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Bengaluru Monday, 28 May, 2018 - 14:07

Dr Kamaljit Bawa, President, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has been awarded the Linnean Medal in Botany by the Linnean Society of London at its annual meeting.

The Society has been awarding the Linnean Medal every year since 1888. Dr Kamaljit Bawa is the first Indian to receive the medal in its 140-year old history. The recognition, according to society’s website is awarded as “as an expression of the Society's esteem and appreciation for service to science”.

Dr Bawa was recognised for his pioneering research on the evolution of tropical plants, tropical deforestation, non-timber forest products, and for decades of work on the biodiversity of forests in Central America, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalaya. Also cited were Dr Bawa’s efforts to establish a world-class environmental centre, ATREE, in Bengaluru, the journal Conservation and Society and the India Biodiversity Portal.

“The Linnean Medal is a good recognition of our work on conservation and sustainability, and will serve as a fresh reminder that we need to redouble our efforts to fully document and study our planet’s incredible plant wealth that is rapidly declining,” said Dr Bawa in a press release.

Incidentally, the first scientist to receive the Linnean Medal, in 1888, was Sir Joseph D. Hooker, who compiled the monumental seven-volume Flora of British India—the first comprehensive account of India’s plants.

The Linnean Society, named after the famous Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who gave us a system of naming plants and animals, was established in 1788 and is among the oldest academic societies of the world.

(Based on a press release from ATREE).

Section: General, Science, Ecology, News Source:
Bhopal Sunday, 27 May, 2018 - 19:17

Every passing day we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals through medicines, cosmetics, pesticides, aerosols, gaseous emissions, pollens, etc. Many of these affect our health; some are allergens, while others could be carcinogens or cause fatal diseases. Although some products are tested to ascertain their safety for human use, the process is tedious, time-consuming and involve testing on animals. In a study, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Bhopal, have developed an alternative approach to test the toxicity of small molecules by using their chemical and physical properties.

The researchers of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, have developed a web-based tool called ToxiM. It uses machine learning and informatics to predict the toxicity of a compound using its structural and molecular properties, and its solubility and permeability which affect its absorption within the cells, and hence its toxicity. The researchers believe that the tool would be handy to the scientific community to study the environmental and physiological toxicity of a molecule.

ToxiM works by studying specific features of various compounds, their molecular descriptors and fingerprints. Molecular descriptors of a compound depict the two and three-dimensional characteristics of a molecule in numerical value. Fingerprints are used to understand chemical and structural properties of the molecule, which help to assess the solubility of a molecule. In this study, the researchers focused on examining the permeability of various compounds on our epithelial cells to determine their toxicity.

The researchers trained their tool by feeding it with data of 2,849 previously studied toxins, which have been medically recorded as ‘toxic’ even in low concentrations. They also supplied data of human metabolites that are produced in our body and are non-toxic to us. They also provided data of 41 commercially banned drugs determined to be toxic and 15 compounds commonly found in beauty products, detergents and used as food additives and preservatives. Using these datasets, they constructed three training models and performed statistical analysis to determine relationships among them.

The researchers tested ToxiM by feeding it with a validation dataset where the toxicity values predicted by the tool were verified against their known or previously reported values. The results show that the tool predicted accurately for almost all the compounds except for a few discrepancies. It classified common chemicals such as food additives like aspartame and saccharin used in sweeteners, pesticides like EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) and DCPA (Dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate) and few chemicals used in beauty products as toxic. Some compounds, whose uses are debatable, such as imidazolidinyl urea used in cosmetics and sodium hypochlorite or bleaching powder, produced mixed results through different models in ToxiM.

Talking about the precision of ToxiM, the researchers mention, “the reported accuracies in assigning a molecule as toxic or non-toxic, and the values that predict the aqueous solubility and permeability attest the performance of the tool. The models developed for ToxiM also produced a higher performance compared to some other online tools”.

ToxiM is a tool intended to be used by scientists, especially those studying toxic molecules. The platform is user-friendly, and a tutorial for navigation through the website is also available. The user is required to submit a query molecule through a Spatial Data File (SDF) or a similar format and may select one of the optimised models for prediction. The authors suggest that “the user should examine the query molecule using all the models available at the web server for comprehensive results”. In the future, the applicability of the tool may be improved by including other properties such as compositional, concentration, target organism and system, and any other factor that leads to physiological toxicity.

Section: General, Science, News Source:
Bengaluru Friday, 25 May, 2018 - 10:29

A team of researchers from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart, Germany, and University of Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany have developed a novel silver nanoparticle-graphene hybrid photodetector device with an increased ability to detect Ultraviolet light.

