The views expressed are personal.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Halfway mark for the Parliament still elusive but India's Mission Mars does that with aplomb.

Landmark day for India's mission to Mars travels more than 300 million km Amidst the excitement whether some political party will cross the halfway mark to form the government or not, yet in this busy election season India's maiden mission to mars 'Mangalyaan' crossed the halfway mark of its arduous journey on April 9, 2014 morning at 9.50 am. Launched on November 5, 2013 -- well before elections were announced -- it has travelled some 337.5 million kilometers till now and is expected to rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 by when the new Prime Minister will greet it as it has become the farthest any Indian object has ever travelled. Made at a mere cost of Rs 450 crores the cheapest inter planetary mission ever to be conceived by humans. The main objective is to look for signatures of life on mars and to fulfill India's deep desire to beat China in reaching Mars. The latter seems on track as really nothing can rely stop it from reaching near Mars thanks to the nature of planetary forces and the precise orbit injection by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Some 500 scientists toiled day and night to ready this craft in a record 15 months. The journey to Mars is tough to say the least till date 51 missions have been launched and 27 have failed. If India reaches Mars it would be the first 'country' to achieve it on its maiden flight. Till date only USA, Russia and the European Space Agency have successfully reached the Red Planet. The journey that began from the Red Fort with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making that clarion call on August 15, 2012 to now when the spacecraft is halfway to its journey to the Red Planet it has been stupendous marathon run like a 100 meter dash. Go ISRO go boldly where no Indian has ever gone before! Pallava Bagla

Friday, April 4, 2014

Kudos to ISRO as it creates history with 25 successful launches in a row

The Indian space agency made history today by launching the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV successfully 25 times in a row, bringing India one step closer to its very global positioning system or the `desi’ GPS.
The 44 meter, 320 ton, PSLV rocket successfully lifted off into the clear blue sky at 5.14 PM from Sriharikota and 19 minutes later accurately placed India's second navigation satellite in space. A jubilant K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO said `PSLV in its 25 th successive successful flight precisely injected India’s second regional navigation satellite.’ This latest launch brings the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) one step closer to start the Indian version of a satellite navigation system sometimes dubbed the `desi GPS’. Similar in function to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) but regional in coverage. India will be the sixth country in the world to have this system. This is vitally necessary in times of war since most modern precision bombs and missiles depend on accurate positioning. Some may naturally ask if this satellite navigation system by India were working would it have been possible to locate the lost Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, unfortunately the answer is no. If you are tech savvy then getting lost may soon become very difficult. India is progressing to install its own satellite navigation system, a fleet of 7 satellites that help provide precise locations within 20 meters. Till now most of us have relied on the American GPS or the Global Positioning System, very popular on smart phones but not good enough for military applications as it can’t be relied upon for seamless coverage in times of war and the in-built error makes it un-suitable for precision strikes. India becomes the 6 nation to embark on this after America, Russia, Europe, China and Japan. The constellation of Indian satellites will continuously beam down data that can be read by special hand held instruments which when calibrated using sensors based on the ground can help pin point location. India’s satellite system is designed to cover a region of about 1500 km on either side of the border, essentially covering the geographical region from where India has a perception of threat, both Pakistan and China are within the footprint. Today in its 26 flight India’s workhorse rocket the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV hoisted a 1432 kilogram special satellite that carries on it a precision clock called an atomic clock and a set of other home-made instruments that beam down accurate time and location data. The entire fleet of seven satellites is likely to be ready by 2016 when Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will become operational. The first Indian navigation satellite launched last year in July is working normally. Late last year the PSLV had successfully sent India’s maiden mission to Mars the Mangalyaan, which is healthy and rapidly closing on the Red Planet and in a few months it will rendezvous with the Red Planet. ISRO is now gearing for the first experimental flight of its largest rocket the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III that will be launched sometime in June this from Sriharikota and will flight test India’s first crew module. Pallava Bagla in Bangalore

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Climate Change: IPCC finally acknowledges its `Himalayan Blunder’ says its glacier melt rate was `erroneous’!

