Bengaluru Dec 31, 2018, (Research Matters):
As we bid adieu to 2018 and welcome 2019, here is a snapshot of India’s year in science. From remarkable satellite launches, scientific breakthroughs and a cocktail of controversies, the year that went by was eventful for various reasons. Here is an attempt to travel down the memory line, reflecting on what we saw and what we could learn. While this is not an extensive list and in no way ranked, it is an attempt to highlight India’s year in science.
1. Paleontological discoveries in the Kutch:
The seemingly featureless Rann of Kutch, famous for the salt pans and mesmerising ‘nothingness’, has a deep dark secret buried inside, which paleontologists in India are quietly revealing. In 2018, the Kutch region saw two significant fossil discoveries—one, of an ancient dinosaur ichthyosaur, and the other of the first-ever hominoid ape fossils from Peninsular India. Besides, the stone tools in Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu told us a different story about human migration in India, thousands of years ago.
2. Successful satellite launches:
This image is purely representative.
Lauded as one of the leading players in space programmes, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) closed the year with seven successful satellite launches and an exciting announcement of ‘Gaganyan’. Among the satellites launched were the Cartosat-2 Series Satellite, a remote sensing satellite; G-SAT 7A, a military communication satellite meant for our defence forces; HysIS, an earth observation satellite to study the earth’s surface; IRNS-1I, a navigation satellite; and GSAT- 29 and GSAT-11—communications satellites, which were the heaviest launched by an Indian launch vehicle. Gaganyan is India’s ambitious manned spacecraft that would carry three people to space in 2021.
3. A boost to indigenous medical devices:
Cyclone-30, India’s biggest cyclotron—a particle accelerator used in medical applications—became operational in 2018. Installed in the Department of Atomic Energy’s Variable Energy Cyclotron Center (VECC), Kolkata, the cyclotron aims to produce affordable radioisotopes and related radiopharmaceuticals used for cancer diagnosis and treatment, providing hopes for a low-cost cancer treatment for the many suffering from various kinds of cancer. In another initiative, Andhra Pradesh MedTech Zone Limited (AMTZ), an initiative by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, was set up with an objective of manufacturing medical devices in the country. This could not only help halve the cost of medical devices but also reduce our dependence on imports, which is presently around 75%.
4. India’s first recipient of the Linnean Medal:
Dr Kamaljit Bawa from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, was awarded the Linnean Medal in Botany by the Linnean Society of London. He was recognised for his pioneering research on the evolution of tropical plants, tropical deforestation, non-timber forest products, and biodiversity of forests in Central America, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas.
In a first, researchers in India used data from the High-Resolution Spectrograph (HESP) at the Indian Astronomical Observatory at Hanle in Ladakh to study the Universe’s oldest stars. The study aimed to understand the formation of certain metals and atoms by studying two types of metal-poor stars and concluded that they have different origins.
6. Understanding our brain better:
The human brain is one of the complex systems in the world that tirelessly performs arduous tasks with seeming ease all through our lives! For many years, scientists are trying to understand the mechanisms behind the working of our brain, which could also hold clue to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for which there is no known cure as of now. In two interesting studies, scientists in India have shown the link between mental maladies and our immune system, and how one could detect Alzheimer’s at an early stage.
7. Recognizing the need for science and its outreach:
Credits: Annie Santamaria/ Gubbi Labs
The year saw a sense of acceptance and recognition from the scientific community towards the need for science outreach at various levels. A significant step in this direction was the launch of Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research (AWSAR) by the Department of Science and Technology, which encourages researchers to disseminate their stories as a popular science article. In addition, many workshops and seminars were held in the country that brought together science communicators and scientists to interact with each other. Science stories are now part of many mass news media outlets, which is a welcome change.
8. A ‘me-too’ time for Indian science:
Credit: Via Canva
The Indian scientific community was horrified by the tales of sexual harassment in some of the prestigious institutes in the country. Stemmed from the global ‘me-too’ campaign that urges victims of sexual harassment to come forward and speak to a world lost in its glory, the incidents at JNU and IISc were a time of reckoning to rethink changes to policies and practices that are prevalent inside the closed realms of the academia.
9. Dwindling animal species in India:
The year witnessed many unsettling reports on dwindling animal species due to habitat loss, diseases and climate change. Studies reported an alarming decrease in the populations of Nilgiri Tahr, an antelope found only in the Nilgiris, and the Himalayan Pika, due to climate change. A campaign warning the imminent extinction of the Great Indian Bustard was started to save the few that remain. A fatal fungal attack is reportedly taking its toll on the frogs of the Western Ghats. Another study pointed out at the cascading effects of wind turbines on the ecology of its surroundings.
10. Scientific misconduct and a media trail:
Credits: Annie Santamaria/ Gubbi Labs
In an embarrassment to Indian scientific community, a serious case of plagiarism and fraud was unearthed at one of India’s IITs which involved retraction of many published scientific papers for image duplication. In another case, a research paper claiming the observance of superconductivity at ‘room temperature’, published on arxiv, created a storm for the tall claims. The paper by researchers at IISc was hailed by some as the biggest-ever breakthrough in Indian science while, some questioned the claims made, all these before the paper was peer-reviewed by the journal! While the said paper does not yet appear to have been accepted by Nature, the media trail, both in print and on social media, witnessed some unwarranted high-voltage action.