Graphene—a form of carbon made of a single sheet of graphite or carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, has been a much studied material, ever since its rediscovery in 2004. Thanks to the advantageous electrical and physical properties of this 2 dimensional material, researchers have been able to exploit these properties to advance the electronics and materials industries. One area where graphene has been found wanting is in its interaction with photons-particles of light.

To enhance this property of interaction with light, researchers have proposed several strategies. One of these strategies has been to sensitize the grapheme with plasmonic nanostructures, to form a graphene-plasmonic hybrid system. Plasmonic nanoparticles are particles which show an increased interaction with light of wavelength larger than the particle itself. These particles are said to interact with light waves through an oscillation of their internal electric fields, as the light hits the particle. Previous studies have demonstrated enhanced visible and infrared light detection efficiency in graphene-plasmonics hybrid materials. However, these devices haven’t been efficient at detecting ultraviolet (UV) light.

In their new study, the researchers wanted to develop a graphene-plasmonics hybrid material with enhanced UV light detection abilities. For the study, silver nanoparticles were chosen as the plasmonics particles, which were decorated with graphene, to form the hybrid structure.

The researchers employed self-assembly and physical shadow growth techniques to “fabricate a regular large-area array of silver nanoparticles, each measuring around 50 nanometers. Onto this array, grapheme is deposited using chemical vapour deposition technique, where graphene vapour is incident on the nanoparticles to form a layer of graphene on them. “The device fabrication strategy is scalable and modular” remark the authors, making it easier to commercialize the process.

The new silver nanoparticle-graphene hybrid device showed an enhanced ability to interact with light of wavelength ranging between 330 nanometers to 450 nanometers. Further, when lower wavelengths of light were used, the researchers measured an even higher responsivity from the hybrid device corresponding to a staggering 10000 times increase over the responsivity of native graphene. If commercialized, the material could greatly increase our ability to detect ambient UV light.

Section: General, Science, Technology, News Source:
Mumbai Thursday, 24 May, 2018 - 20:50

There exists a theory among economists called the ‘pollution haven hypothesis’ that talks about how foreign investments are related to environmental regulations. It states that companies from developed countries often seek to set up manufacturing units in developing countries not only because they can obtain cheap labour and resources, but also because environmental regulations in these countries are usually lenient, reducing the cost of compliance.  But does empirical data support this hypothesis? In a new study, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) explored this question in the Indian context and found that the data suggests otherwise.

In the study, published in the journal Asian Development Review, the researchers note that factors like infrastructure and access to market influence foreign investments more than environmental norms.  In other words, the 'pollution haven hypothesis' fails to explain the investment patterns in the Indian context.

Foreign direct investments (FDI) into India have been significantly increasing in the recent years, especially after the liberalisation era of the early 1990s. For governments, these investments are significant to generate jobs and showcase development.  Hence, if the 'pollution haven' hypothesis is, in fact, correct, governments would then have to reduce environmental standards to attract more investments. Although there are pieces of evidence where the governments have relaxed environmental norms, this is not the case everywhere, say the researchers.

"In the People’s Republic of China, provinces compete intensely for foreign capital by offering promises of preferential treatment to potential foreign investors, which can include a tacit (or explicit) commitment to lax enforcement of environmental standards”, the researchers say, giving an example where the hypothesis holds true. However, there are cases where environmental standards were made stringent to attract foreign investments. "Foreign investors in Costa Rican banana production have insisted upon the application of high environmental standards as their European customers demand an environmentally sound product”, is an example the researchers quote of the latter case.

But, what about India? In this study, the researchers test the 'pollution haven' hypothesis for 21 Indian states and union territories from 2002-2010 by examining the impacts of environmental governance on FDI over the years.  One way to calculate the cost of compliance with environmental regulations is to add all the pollution control costs by various companies, for each state.  Although this approach is used in many previous studies, it is flawed because, if a state has many pollution-intensive units, then the pollution control cost is naturally higher even though the environmental governance in that state may not necessarily be stringent, points out the study. Therefore, it has considered the reworked metric that addresses the flaws of previous metrics, and is a more effective reflection of the level of environmental governance in a particular region.

The results revealed that states and union territories like Chandigarh, Odisha, and Karnataka have the highest environmental stringency whereas Bihar, Delhi, North Eastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands exhibit the lowest.  Also, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Odisha, Goa, and Haryana have become stringent over time, whereas Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand have become lenient over time.  However, this stringency in environmental governance, evident from the cost of compliance, was found to have no impact at all on the FDI.  This finding empirically demonstrates that a region’s environmental norms do not influence the investment decisions of the foreign companies.

