Saturday, July 1, 2017

India Launches ‘Ambitious’ Biopharma Mission

S&T minister Dr Harshvardhan (second from right), DBT 
secretary Prof K Vijaya Raghvan (right) and  Dr Renu 
Swarup (second from left), managing director, BIRAC in the 
press conference to announce the Pharma Mission 
By Vinod Varshney

New Delhi: India launched Friday an ‘ambitious’ Biopharma Mission to increase amidst highly competitive environment its share in the rapidly growing global market of biopharmaceuticals that stands today at US $ 156 billion. It shocks Indians who believe India to be a ‘science superpower’ to note that it has currently a meagre 2.8 percent share in the lucrative global pie. The plan is to increase it to 5 percent in next five years. 

Union minister of Science and Technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan terms the ‘Mission’ a ‘game changing initiative’. The strategy according to him is to develop a state of the art infrastructure which would be open to be used by start-ups and industrial set-ups. Theoretically it sounds promising, but the actual success will depend on its execution.  

Under the Mission there will be a Scientific Advisory Committee, which will also include global scientific representatives to steer it. The minister claimed that in the next five years, 6 to 10 new biopharma products would be launched in the market. If it really happens the people of India will adore the Mission, scientocrats of the ministry and upcoming start-up enthusiasts.

The Mission may be seen in the backdrop of current proclivity of the Modi government to focus on ‘impact’ of the scientfic research and development, an euphemism for how the public money is being used to develop products which are useful to Indians or the national economy. This ‘focus’ has resulted into sending government scientific departments into a tizzy that scurry for business models while formulating their overall research and development plan. The Biopharma Mission is the latest example of this.

Interestingly, India that commands an annual gross domestic product of around US $ 2 trillion is seeking the help of World Bank in this Biopharma Mission. The Word Bank would extend a loan of US $ 125 million and the government of India would be putting in similar amount to make it a US $ 250 million Mission.

The minister seems gung-ho at the arrangement. He claimed in the press conference called Friday to announce the mission, “The World Bank is helping first time in an R&D activity!” Would the presence of Word Bank not deflect focus of the Indian R&D as the world body is known for subtly influencing national policies? The minister responded with his characteristic smile, “So long as I am the minister and Modiji the prime minister, there is no question of any such influence.” “And so far as scientific field is concerned, there is no harm in seeking foreign collaboration,” he added thoughtfully.

Prof K Vijay Raghavan, the secretary Department of Biotechnology emphasises that the focus would be to create a robust Biotechnology ‘ecosystem’ which will not only help academia but also the industry, especially the startups. It would be a shared infrastructure.

Dr Renu Swarup, the managing director of BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) in answer to a question said,” We don’t lack availability of intellect in the country but technology platform is required that we are now going to create.” “Even industry cannot affford to establish a platform technology,” she said.

She informs that the Mission would focus more on new vaccines, bio-therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices to better address the rising burden of diseases in the country. It will strengthen the entire product development value chain and accelerate research leads to product development, but most important is the creation of an echo-system which will continue to support a continupus pipeline of new products.

Currently Indian biopharmaceutical industry is around 10-15 years behind developed countries and faces stiff competition from China and Korea. According to the Global Innovation Index, India ranks 81 among 140 countries, way below China (rank 29) and South Korea (rank 14). Success of the Mission, therefore, will depend on how much and how fast, it pushes Indian researchers and entrepreneurs into an innovation spree. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Block the Useful Science?

By Vinod Varshney
India’s policy-making is overwhelmed by those who have mastered the art of blocking benefits of science reaching to farmers. Sounds preposterous, but it is true, especially in the field of genetically modified crops, which hold the promise of revolutionising Indian agriculture. But these are not being allowed to move from lab to land on ideological grounds. The arguments in opposition are sometimes facetious, like these are meant to benefit only MNCs, who have monopoly over the technology and intend to bring vast Indian agriculture under their control for their own profit to the bewilderment of Indian farmers. Using scientific jargon, they also allege that it might lead to uncontrolled genetic pollution in other varieties and consumption of genetically modified foods might also be harmful to human health. They ignore that genetically modified crops are being grown in so many countries, developing and developed both, cutting down input cost, improving yield and quality of the food. While they raise spectre of damage to health, they pass over the fact that we import such foods and millions of Indians eat them in the country as well as abroad without any harm.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

John Gurdon Compensates Kalam’s Loss

By Vinod Varshney

APJ Abdul Kalam was nostalgically remembered in the Rashtriya Kishore Vaigyanik Sammelan, a 3-day apex national event of child scientists, which began Monday (04-01-2016) at Mysore University campus. Child scientists fondly remembered their Guru who used to seek a pledge from them to dream high and be creative. However, the loss was compensated by presence of British Nobel Laureate John B Gurdon who was as inspiring in his 82nd year as ever and resurrected the vision of Kalam.