Amidst the doomsday scenario presented by the UN panel on climate change there is one silver lining, at least the glaciers in the Himalayas are not disappearing for at least a couple of centuries! The billion plus people who inhabit the fertile flood plains of the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra can breathe easy that the rivers which nurture them are not drying up anytime soon. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had earlier asserted that the glaciers in the high Himalayas also dubbed the `third pole’ would disappear by 2035. Now in the latest report released in Yokohama, Japan on March 31, 2014 it says “it is virtually certain that these projections [the current glacier melt rates] are more reliable than an earlier ERRONEOUS assessment of complete disappearance by 2035.” What a climb down from the highly alarmist situation that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in another 11 years to a point where it acknowledges they will be around much more than our lifetimes! I am not a climate change denialist but am certainly against the trumpeting of exaggerated claims many a times made only on the basis of extrapolations of mathematical models. The 2007 error had badly tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC. Now Chris Field the lead scientist for yesterday’s report acknowledges that the Himalayan glacier error was `really serious’. According to the French news agency the AFP, in the massive Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45 percent by 2100, if Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius. Under a far warmer scenario of 3.7 C, the reduction would be 68 percent. Field says `we've tried to double check and triple check and quadruple check everything in this report’. In its 2007 or the last assessment the IPCC had committed what came to be known as the `Himalayan Blunder or Glacier-gate’ when it asserted that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” It had then relied on un-published grey literature. In 2009, against odds I had pursued an investigation that the UN panel on climate change had got its facts very wrong on the state of glaciers in the Himalayas. That was a heady time for climate change, all eyes were on the Copenhagen climate summit and there I was, researching a story that went totally against the prevailing tide. Believe me it was tough, very tough to even conceive a story that would question the claims of that `holy cow’ of climate change, the IPCC. I had heard subdued murmurs since 2007 that IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim was absurd, but like glaciers, glaciologists also move slowly in publishing their results and it was the explosive Indian government report that gave me the right peg to hang the story, I had been researching for almost two years! I was attacked for having written what we did in 2009 and the chairman of the IPCC Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri even dubbed the glacier report as `voodoo science’. In 2009 then India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may be not melting as much due to global warming as it was widely feared. Jairam accused the IPCC of being "alarmist" he told Science, “we don’t need to write the epitaph for the glaciers, but we need a concentrated scientific and policy focus on the Himalayan ecosystem since the truth is incredibly complex.” Dr Pachauri dismissed the Indian government report prepared by seasoned glaciologist V K Raina as "voodoo science" and said the IPCC was a "sober body" whose work was verified by governments. Subsequently as part of the major reform process the IPCC `strengthened’ its procedures and was even subjected to an extended probe by the Inter Academy Council from Netherlands. It was not easy and as a journalist I was attacked for ehat I had written. Richard Stone, then Asia Editor for Science said in 2010 `in the weeks that followed, Pallava’s coverage did indeed draw criticism. IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri expressed `disappointment’, while far less polite remarks came from scientists who seemed to believe that the IPCC report was sacrosanct. Pallava has said that all of his skills as a journalist were tested, but in fact he never flinched.’ As a mark of recognition the story fetched me what some dub as the `Oscar of Science Journalism’, the prestigious Perlman Award for 2010 given by the highly regarded American Geophysical Union (AGU). The report of the Perlman Award selection committee said it “applauds Bagla's articles for addressing "a very serious issue in the earth sciences. His articles serve as a reminder to journalists to question sources, to think harder about the agendas and ideas of those people about whom they are reporting, and to stop the steamroller of opinions or ideas when the facts just don't back them up. Although Bagla's articles reveal embarrassing foibles of scientists, ultimately they also illustrate science's ability to self-correct." I was honoured for two articles. “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds,” published in Science, which explored the dissent among glaciologists about a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would imminently disappear. “Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake,’” published by BBC News, that investigated the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error. Yet all was not lost as there is a huge silver lining in all this heartburn since in less than 10 weeks after we wrote about the exaggerated melt rate in 2009, the IPCC formally gave its now famous and till date only `regret’. Now five years later it has finally accepted that it was an `erroneous’ assertion. All internal procedures failed at IPCC and it was left to a journalist to show a mirror to this august body of 2500 of the world’s best climate scientists. Self-correction is such an important part of practicing good science. Pallava Bagla

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Polio battle won, war far from over for India! A tale of two assassinations and lessons from past mistakes

