A sanitised fuel

I debated myself for ten minutes as to whether I should criticise an article that appeared on the DD News website on this blog. The article is flawed in the way many science articles on the internet are, but at the same time it appeared on DD News – a news outlet that has a longstanding reputation for playing it safe, so to speak, despite being a state-run entity. But what ultimately changed my mind was that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) quote-tweeted the article on Twitter, writing that the findings were the product of a study the department had funded. The article goes:

As the world runs out of fossil fuels and looks out for alternate sources of clean energy, there is good news from the Krishna-Godavari (KG) basin. The methane hydrate deposit in this basin is a rich source that will ensure adequate supplies of methane, a natural gas. Methane is a clean and economical fuel. It is estimated that one cubic meter of methane hydrate contains 160-180 cubic meters of methane. Even the lowest estimate of methane present in the methane hydrates in KG Basin is twice that of all fossil fuel reserves available worldwide.

Methane is known as a clean fuel – but the label is a bit of a misnomer. When it is combusted, it produces carbon dioxide and water, as opposed to a host of other compounds as well. So as a fuel, it is cleaner than fossil fuels like crude oil and coal. However, it still releases carbon dioxide, and even if this is in quantities appreciably lower than the combustion of coal or crude oil emits, we don’t need more of that in the atmosphere. One report has found the planet’s surface could breach the 1.5º C warming mark, if only temporarily, as soon as 2024. We don’t need more methane in the atmosphere, such as through fugitive emissions, more so: a kilogram of methane has the same greenhouse potential as a little over 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Ultimately, what we need is to lower consumption.

This said, the cleanliness of a fuel is to my mind context-specific. The advantages methane offers relative to other fuels in common use today would almost entirely be offset in India by the government’s persistent weakening of environmental protections, pollution-control regulations and indigenous peoples’ rights. (The Krishna-Godavari basin has already been reeling under the impact of the ONGC’s hydrocarbon extraction activities since the 1970s.) Even if we possessed technologies that allowed us to obtain and use methane with 100% efficiency, the Centre will still only resort to the non-democratic methods it has adopted in the last half-decade or so, bulldozing ecosystems and rural livelihoods alike to get what it wants – which is ultimately the same thing: economic growth. This is at least the path it has been carving out for itself. Methane extracted from a large river-basin is not worth this.

The DST’s involvement is important for these two reasons, considering the questionable claims they advance, as well as a third.

At the broadest level, no energy source is completely clean. Even solar and wind power generation and consumption require access to land and to infrastructure whose design and production is by no stretch of the imagination ‘green’. Similarly, and setting aside methane’s substantial greenhouse potential for a moment, extracting methane from the Krishna-Godavari river basin is bound to exact a steep price – directly as well as indirectly in the form of a damaged river basin that will no longer be able to provide the ecosystem services it currently does. In addition, storing and transporting methane is painful because it is a low-density gas, so engineers prefer converting it into liquefied natural gas or methanol first, and doing so is at present an energy-intensive process.

The DST’s endorsement of the prospect of using this methane as fuel is worrying because it suggests the department is content to believe a study it funded led to a supposedly positive finding – and is not concerned with its wider, deadlier implications. At any other time, this anarchy of aspirations, whereby one department doesn’t have to be concerned with the goals of another, would be siloisation of the worst sort – as if mining for hydrocarbons in a river-basin is cleanly separable from water pollution, shortage and the cascade of ecological imbalances brought on by the local endangerment of various plant, animal and bird species.

However, it would be delusional to accuse the current Government of India of being anarchic. This government has displayed a breathtaking fetish for centralising authority and power. Instead, the DST’s seemingly harmless tweet and DD News’s insular article are symptoms of a problem that rests at the other extreme: where all departments are pressed to the common cause of plundering India’s natural resources and destroying its ecological security, even at risk of undermining their own respective mandates.

The singularity of purpose here may or may not have rendered methane an absolutely ‘clean’ fuel – but it may be a glimpse of a DST simply reflecting what the government would like to reduce the country’s scientific enterprise to: a deeply clinical affair, in which scientists should submit to the national interest and not be concerned about other things.

The March for Science, ed. 2018

K. VijayRaghavan, India’s new principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, has brought a lot of hope with him into the role as a result of his illustrious career as a biologist and former secretaryship with the Department of Biotechnology. Many stakeholders of the scientific establishment are already looking to him for positive changes in S&T policy, funding and administration in India under a government that, on matters of research and education, has focused on applications, translational research and actively ignored the spread of superstitious ideas in society.