Inaugurating the Rashtriya Kishore Vaigyanik Sammelan, the 82-year Gurdon presented a comparative view of how life has totally changed, thanks to scientific developments during last fifty years. ‘There was a time when we used to communicate through post, but today communication has become spontaneous and almost instantaneous. Right from television to genetically modified crops, one can see enormous developments have taken place in the field of science. Science and technology has completely changed the lives of people. On the basis of the achievements in science & technology during last 50 years, one can predict what may come through science in next 50 years’, he said.

Giving a historical perspective while speaking in the inaugural session, which saw an attendance of more than 5,000 delegates from all over the country and abroad, he told how during the first world war, people died even due to flu, but now antibodies have been discovered to fight this. Cars today can be driven without drivers, and small piece of skin can be cultured to become different parts of the body. Later in the evening in a plenary session of the Indian Science Congress, a five-day event started a day before, he gave a talk on his Nobel-winning research on this very issue, showing how by a few cells taken from the skin could be used to make cardiac cells, macular cells and even brain cells, which can be transplanted to cure related incurable diseases.

Odd 200 selected child scientists would be presenting their research in the ‘Rashtriya Kishore Vaigyanik Sammelan’ during the three days. They have been selected for that after a lengthy nation-wide exercise in which one million children of 10-17 year age group participated through their projects. They conceptualized, planned and executed projects with the help of their teacher guides to solve a select problem of their surrounding using scientific methods. Largely these projects relate to the focal theme. This spurs creative thinking and develops scientific temper in them. It has been found that they offer simple, innovative and cost-effective solutions to many unsolved problems. The focal theme this year was ‘Understanding Weather & Climate’.

Seeing the glowing faces of the child scientists, one can say, the 23rd Rashtriya Kishore Vaigyanik Sammelan turned out a rewarding experience for them as they were thrilled at getting opportunities to interact with Nobel Laureates and other top scientists and seeking autographs and selfies.

Most of the participants have been selected through the National Children Science Congress which took place at Mohali between 27 and 31 December. The event is organised every year by National Council of Science & Technology Communication, a department of the union government. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Indian Science To Get a Makeover

Prime minister Narendra Modi released the Vision 2035 for India's science & technology

By Vinod Varshney

Indian science may get a makeover in coming years if the announcements made by the prime minister Narendra Modi are sincerely implemented. More monetary allocations will be made for strategic projects. Not just more money, its efficacy would also be monitored by scientific audits to be undertaken in scientific departments and institutions. This apart a major focus of the government’s science and technology policy would be to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

The PM gave a sort of blue print of the challenges ahead and was lavishly cheered during his inspiring speech addressing around 15,000 scientist delegates including five Nobel Laureates, one Field Medal winner scientist among around hundred foreign participants and hundreds of top Indian scientists in the inaugural session of the 103rdIndian Science Congress at Mysore University.

He declared innovation as his government’s mantra for success. 'We have pledged to double national investments in innovation; and, build a global partnership that combines the responsibility of governments with the innovative capacity of the private sector. We need innovation to make renewable energy much cheaper; more reliable; and, easier to connect to transmission grids’, he said.

While he talked of making more funds available for science and technology, he also emphasized that funding of science should not just remain the duty of government, but should also be an obligation and responsibility of the private sector.

Not losing sight of the focal theme of the Indian Science Congress, ‘Science and Technology for Indigenous Development in India’ he narrated an array of issues where Indian scientists would be required to offer cost-efficient and environment-friendly solutions.

He talked of the challenge of rapidly increasing urban population,‘For the first time in human history, we are in an urban century. By the middle of this century, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.'  