If only the Indian government had heeded advice given by seasoned Indian polio researchers, it is foreseeable that the country’s war against polio could have been won long ago, and more significantly, astounding as it may sound, but 3 million children could have been saved from being crippled for life. A walk down memory lane also reveals that the twin assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi pushed polio eradication back by decades. Even as we celebrate the success of the possible elimination of polio from India, a quick reality check: did the country fail its own people by not heeding to sound Indian advice, relying instead on overseas advisors unfamiliar with the ground realities of India? The hard-fought battle against polio has almost been won by India and on March 27, 2014 the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally `certified’ India and the South-East Asian region to be `polio free’. Indeed a great landmark since after small pox and Guinea worm this would be the third human disease whose end is near in India. The disease burden was astounding, studies in India in the 1980s suggests that in 1978 every day some 500 children or almost 200,000 children were being infected with polio annually and soon when the world is free from polio every year some $ 2 billion could be saved. Participating in the celebration on India’s victory over polio Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on February 11, 2014 rightfully said `this is indeed a historic day, it is a day that we have worked for tirelessly … as we celebrate three years without polio’. The road ahead is still bumpy. Experts like Dr Nata Menabde, WHO Representative in India warn `this progress in polio eradication cannot afford to pause and we cannot rest on our laurels’. Also, unbelievable as it may sound, but the main weapon against polio in India, the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV), itself poses one of the biggest hurdles in the `end game’. There are also many lessons to be learnt from the past, from the burden of delayed implementation of effective strategies to how the sound advice given by Indian experts was consistently disregarded by the Indian government. These are painful lessons, for they led to the unfortunate and needless paralysis of some 3 million children due to polio. All this led to over a decade’s setback in polio elimination. Interestingly the twin assassinations of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a few years later of Rajiv Gandhi also became a severe impediment in tackling this crippling disease. The immediate battle against polio has been won but the war is far from over as the `endgame’ against polio is going to be tough. India’s neighbours like Pakistan and Afghanistan still harbour the wild polio virus and this deadly `tiny terrorist’ could well sneak in across the heavily armed borders. Ill-advised plans On advice from global experts in 1978 Indian government chose to use OPV as the preferred weapon to tackle polio, choosing it over the more effective but relatively more expensive Injectable Polio Vaccine (IPV). Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad recalls that ` developing countries were taken for a ride as there was clear serological evidence to suggest OPV was not as effective as IPV’, but then as he says at that time WHO advised `poor’ developing countries to use the cheaper OPV while it advised the developed nations to pursue the IPV route to try and eliminate polio from their soils. Even as recently as the 1980s Indian vaccine experts like T. Jacob John at the Christian Medical College, Vellore had raised the red flag against the use of OPV as a preferred weapon: although much easier to administer, OPV has a serious flaw, it is manufactured using a form of the `live polio virus’ whose potency to cause polio has been blunted, nevertheless there are rare cases in which the virus regains its virulence and starts paralysing children. Such cases are not counted since they are taken as adverse reaction to the vaccine. The vaccine virus can also regain its infectivity and virulence and even cause polio outbreaks. In effect the cure becomes the cause for the disease burden. WHO statistics reveal that in the last 14 years 20 outbreaks of polio associated directly with the polio vaccine regaining infectivity have occurred in 20 countries and some 655 individuals have contracted polio through this route. If this doesn’t erode the credibility of the vaccine in the eyes of mothers, it would be a surprise. Experts say this was an `acceptable’ risk since in all 10 billion doses of the vaccine were given in this same 14 year period. But the situation would get very complicated soon when the OPV is to be withdrawn as part of WHO’s `end game’ strategy at that point experts fear there could be hordes of children who may once again become infected with the vaccine derived viruses and be vulnerable to paralysis. In this last lap the use of the OPV is like having the tiger by its tail. Writing an anguished editorial in the highly regarded Current Science journal recently John said `for three decades policy-makers ignored Indian science on polio – allowing over 3 million children paralysed unnecessarily and delaying polio elimination by 11 years.’ The problem arose as `decisions were made on the basis of opinion fit for western nations’ explains John suggesting that `in case of polio they [the government] made bad mistakes’ since Indian research studies in the 1970s had established `why western tactics would fail’. The Indian government instead relied on foreign advisors which compounded the problem. In the early part of this decade India faced a peculiar problem of children having been administered more than 10 doses of the oral polio vaccine still coming down with polio. It was soon deciphered that the OPV itself was the problem as it was not as effective since this three in one combination called a trivalent vaccine was trying to tackle simultaneously three strains of the polio virus Type 1, 2, & 3. In 2005 based on old Indian research a more potent monovalent OPV that targets only type 1 and 3 was introduced and it immediately started yielding the desired results and the last wild polio case was detected on January 13, 2011 in West Bengal. Unfortunately the problem of polio is not going away anytime soon even after India is `certified polio free’ since clinically paralysis caused by the wild polio virus and the disease caused because of OPV regaining virulence in the environment are virtually indistinguishable and in 2013 four such cases occurred in India, where the vaccine had gone rogue. While polio occurring due to the vaccine virus in vaccinated children could be easily solved once OPV is withdrawn but the problem of the vaccine virus that becomes virulent in the transmission chains among children could become a huge problem since in the future when OPV is totally withdrawn children would not have the immunity against the virus, but hopefully by then the more expensive IPV would have made sufficient in-roads to provide immunity to the children of the future. Menabde does not hide her trepidation when she says `the polio end game strategy involves a switch from trivalent oral polio vaccine to bivalent oral polio vaccine and phased withdrawal of the oral polio vaccines from the program with the POSSIBLE introduction of inactivated [injectable] polio vaccine (IPV) in routine immunisation schedule’. By 2015 it is hoped the more potent IPV would have become part of routine immunisation but here again lies a tale of missed Indian opportunities, and a lot of irony: India will now have to follow WHO directives and by force have to import the required IPV, since the country’s own indigenous capacity was forcefully shut down. Tale of two assassinations In 1983 the man who invented IPV, Jonas Salk, visited India and advised then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to introduce IPV, and by 1986 a combination of 4 vaccines (Diphtheria-Pertussis-Tetanus plus IPV) was readied but it was suddenly withdrawn by the government the same year. It was in 1984 that Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated and John says ‘if she were alive in 1986, India would have routinely been using the combination vaccine’. It may be pertinent to note that three decades later as part of the `endgame strategy for polio’ the combination vaccine is again being dusted up! Another mishap occurred a few years later when Sam Pitroda was heading up the famous `technology missions’ in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. After a great deal of effort by Pitroda, the Indian Vaccine Company Limited (IVICOL) was set up on the outskirts of New Delhi in 1988, costing some Rs 900 million. But then, in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and in 1992 for reasons not so scientific the unit was hurriedly closed down. John says had Rajiv Gandhi `been alive we would have been using IPV on a large scale, but that was not to be … damage had been done’. Meanwhile the country celebrates a much-needed and long overdue success story of nearly vanquishing the dreaded polio virus -- in times when scandals are tumbling out dime a dozen. This success rests on the shoulders of nearly 2.3 million vaccinators (the Indian army is only a little over one million strong) who battled tremendous odds to vaccinate in every Pulse Polio round almost 170 million children (equivalent to about half the population of USA) in more than 240 million households spending some $ 3 billion in funding. But as John laments `while global experts are lauding India for its success and goading India towards the end game, we know that India could and should have led the developing world, since we had all the right evidence and ideas to go precisely through this route towards a world in which no child ever gets polio’. It seems global health politics triumphed over cold hard facts put forward by top class Indian researchers in the last century. So in the current election season will Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi learn some lessons from history on how to fight diseases the Indian way, especially as the country now begins its efforts to eradicate another big killer, measles that kills some 66,000 children annually? Missed opportunities, misplaced advice, overt reliance on global directives and several wrong decisions – chances are all will be forgotten as the battle to end this scourge is celebrated across the world. Pallava Bagla (Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for New Delhi Television and correspondent for SCIENCE. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