In a recent interview, VijayRaghavan was asked about R&D funding in India. His response is worth noting against the backdrop of a ‘March for Science’ planned across India on April 14. As the interviewer reminds the reader, the 2018 Economic Survey bluntly acknowledged that India was underspending on research. This has also been one of the principal focus areas of the ‘March for Science’ organisers and participants: they have demanded that the Centre hike R&D spending to 3% and education spending to 10%, both as fractions of the GDP, apart from asking the government to stop the spread of superstitious beliefs.

Q: Getting funding for research is widely considered to be a prickly issue. The 2018 Economic Survey stated that India underspends on R&D. Is this a concern at the administration level?

A: These are wrongly posed questions, because it says that should magically the amount of funding go up, then science’s problems would be solved. Or that this is the key impediment. There’s no questions that there’s a correlation between increased R&D funding and innovation in many economies. South Korea is a striking example how high-tech R&D has resulted in transformation in their industries… Have we analysed, bottom-up, what Korea’s spending goes into and what we can learn from that and do afresh? Have we analysed our contest and learnt? …

Now interestingly, top-down this analysis has been done long ago. We as scientists, individuals and as journalists need to see that. The DST, and the DBT, the CSIR, the ICMR all have their plans should they get more resources. You can’t have a top-down articulation of how the resources can come and be used, unless that is also dynamically connected bottom-up.

When I look at 100 cases of why fund-flow is gridlocked, in about 70 cases, it’s poor institutional processes.

March for more than science

After the first Indian ‘March for Science’ happened in August 2017, the government showed no signs of having heard the participants’ claims, or even acknowledged the event. This was obviously jarring but it also prompted conversations about whether the march’s demands were entirely reasonable. Most news reports, include The Wire‘s, had focused on how this was the first outpouring of scientists, school-teachers and students, particularly at this scale. Scrutinising it deeply was taboo because there was some anxiety about jeopardising the need for such a march itself. However, ahead of the second march planned for April 14, it’s worth revisiting.

Sundar Sarukkai, the philosopher, had penned an oped the day after the 2017 march, asking scientists whether they had thought to climb down from their ivory towers and consider that the spread of superstitions in society under the Narendra Modi government may have been because of sociological and cultural reasons, and wasn’t simply a matter of spending more on R&D. Following a rebuttal from Rahul Siddharthan, Sarukkai clarified in The Wire:

Whenever ideal images are constructed (like ideal of woman, ideal of nation, etc.), one should be wary, since any such act is often driven by considerations of power. This ideal image of science too is used to establish science as a powerful agent within modern societies. The use of this ideal image to solve social problems related to caste, religion or hatred of any kind is a red herring. It is like using a hammer to fix a bulb. When we do that, it only means that we are not really interested in solving the problem (fixing the bulb) but more invested in using the method (the hammer) – irrespective of whether it is suitable for the task or not.

The terrible cases of lynching, hatred, oppression and misuse of religion must be unequivocally opposed. For those who are serious about that task, the solution is more important than the method used to achieve it. The categories of the ideal notion of science are applicable primarily to non-human systems. So even if they work well within such systems, there is no reason why they should do so within human systems.

A physicist said something similar to me around the time: that the old uncle preaching the benefits of homeopathy in his living room is doing so not because he doesn’t have access to scientific knowledge. That may be true but what’s more conspicuous by absence is someone in the same room challenging his views, communicating to him without being intimidating or patronising and having a discussion with him about what’s right, what’s wrong and the methods we use to tell the difference. Instead, focusing on making it easier for scientists to become and remain scientists alone will not take us closer to achieving the outcomes the ‘March for Science’ desires.

Sarukkai echoed this point in a comment to The Print: that scientists who march only for science are not doing anything useful, and that they must march against casteism and sexism as well (and social ills outside their labs). Without real change in these social contexts, it’s going to be near-impossible for those deemed less powerful by structures in place in these contexts to challenge the beliefs of those afforded more social authority. Ultimately, effecting such change is not going to be all about money – just as much as more money alone won’t solve anything, just as much as imploring the government to “fix” all these issues by itself will not work either.

This is where VijayRaghavan’s comments about R&D spending fit in. Before we throw more money in the general direction of supporting R&D, its Augean stables will have to be cleaned out and inefficiencies eliminated. One example, apropos VijayRaghavan’s comment about 70% of funds being gridlocked due to “poor institutional processes”, comes immediately to mind.

Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist, wrote in 2008 that when he had been a member of the faculty at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, his station afford him a variety of privileges even as there was “no clear statement of our responsibility or duty to perform, and no consequences for failing to do so”. While he has since acknowledged a potential flaw in his suggested solution, the fact remains that many researchers often laze in prized research positions at well-funded institutes instead of also having to grapple with the teaching and mentorship load prevalent at state universities and colleges.

Additionally, though most people have directed their ire at the government for underfunding R&D, 55% of our R&D expenditure is from the public kitty. Among the ‘superpowers’, China is a distant second at less than 20%. So the marches for science should also ask the private sector to cough up more.

One for all

When the government pulled the financial carpet out from under the feet of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 2014 and asked its 38 labs to “go fund themselves”, many scientists were aghast that the council was being handicapped even as more money was being funnelled into pseudo-research on cow urine. But there were also many other scientists who said that the CSIR had it coming, that – as a network of labs set up to facilitate applied and translational research – it was bloated, sluggish and ripe for a pruning. Perhaps similar audits, though with ample stakeholder consultations (not the RSS) and without drastic consequences, are due for the national scientific establishment as a whole.

As a corollary, it is also true that every march, protest or agitation undertaken against casteism, sexism, patriarchy, bigotry and zealotry can work in favour of the scientific establishment since what ‘they’ are fighting against is also what scientists, and science journalists, should be fighting against. Access to bonafide scientific ideas should not be solely through textbooks, news articles and freewheeling chats on Twitter. Instead, and irrespective of whether they become available, they should have the option to be availed through the many day-to-day interactions in which we confront structures of caste and class.

For example, there is no reason the person who cleans your toilet should not also cook your dinner. To institute this dumb restriction is to perpetuate caste/class divisions as well as to reject science in the form of hand-wash fluids. For another, there is no reason an employer shouldn’t let their domestic help use the toilet when they need to. However, the practice of expecting those who work in our homes to use separate toilets or be fired still persists, even in a society as ostensibly post-caste as West Bengal’s, demonstrating “the extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste” – as well as the extent to which we falsely attribute different human bodies with irrational biological threats.

These problems are also relevant to scientists, and must be solved before we can confront the bigger, and more nebulous, order of scientific temper in the country. However, such problems can’t be fixed by scientists and science alone.

It is worth reiterating that the ‘March for Science’ tomorrow is not a lost cause; far from it, in fact. The demand that 3% of GDP be spent on R&D is entirely valid – but it also needs to be accompanied by structural reforms to be completely meaningful. So the march, in effect, is an opportunity to examine the checks and balances of science’s administration in the country, the place of science in society, and introspect on our responsibility to confront a protean problem and not back down in the face of easy solutions. If the solution was as easy as ramping up spending on R&D and education, the problem would have been solved long ago.

The Wire, 13 April 2018.

Research funding in India

After Vidya Krishnan of The Hindu broke the news of the ‘Dehradun Declaration‘, which imposed a startling funding restriction on the Centres for Scientific and Industrial Research, multiple perspectives on the issue came to light for me. One was about the tensions between funding curiosity-driven research and funding research conducted in the national interest (assuming for a moment that they’re mutually exclusive). Based on conversations I had with friends, I realised that for five questions – listed in the survey form below – the answers varied a lot (especially for questions 1, 2 and 5). So before I write anything, I’d like to know what other researchers have to say as well.

Please read the brief intro in the form below and fill it – it shouldn’t take more than five minutes of your time. I’ve a feeling we’ll all learn something from it. I’ll share the results once I have enough (>5-10) responses.

India's open access policy is out and about

On December 22, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Earth Sciences approved India’s first open access policy. The policy had been in the works since July 2014, when a committee of members affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) had drawn up the first draft. Following two rounds of receiving stakeholders’ comments, the policy came into immediate effect.

It mandates that all scientific research funded in part or in full by the government of India should be available in the public domain. To achieve this, it takes the green open access route. After scientists have published their paper in a journal of their choice, a copy of the paper is duly made available within one year on a national repository maintained by the DBT/DST. Then it gets better. The policy institutes a pay-it-forward mechanism to perpetuate the practice: scientists have to submit proof of having uploaded previous publicly funded research in future applications for grants.

These rules apply to all papers funded by grants from 2012-2013 onwards.

The policy itself is an important tool in the modern information economy because it is the simplest mechanism with which to extend the codified right to information. Open access also safeguards the value of scientific data and knowledge and frees it from a publishing business that, in order to safeguard its interests, trades them in for the demand for them. While this has been the traditional mode of scientific publishing – by getting the consumers downstream to pay the publishing costs – the open access movement moved the costs upstream. Now, the authors pay to get their work published.