His speech had a flair of the recently concluded global agreement to cut carbon emissions for saving the planet. He set the agenda before the scientists, especially the younger lot, that they need to find the cost effective and efficient solutions which can also take care of the environment and the ecology. He urged to develop technologies which can provide prosperity with less reliance on energy.
‘I suggested an international network of 30-40 universities and labs focusing for next ten years on transforming the way we produce, distribute and consume energy. We will also pursue this in G-20. We will make it easier to do science and research in India, improve science administration, and expand the supply and improve the quality of science education and research in India.’

He spoke of an important new area, marine sciences, ‘Oceans occupy more than 70% of our planet; and, over 40% of humanity and 60% of the world’s largest cities are found within 100 kilometers of the coast. We are at the cusp of a new era, where oceans will become important drivers of our economies.We will set up an advanced centre of research in marine biology and biotechnology and establish a network of coastal and island research stations in India and abroad. We have entered into agreements on marine science and ocean economy with several countries. We will also hold an International Conference on ‘Ocean economy and Pacific Island Countries in New Delhi in 2016’ he declared.

He released the Vision 2035 also for the science and technology that India needs to focus on. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

India’s Ambitious Biotech Strategy

Senior adviser, DBT Dr Renu Sahay, secretary DBT Dr K Vijay Raghavan  & India's S&T minister Dr Harsh Vardhan at the launch ceremony of National Biotechnology Development Strategy 2015-20
  By Vinod Varshney

To keep pace with the revolutionary global advances in biotechnology, which has given novel agricultural, health, energy and environmental products, India has formulated its own ambitious strategy to emerge as a major player in this field. 

The National Biotechnology Development Strategy: 2015-20 has set a target of taking the current biotechnology industry size from $ 7 billion to $ 100 billion by 2025. The 36-page document prepared after discussing with various stakeholders over two years was formally released today by union minister of S&T and Earth Sciences, Dr Harsh Vardhan.  

The Strategy has for the first time opened the door for global public-private partnership which will usher global giants to establish their R&D Centres and manufacturing units in India with the help of government. Will this not hamper the growth of indigenous biotech companies? Dr Renu Sahay, the senior advisor in the Department of Biotechnology says, ‘No, it would, on the contrary, expose indigenous companies to global standards, practices and technologies. Ultimately they would benefit from all this.’ 

The general feeling among policy makers in India is that biotechnology holds similar promise of sparkling growth in India which information technology (IT) has been able to demonstrate in the past two decades. But India’s remarkable success in IT did not require any global public-private partnership, then why this is needed in the field of biotechnology? Dr K Vijay Raghavan, secretary Department of Biotechnology says, ‘India’s success in the IT sector is in services, which did not require this, but biotechnology is a much more complex thing which needs a lot of high tech research, therefore, partnering with global players would help India.’  

The Strategy cannot succeed without developing quality human resource in sufficient number that is not only highly skilled in bio-chemistry and bio-sciences but also innovative and possessing entrepreneurship. To take care of this issue, several initiatives have been formulated including launching of dual degree MSc-MBA programmes in agribusiness, pharma business and bio enterprise management. 

To spur research, several plans have been enumerated in the Strategy including giving due focus on translational research to convert basic research into technology to manufacture useful products. The plan is to establish Technology Development & Translational Cells in fifty research intensive universities of the country. This apart, 150 Technology Transfer Organisations would be set up across the country in research institutes and universities. All this will help in carrying forward four major biotechnology missions in healthcare, food and nutrition, clean energy and education.

The new Strategy has been formulated on the foundation laid down by an earlier strategy scripted for 2007-12 that was adopted by the UPA government in 2007 which helped the country establishing a robust infrastructure which led to numerous successes. Owing to this, two thirds of the world’s children today get at least one of the vaccines that is produced in India. It could evolve necessary guidelines for transgenic plants, recombinant vaccines & drugs, stem cell therapy etc. 

India could have done much better, but for the unpredictable changes in the way science and technology is done globally. Scientists in Indian labs have been working with the low-end equipments and most of the components had to be imported. It is being felt they can be easily produced in India at a fraction of the cost, says Dr K Vijay Raghavan. The new strategy has taken care of such issues perhaps because it has been formulated in consultation with the Niti Ayog which wants to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in all fields. 

There have been terrific developments in biotechnology in recent years with the revolutionary new ways of gene editing posing new legal, scientific and regulatory challenges. This aspect has been taken care of in the new strategy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

There May be Zero Diversion of Flights at Delhi Airport in 2-3 Years

By Vinod Varshney

New Delhi, 17 December. There would be near zero diversion of aeroplanes due to fog at Indira Gandhi International Airport in 2-3 years thanks to a mega scientific project intended to develop an efficient forecasting model which would predict accurately the timing of fog and its intensity and duration. 