Apart from environmental governance, the study also considered various other factors that influence FDI in a state. It found that factors like market size and demand, the share of the manufacturing sector in the state economy, availability of power, proximity to the coast, existing investment stock, availability of resources and human capital influence FDI decisions.  It also found that higher per capita income of a region attracts more investments as it demonstrates a higher purchasing power of the people and hence, an excellent market opportunity.

The study is a right step towards demystifying the theory of ‘race to the bottom’ by relaxing all environmental regulations in the name of attracting investments, as it drains resource availability and health of the citizens.  It further notes that “foreign firms generally seek consistent environmental enforcement over lax enforcement, which may also hold true in the case of Indian states.”

So, the message is clear—the way to attract investments is not by relaxing the environmental standards, but by providing better infrastructure and market access.

Section: General, Science, Society, Policy, News Source:
Mumbai Thursday, 24 May, 2018 - 11:08

Researchers at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), Mumbai, have developed a new minimum opportunity cost targeting algorithm (MOCTA) to help organizations and institutions select the right environmental and conservation projects to pursue.

Researchers working in institutions and organizations are often inundated with project ideas to pursue. Corporations are often obliged to carry out environmental and conservation projects, as part of their corporate social responsibilities, while many NGOs and institutions also pursue such initiatives out of self-interest. Funding agencies that fund these projects, however, must be able to select the right projects to pursue based on several criteria, like benefits, applications, and overall cost of the project. One of the main factors that helps in deciding the right project to pursue is capital budgeting—the amount of money to be allocated for the project.

“To achieve the market competitiveness as well as sustainable products and processes, a firm invests in different environmental and conservation projects. Capital budgeting essentially entails the decision of funding a set of acceptable projects from a larger pool of available projects, subject to different funding constraints” remark the researchers.

To help with this process of selecting the right project to pursue, researchers at IITB have developed the novel minimum opportunity cost targeting algorithm (MOCTA). The algorithm helps to address the capital budgeting problems for selecting environmental management problems. MOCTA is based on the principles of Pinch Analysis—a sequential methodology used to minimize energy consumption in chemical processes by optimization of the systems involved. Here, partially acceptable problems are formulated as linear programming- a mathematical optimization technique. The algorithm was also used, in coordination with another technique called branch and bound, to solve problems where a project is either completely accepted or completely rejected.

The researchers went on to demonstrate the applicability of the methodology through a complex search tree, using a hypothetical example. They further demonstrated the validity of the algorithm “through case studies of selecting energy conservation projects in the Indian Paper and Pulp industry”.

MOCTA could help optimize the process of selecting the right environmental and conservation projects for organizations and institutions to pursue, by reducing the amount of time, man-hours and other resources spent in taking the decision.

Section: General, Science, Technology, News Source:
Chandighar Wednesday, 23 May, 2018 - 15:56

Poor kitchens cause household air pollution and along with poor sanitation, results in millions of annual premature deaths globally, says study

Apart from air and water pollution, a significant public health concern in India at a household level is the lack of proper sanitation. According to a United Nations report, globally, 240 crore people lack access to essential sanitation services, such as toilets and India has been trying to address this through initiatives such as the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission).  But there is another significant risk lurking, which we have ignored for too long!  The pollution in our kitchens!

In a recent study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, researchers from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, and University of California, Berkeley, USA, have highlighted the urgency to address the issue of cleanliness in both kitchens and toilets simultaneously.

Kitchens, especially those that burn biomass such as cow dung, charcoal, wood and crop waste for cooking, contribute significantly to household air pollution (HAP), also known as the indoor air pollution. The fumes from these fuels are known to cause respiratory infections and many other non-communicable diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 300 crores ‘forgotten’ people still use biomass globally, and 38 lakh premature deaths occur in a year from illness ‘attributable to household air pollution’. The problem is severe in developing countries like India where such pollution killed about 12 lakh people in  2012, as the present study elaborates.

“Water, sanitation and hygiene get most of the public/media attention as their adverse health effects are immediate. In contrast, health effects of household air pollution take time to develop and are non-communicable, hence are often ignored. Recent studies highlight that outdoor and indoor pollution are leading causes of diseases and disability in Asia.  Hence, we feel that issue of household air pollution should also be a major component of ‘Swachh Bharat’ Mission”, says Dr Ravindra Khaiwal, Professor of Environment Health at PGIMER, who is also an author of the study.