ISRO unveils space capsule that will fly Indian astronauts

ISRO unveils space capsule that will fly Indian astronauts Pallava Bagla After its Mars mission, India now aims to puts humans into space. The first steps towards flying Indian astronauts into space could be taken in weeks. The Indian astronaut capsule has been unveiled for the very first time. If all goes as per plan it will be tested in the first experimental flight of India's latest monster rocket, the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III is likely to be tested as early as May or June from Sriharikota. The GSLV Mk-3 could see this astronaut module being flown into space for the very first time, but in a sub-orbital flight. In its first test flight no crew or any animals are likely to be flown. "Only re-entry technologies and flight dynamics will be tested and the capsule will be recovered 400-500 kilometers away from Port Blair in the Bay of Bengal," Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K Radhakrishnan told NDTV. ISRO has been dreaming of putting an Indian into space using an Indian rocket launched from India soil. ISRO has sought funding worth Rs. 12,500 crores from the government for the program. It says once the approval comes, an Indian astronaut can be flown in a low Earth orbit in about seven years from the time the approval comes from the government. When it happens, India's human space capsule could be sent on a seven day mission for two-three astronauts in a low Earth orbit of 300-400 kilometers above earth. Till date only Russia, USA and China have successfully flown astronauts into space with the latest entrant being China in 2003. The outer skeleton of Indian human space capsule has been fabricated by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangalore and was handed over to ISRO which developed it. HAL says the first crew module will be further equipped with systems necessary for crew support, navigation, guidance and control systems by ISRO for experimentation in the forthcoming GSLV-MK3 launch. "HAL takes pride in the India's space programmes and our Aerospace Division has produced this Crew Module in a record time to meet the requirements of ISRO", said Dr RK Tyagi, Chairman, HAL. While the government has hesitated to clear a hefty bill of Rs. 12,500 crores as desired by ISRO for its human space flight program, but so that there are no delays in the development work the Indian government has already sanctioned Rs. 145 crores for the development of what it calls 'critical technologies'.

Monday, February 3, 2014

At Jammu new science initiatives announced by PM Manmohan Singh as he prepares to hand over `baton’

At Jammu new science initiatives announced by PM Manmohan Singh as he prepares to hand over `baton’

New Delhi, February 3, 2014

Pallava Bagla

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking at 101st session of the Indian Science Congress being held for the very first time in Jammu a part of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, where some 8000 scientists have gathered for this annual event.

The Prime Minister highlighted some aspects in his speech: 

“To do science, someone must pay for it. We must increase our annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2% of our GDP. This has to come from both government and industry. In countries such as South Korea, where a high percentage of the GDP goes to science, the contribution of Korean industry is indeed very significant. I am happy to say that our Department of Biotechnology has activated private public partnerships in R&D in biotechnology. I appeal to the corporate sector to join hands with the government in realizing the goals that we have set for more our nation.
A major research funding organization, the National Science and Engineering Research Board, has just started functioning. This Board is managed by scientists and it has simplified funding procedures. We expect much more from it in supporting individual scientists as well as groups of scientists in creating small units devoted to crucial sectors at the very frontiers of science.
India currently occupies an enviable position in the field of atomic energy and high-energy physics. Indian nuclear scientists are attracting global interest in their effort to develop a Fast Breeder Reactor. I expect the prototype under construction in Kalpakkam to be completed this year. It will be a great day for Indian science and technology because we will be one of the few countries in the world with leadership in a completely new area of nuclear technology that can contribute non-polluting electrical power.
I recognise and we all recognise that the Government must also focus on creating new opportunities for our bright and socially conscious scientists. To ensure food security and to improve land and water productivity, we have to launch a national drive for an ever-green revolution. This will test the ingenuity of our agricultural scientists. Climate-resilient agriculture and modern bio-technological tools hold great promise. Use of bio-technology has great potential to improve yields. While safety must be ensured, we should not succumb to unscientific prejudices against Bt. crops. Our government remains committed to promoting the use of these new technologies for agricultural development. I urge our scientific community to increase communication and engagement with society at large in explaining socially productive applications of technology alternatives and for improving the productivity of small and medium enterprises.
Our Government has invested in many areas to ensure that India remains at the cutting edge of science. I am happy to announce another National Mission on High Performance Computing with an outlay of Rs. 4500 crores. We are also considering establishment of a National Geographical Information System with an outlay of about Rs. 3000 crores. A National Mission on Teaching to enhance the esteem of our teachers is also being launched.
I am also happy to announce that India will partner the international scientific community in the establishment of some of the world’s major R&D projects. In the Gravitational Wave experiment, India intends to host the third detector. A Neutrino-based Observatory is proposed to be established in Tamil Nadu at a cost of about Rs 1450 crores. India is also joining the famous CERN institute as an associate member.

Before I close, I would like to stress on something that has troubled me for some time. I worry some time that science has not yet got its proper due in our value system. I would like science to be high in our value system so that our entire society provides both moral and material support for its development. This is not only necessary because our future depends on it, but also because instilling a scientific attitude and temper in our population is essential for developing a progressive, rational and humane society. I do hope that our scientists and educators will ponder seriously on how we can achieve this transformation in the mind set of our society.  This year, our Government selected Professor CNR Rao for the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna. Let this be only the first step in creating an environment that gives birth to many more Bharat Ratnas in the field of Indian science. That is my wish that is my prayer.”