The pilot project to be run by scientists and technologists of a dozen organisations including IIT-Delhi, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, India Meteorology Department, Indian Council of Agriculture research, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research and Indian Air Force will undertake to collect real time data of fog formation, its continuance and dissipation at two locations in New Delhi. 

Announcing the launch of the project today Dr M Rajeevan, secretary ministry of earth sciences told here today that 32 state of the art scientific instruments have been deployed to observe and analyse fog, some of them have been put on top of a 20 meter high watch tower. These include radiation meter and wind profiler that are being used in India for the first time.

Such a scientific exercise to understand the dynamic nature of fog’s behaviour has been undertaken by Paris and China in the past, but their research is not of much relevance to us since Indian atmospheric setting is different, told Dr L S Rathore, the director general of meteorology after the launch of the research project. 

Dr Rathore explained that the generation of data related to fog is only one aspect of the research as equally important task is to consume data and back that up with the current knowledge to improve the existing forecasting model. Earlier there were two parallel roads, one leading to observation of fog and the other to develop a forecasting model. This time round, the scientific communities of the two different fields have come together. He explained that we receive synoptic level fog data from the satellite but they need to be complemented with the data at the micro level. 

There is acute lack of understanding of fog while it is increasingly creating problems for the power transmission, road, rail and air transport and also impacting agriculture during winter. There are so many plant diseases which can be attributed to fog. Therefore, the second observation site has been established at ICAR institute, Pusa to study fog’s impact on agriculture.   

Fog is generally understood as a visible mass consisting of cloud water droplets suspended in air or near the earth surface. It is considered as a type of low level cloud.  The phenomenon of fog is more complicated than rain which is now being forecast quite successfully. 

In case of fog it has been observed while it is quite intense at one runway at the airport but does not exist at all at another runway a few hundred meters away. Why? Then there are questions why occurrence of fog is increasing over the years. And is there any role of increasing pollution in increasing incidence of fog? The attempt to understand all this by studying its micro-physics and micro-chemistry has therefore become important.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bright Students Should Opt for Pure Science

By Vinod Varshney
School children of Delhi (National Capital Region) have finally broken the world record of conducting the biggest science practical at one location. Two thousand science students had gathered at the IIT, Delhi on December 7 during the India International Science Festival to conduct the practical named ‘Elephant’s Toothpaste’. Reliable sources say officials of the Guinness Book of World Records have intimated the minster of science & technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan about the acceptance of the claim made by the organisers on the practical.  
This largest-ever science practical done by 2,000 students was meticulously planned by coordinator, Prof K Girish Kumar, the senior professor of chemistry in Cochin University of S&T. Expressing happiness at the news, he told ‘Blog for Science’ that the event would create a new environment of learning and teaching of science in the country and such events should be repeated regularly. ‘My message to the bright children of the country is that they should pursue pure science rather than rushing to become doctors and engineers’.
Before this practical, the largest one was conducted at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on February 24 this year when 1,339 primary school students of 7th and 8th standard from Belfast had participated in a mass chromatography practical. That effort was supported and conducted by The Royal Society of Chemistry, London.
Sources indicated that the science & technology and human resources development ministers, Dr Harsh Vardhan and Smriti Irani respectively, might announce anytime soon the next such event which would be ten times bigger than this. The plan would entail arranging 20,000 students from across India at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium to conduct the practical. 
The science practical on such a big scale would certainly induce young students towards science across the country. The India International Science Festival was also organised with this purpose in mind by the TIFAC as the nodal agency with the help of various departments of the science & technology ministry and earth sciences. The initiative was taken by Vijnana Bharti, an RSS-linked outfit that had being working for science popularization in several states. 
The demonstration of the record-breaking practical ‘Elephant’s Toothpaste’ in which nitrogen peroxide’s disintegration was speeded up by use of a catalyst to create huge froth possible to be made by an elephant, was done and explained by Dr I Anitha, an associate professor of chemistry with Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and Ammu Rosin Jose, a CSIR research fellow in the Cochin University of Science & Technology. Another CSIR research fellow working with the same university, Shalini Menon had taught the theory part of the practical to the students, belonging to class 9th to 12th.