Newsletter: The Compound Eye Feb 15

The Compound Eye Feb 15, 2019

Policy in Focus:

Interim Budget, 2019:

Instead of a policy, this fortnight we highlight announcements from the Interim Budget that embrace the development of science and technology in India:

  • There has been marginal hike in budget allocations to Department of Science and Technology – DST has been allocated INR 5321 crore (up by 207 crore from last year), DBT will receive INR 2580 crore (increase of 169 crore) and CSIR has been allocated INR 4895 crore (323 crore over last year).
  • The 22nd AIIMS will come up at Manethi village in Haryana’s Rewari district. This announcement is welcomed by villagers who have been protesting for this AIIMS, which councillor Azad Singh Nandha claimed would be a “catalyst for the all-round development of the region which is considered to be backward”.
  • The budget proposes a separate fisheries department, differentiating it from animal husbandry and dairy under the agriculture ministry. This move is expected to make administration easier for this sector; boosting production and exports of seafood industry. Today India is a top producer of aquaculture shrimp (6 lakh tonnes last fiscal year) and exports earned INR 45000 crore last year.
  • Interim budget announced a programme for genetic upgradation of cows – Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog.   The Cabinet approved the proposal on Wednesday 6th Feb for conservation, protection and development of cows.

Policy Update

The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018 – covered in the previous edition of The Compound Eye – was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha and will now lapse with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

Its Controversial – What happens to He Jiankui, Lulu and Nana?

 

The Chinese researcher He Jiankui presented his work leading to the birth of two genetically edited babies at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He has disappeared from public view after the November meeting, but recently government investigators confirmed that Lulu and Nana had been placed under medical supervision. He is under arrest and faces allegations of faking ethical documents which can result in criminal charges. This incident raises several questions:

  1. Rumours have circulated (and been refuted) that He could face the death penalty. Would that be an appropriate penalty?
  2. Would the fate of He and the twins impact the technology’s development?
  3. What does India think about germline gene editing?

 

Fellowship hike: Why blame the icing when the cake is the problem?

(with inputs from Anupam Manur, Research Fellow, Takshashila Institution)

The DST announced a 24% hike in their fellowships to doctoral and postdoctoral research scholars. This long-awaited hike comes 4 years after the last hike in October 2014. Research scholars across India are unhappy with this increase and are demanding an 80% hike in their fellowship emoluments. How do we then decide on salaries for the aspiring scientists of our country? There is no easy answer, particularly given India’s low spending on R&D.

The Compound Eye Observes: The salary patterns over the past decade reveals two things:

The hike percentage is not the problem: 

If you consider the absolute salary over the last decade, it has actually doubled: a fact alluded to by Union HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar. This is true, the CAGR rate for the salary hike is at 7.63%. The problem is that this near doubling of pay is based on an abysmally poor base of INR 16000/month for JRF and so on. Merely applying a huge amount of icing does not make a fluffy cake!

The 4-yearly hike policy results in inconsistent pay: There have been two hikes –  in 2014 and 2019. The figure shows that the salary of a JRF over the years 2011-2013 remains stagnant in face of rising need (inflation-adjusted salary). The 56% hike in 2014 boosted salaries over the inflation-adjusted need, but the gap between the two had reduced by 2017 (inflation figures for 2018 are not yet available). If instead the same hike was given as a yearly increment based on the 7.63% CAGR, the scholar’s pay would have always stayed above the inflation-adjusted spending and they might have felt the pinch less severely. The CAGR-adjusted approach would have potentially resulted in 34.7% extra savings for the researchers in the 2012-2017 period.

Recommendations:

1. Agree on a base salary; the percentage of hike is irrelevant if the base is too low.

2. Consider a year on year increment instead of periodic hike.

Meanwhile, here is some news that’s puzzling scientists:  

What is killing the Dutch seabirds? Over 20,000 dead or dying guillemots have washed up on the Dutch coast in the last week. Though the birds are not endangered, the sudden mass death has exhorted scientists into a search for answers. Possible reasons may be weather changes that impact the bird’s feeding pattern or a recent container spill. Yet why neighbouring Belgium or Germany have been spared from this butchery is unknown.

Message from the Palace of the Sea God? – Legend says that oarfish – who typically live 200-1000 m deep in the sea – beach themselves on Japanese shores ahead of underwater earthquakes. Coincidentally a dozen oarfish had washed up in the months leading to the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. In the last few weeks, the oarfish (Ryugu no tsukai in local language: meaning messenger from the palace of the Sea God) have made its appearance across the Japanese coastline leading to some panic. Scientists though have not found any evidence for their movement to be in response to seismic activity; they speculate that the oarfish may be moving in response to global warming changes or in pursuit of its food.

A 240 million old cancer – Scientists have determined a 240 million old fossilised turtle had a bone tumour on its hind leg. What’s more, the periosteal osteosarcoma looks almost exactly like the human affliction. When this shell-less turtle was first discovered in 2015, it provided evidence for the missing link of how flat ribs could grow into the armoured shells that turtles today possess. Now it has hints to something else – that genetic origins of cancer may be very ancient and as Bruce Rothschild, co-author of the study points out “We are not very different, from all those with whom we share and have shared this planet.”

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