Newsletter: The Compound Eye 1

The Compound Eye – Feb 1, 2019

Policy in Focus – DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018:

The Lok Sabha passed the DNA Technology Bill, 2018, 2018 on January 8. The Bill will now have to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha’s next session, failing which it can lapse.
What does the Bill do?
– The Bill constitutes a DNA Regulatory Board which will formulate detailed guidelines.
– The Bill mandate DNA laboratories to be registered and accredited.
– The Bill creates DNA databanks which will hold DNA sequences in separate indices – missing persons, suspects, crime scene and offenders – for identifying unidentified deceased remains or placing a criminal at a crime scene.

What does the Bill not do?
– The Bill does not make it clear if its provisions are applicable to laboratories who use DNA sequencing for non-identification purposes (example; academic labs)
– The Bill does not clearly distinguish between forensic use of DNA for criminal and use for civil disputes.
– The Bill does not address capacity issues – training required to implement the provisions, accreditation standards, interpretation of DNA data, etc. It is assumed that the Regulatory Board will formulate these rules.
– The Bill does not amend the Evidence Act, 1872 or the Code of Criminal Procedure which govern the admissibility of DNA evidence in court.
– The Bill has a protracted purging mechanism instead of automatic data purging for acquitted suspects. There is no verification mechanism to confirm the purge.

Detailed analysis and views on the Bill: PRS Bill Summary
https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/dna-evidence-only-opinion-not-science-and-definitely-not-proof-of-crime
https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/perspective/caution-dna-bill-raise-700080.html

Its Controversial – James Watson and the Genetics of Intelligence:

In a documentary, Decoding Watson released on 2nd January 2019, Dr James Watson reaffirmed his views that IQ differences between Americans and Africans have genetic origin and that the difference is “awful, just like its awful for schizophrenics”. He then questioned how to make it better?

The idea that genes exert more control on intelligence than environmental factors has been repudiated. On another note, Dr Watson’s views may be at outcome of his limited experience with colleagues of African descent. If he had more experience working with peers from diverse backgrounds, his opinion may have been different.

The Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL) released a statement revoking his honorary titles, calling his statements “reprehensible and unsupported by science”. Yet his comments raise important questions:
1. What are the consequences of an eminent scientist professing intelligence to be a genetic construct and advising correction of “low” intelligence based on IQ tests?
2. How important is it for Indian academic campuses to employ people from multiple cultures to inculcate an inclusive behaviour in our researchers and students?

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Science in India – The Indian Science Congress:

The 106th Indian Science Congress (ISC) was held between 3rd and 7th January at Lovely Professional University with 6 Nobel Laureates and 30,000 delegates in attendance. Not for the first time though, the spotlight was hijacked from credible work by outlandish claims. After the Andhra University Vice Chancellor claimed the Kauravas to be born using stem cell technology, the ISC amended its policy and speakers presenting (including senior personnel) at future events will have to submit abstracts for screening. Speakers will not be allowed to deviate from the approved content.

The issue at hand is not that the claims are based on ancient Indian literature, but that they lack evidence. This is particularly problematic when done in front of impressionable young children. But censoring scientists does not convey the correct message either. Instead the ISC should have panel discussions on such claims with evidence being the salient feature.

More importantly, like the ISC our universities and research institutions also need to start assessing their employees for adoption of scientific methods. The CSHL has rebuked one of its most eminent scientists for opinions that are unsupported by science; surely Indian universities can take similar action. The Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government, K Vijay Raghavan has suggested that Andhra University file a complaint against its Vice Chancellor. It will be a result of strong action that the ISC would no longer be a spectacle for embarrassing Indian science.

Meanwhile, here is the happy news:

The world’s loneliest frog got a date – the discovery of 5 Sehuencas water frogs in a remote Bolivian cloud forest has yielded a “Juliet” for the world’s loneliest frog, Romeo. Romeo, thought to be the last of its kind has been in captivity since wild Schuencas frogs disappeared over a decade ago. With the rediscovery of these 5 frogs, scientists hope to breed and re-introduce the amphibian species in their native environment.

Scientists are  curing potatoes of depression – Potatoes have been depressed because of generations of inbreeding followed by cloning. Farmers prefer cloning because cloned potatoes have higher yields. Yet the accumulated harmful mutations – which go unnoticed because of the potato’s tetraploid nature – results in stunted growth or shorter life spans. A diploid potato could revitalise the potato industry and researchers have recently identified mutations that could serve as a basis for its design. But farmers would have to adopt this method and McDonalds, one of the world’s biggest potato buyer has twice refused to buy genetically modified potatoes. Will the depressed potatoes find their salvation?

Wellcome grants can be  transferred outside of UK – In view of increased mobility of scientists and uncertainty of the looming Brexit, Wellcome Trust changed its policy to allow their grant holders to move outside UK. They explain their move to facilitate research in the UK, EU and beyond. Amid all the chaos, politics and insecurities of Brexit, this news is welcome indeed.

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