Although publication in the DBT/DST national repository will be free of charge, this is a problem the country’s scientists would do well to consider as they adopt open access publishing. Effectively, what is the point of substituting one kind of inequality (richer vs. poorer readers) with another (richer vs. poorer authors)? The asymmetry arises when you consider two things:

  1. Scientists can offer have publishing costs covered through their grants or through funds from their universities, which can often afford such costs
  2. By moving costs upstream, the contents of the paper become already paid for and make them more accessible

This ‘access’ is the need of the hour. It – and the richer learning environment it brings with it – defines the ability of the scientific literature to leverage the agility of tools available to its audience to become more useful faster. Like the nuclear fusion on a star prevents it from imploding thanks to its own gravity, the acknowledgment of access’s centrality to social and economic development keeps the publishing enterprise imploding due to its own costs. After, it’s only a matter of efficiency: the easier you make it for information to get around, the faster you’re going to use it.

Nevertheless, the inequality substitution paradigm does become relevant when considering open access’s long-term interests: to make information available for all, including to those who can’t afford to publish their papers in open access journals. Over time, as the methods through which new scientific information reveals itself become standardized in much of the world, the principal challenges will be to make it ubiquitous at minimum extra costs. One solution being considered on this front is to transfer the burden to the journals themselves, alleviating the plights of the authors as well as readers, even while ensuring that journals are tasked with securing funds to cover for printing and publishing.

… in other words, acknowledging that if anybody needs to make the money, it’s them, and then helping them make the money for themselves.

But all said and done, a bright start for India. Hopefully adoption will be quick, although some institutions listed on the national repository’s webpage are already ahead. In fact, there are two repositories, one each for the DBT and the DST, while institutional repositories are listed separately. The domain itself, sciencecentral.in, leads to a handy text and metadata harvester parsing through all the information in the papers. Needless to say, the opportunities, both for instruction and criticism, are endless at this point, and provide another tool – like the RTI Act – with which to hold the government and its research priorities accountable to the people’s scientific temper.

India’s open access policy is out and about

On December 22, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Earth Sciences approved India’s first open access policy. The policy had been in the works since July 2014, when a committee of members affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) had drawn up the first draft. Following two rounds of receiving stakeholders’ comments, the policy came into immediate effect.

It mandates that all scientific research funded in part or in full by the government of India should be available in the public domain. To achieve this, it takes the green open access route. After scientists have published their paper in a journal of their choice, a copy of the paper is duly made available within one year on a national repository maintained by the DBT/DST. Then it gets better. The policy institutes a pay-it-forward mechanism to perpetuate the practice: scientists have to submit proof of having uploaded previous publicly funded research in future applications for grants.

These rules apply to all papers funded by grants from 2012-2013 onwards.

The policy itself is an important tool in the modern information economy because it is the simplest mechanism with which to extend the codified right to information. Open access also safeguards the value of scientific data and knowledge and frees it from a publishing business that, in order to safeguard its interests, trades them in for the demand for them. While this has been the traditional mode of scientific publishing – by getting the consumers downstream to pay the publishing costs – the open access movement moved the costs upstream. Now, the authors pay to get their work published.

Although publication in the DBT/DST national repository will be free of charge, this is a problem the country’s scientists would do well to consider as they adopt open access publishing. Effectively, what is the point of substituting one kind of inequality (richer vs. poorer readers) with another (richer vs. poorer authors)? The asymmetry arises when you consider two things:

  1. Scientists can offer have publishing costs covered through their grants or through funds from their universities, which can often afford such costs
  2. By moving costs upstream, the contents of the paper become already paid for and make them more accessible

This ‘access’ is the need of the hour. It – and the richer learning environment it brings with it – defines the ability of the scientific literature to leverage the agility of tools available to its audience to become more useful faster. Like the nuclear fusion on a star prevents it from imploding thanks to its own gravity, the acknowledgment of access’s centrality to social and economic development keeps the publishing enterprise imploding due to its own costs. After, it’s only a matter of efficiency: the easier you make it for information to get around, the faster you’re going to use it.

Nevertheless, the inequality substitution paradigm does become relevant when considering open access’s long-term interests: to make information available for all, including to those who can’t afford to publish their papers in open access journals. Over time, as the methods through which new scientific information reveals itself become standardized in much of the world, the principal challenges will be to make it ubiquitous at minimum extra costs. One solution being considered on this front is to transfer the burden to the journals themselves, alleviating the plights of the authors as well as readers, even while ensuring that journals are tasked with securing funds to cover for printing and publishing.

… in other words, acknowledging that if anybody needs to make the money, it’s them, and then helping them make the money for themselves.

But all said and done, a bright start for India. Hopefully adoption will be quick, although some institutions listed on the national repository’s webpage are already ahead. In fact, there are two repositories, one each for the DBT and the DST, while institutional repositories are listed separately. The domain itself, sciencecentral.in, leads to a handy text and metadata harvester parsing through all the information in the papers. Needless to say, the opportunities, both for instruction and criticism, are endless at this point, and provide another tool – like the RTI Act – with which to hold the government and its research priorities accountable to the people’s scientific temper.

Following up on the DBT/DST OA policy

Earlier in July, a group of people working with the Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology (DBT/DST) of the Government of India had drafted an open access policy covering research funded by federal grants, and mandating their availability in a national repository.

The move was lauded because it meant Indian academia was finally making an attempt to embrace open access publishing, as well as making research labs more tractable and accountable about how they spent the people’s money. However, there was some ambiguity about whether the policy would address the issue of scientists typically preferring to publish their work in high impact factor journals, and the tendency to evaluate them on the basis of that number.

There were also questions about who would pay for maintaining the national OA repository as well as the institutional repositories, how it would address institutional reluctance, and if “glamorous” journals like Nature, Cell and Science – which prohibit self-archiving of published papers – would support DBT/DST.

Last week, I met Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, one of the people on the committee that drafted the policy, and asked him about the policy’s exact goals. He then spoke at length about the its origins and what it would and wouldn’t do.

For starters, he said that the policy will negate institutional reluctance by requiring all scientists applying for federal grants to submit the ID of their previous papers in the OA repository. It will also allow only the Government of India to keep track of and evaluate the research and the scientists it funds.

On the other hand, it won’t address scientists’ preference for high impact factor journals (such as Nature, Cell and Science), and it definitely won’t interfere with how institutions choose to evaluate their scientists – at least for now. In effect, the policy is a purely people-facing gesture and not a solution to any of the other problems facing the Indian research community, and it’s doubtful what it will do to check institutional nepotism.

The drafting committee is now looking for comments, suggestions and other feedback on the document, while waiting for a go-ahead from a government that is likely to take its time.

The policy draft does mention that the DBT/DST will maintain the repository, but Prof. Arunachalam couldn’t speak about the institutional repositories. In fact, he said that concern was farther in the future than getting those journals prohibiting self-archiving to make an exception for India’s scientists, and if they don’t, to allow pre-prints of the respective papers.

The eventual goal would be to set up a queriable database of citations, along the lines of PubMed but encompassing not just medical or biological literature but also for physics, he added.

Draft policy on increasing access to DBT/DST research

An Open Access Policy Committee has drafted a policy to enhance access to publicly funded research by setting up a national open access (OA) repository under the oversight of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Reproduced in full here:

This is a very good move that that will highlight what OA can do to spur scientific research and science communication in the country. It will also

  • foster a “richer research culture” as the draft says,
  • increase accountability and tractability of public funds and the research it sponsors, and
  • make the process of resource selection/allocation more transparent.

Some quick points:

  1. Accountability of DBT/DST-controlled research by mandating uploaded papers to mention grant ID.
  2. Papers should be deposited in OA repositories once accepted by a journal, but OA will be enabled only when embargo lifts. So maybe the DBT/DST OA repositories will be like a national pre-print server – but depends on the nature of the embargo
  3. The paper (pre-print?) will be OA whether or not the journal is OA. Moreover, “Publisher agrees to provide to Author within 14 days of first publication and at no charge an electronic copy of the published Article in a format … that preserves final page layout, formatting, and content. No technical restriction, such as security settings, will be imposed to prevent copying or printing of the document. ” What if highly profitable non-OA journals based outside the country (which researchers aspire to publish in to secure advantages in non-DBT/DST settings) disagree?
  4. An author who cannot furnish his/her publication ID will not be considered for promotions, fellowships, research grants, etc., if his/her institution is under the administrative control of DBT/DST. On the other hand, how will conflicts of interest/nepotism be prevented in this regard?
  5. The DBT/DST will bear the cost of maintaining the central repository, which should eliminate conflicts of interest arising from payment-for-publication. Will the DBT/DST help set up institutional repositories? Since these IRs have to be “interoperable”, what are the standards the administration has in mind?
  6. What about research that is funded by private parties? What fraction of research funding should the DBT/DST bear for the paper to be mandatorily deposited in an OA repository?