The researchers of the study point out that in India, lack of proper toilets and kitchens affect the poorest and most vulnerable population in rural areas or urban slums. While there are water and sanitation departments and various schemes for improving access to toilets, there are no similar schemes to address the shortcomings in the kitchens. “Most rural households and urban slums in developing countries have a single room, where they cook and sleep; this makes them vulnerable to toxic HAP exposure”, say the researchers pointing out to the hazards of kitchens.

In this study, the researchers advocate integration of sanitation and HAP schemes as it reduces the cost of interventions including survey, monitoring, and evaluation of programmes. Although schemes like Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) exist to provide free LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) schemes to the poor, the researchers push for reducing the natural tendency of households to maintain some usage of biomass during the initial years of LPG use.

“There is need to generate a shared pool of funding to better address the sanitation and HAP issues. We feel that the private sector should take the lead under corporate social responsibility. At the same time, there is a need to bring the key players such as the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to jointly plan strategies and policy intervention to timely attain the ‘better health for all’ by 2030 under our commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal.”

The major issue with our kitchens is not only the continued use of biomass instead of clean fuels like LPG but also the poor ventilation that retains the pollutants long after the fuel is burnt.  Building sufficiently ventilated kitchens might require bold signalling in terms of policies such as indoor air quality guidelines.  Therefore, along with improved sanitation facilities, affordable, clean fuel, improved stoves and proper ventilation are the major factors for a healthier India. Developing a country-specific indoor air quality guidelines and action framework, with a particular focus on HAP, could facilitate necessary legal mandate and financial support, the researchers say.

“We would like to pilot some intervention in our field practice area and see how can we build a sustainable model to address the sanitation and HAP by creating awareness and building capacity of local communities to reduce the disease burden. Further, there is no India specific indoor air quality guideline, and we aim to generate data to fill the science-policy framework gap better,” says Dr Khaiwal, outlining their plans on the future of this research.

 

Section: General, Science, Health, Society, Deep-dive Source:
Lucknow Wednesday, 23 May, 2018 - 12:37

Researchers from Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, Institute of Urban Environment (IUE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Xiamen, People’s Republic of China, and CSIR- Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow have studied the wastewater produced from tanneries and analyzed the pollutants present in it. Their study reveals an immediate threat to the environment from the recalcitrant pollutants present in the wastewater.

Leather manufacturing is one of the oldest traditions in the world, which still continues to this day. India saw some of the earliest tanneries in the world, with archeological discoveries pointing to tanning being carried out in Mehrgarh (located in modern day Balochistan, Pakistan) between 7000 and 3300 BC. Even today, India remains one of the top producers of leather and products made from it, accounting for around 13 % of the world’s leather production. Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh is considered one of the largest producers of leather, with around a third of all the leather exports going from here. Tanneries- the place where animal skins are processed in to leather, also form an important part of the economic backbone of the country.

Although an ancient practice, the process of producing leather from animal hides still leaves a lot to be desired. One of the major threats to the environment comes from the wastewater produced from tanneries. In their study, the researchers identified and characterized the recalcitrant organic and inorganic pollutants present in the wastewater, and studied its effects on the environment.

The researchers used Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry- where in the sample is separated into its constituent compounds, and the mass of each compound is calculated. Sample wastewater obtained from a common effluent treatment plant in Unnao served as the sample for the studies.

The analysis showed the present of several toxic chemicals, like benzyl chloride, butyl octyl phthalate, 2,6-dihydroxybenzoic acid 3TMS, dibutyl phthalate, benzyl alcohol, benzyl butyl phthalate, dibenzyl phthalate, and nonylphenol  etc. were present in the treated tannery wastewater. “Due to endocrine disrupting nature and aquatic toxicity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified many of these as “priority pollutants” and restricted their use in leather industries” remark the authors. The treated water also contained high chromium and lead content beyond the permissible limits for industrial discharge.

Further, a study of the effect of the treated wastewater on environmental parameters suggests that the tannery wastewater inhibits seed germination and seedling growth of Phaseolus aureus L (Mung Bean). “This indicates that the TWW discharged even after secondary treatment into the environment has very high pollution parameters and may cause a variety of serious health threats in living beings upon exposure” say the researchers. They further believe that this study would be helpful to form proper guidelines for the treatment of tannery wastewater.

Section: General, Science, News Source:
Mangaluru Tuesday, 22 May, 2018 - 17:59

After the Microhyla laterite that was described from Manipal in 2016, scientists have found another new narrow-mouthed frog from the city centre of Mangaluru, in coastal Karnataka. 

The coastal city of Mangaluru in Karnataka now has a new feather in its cap with the discovery of a new species of narrow-mouthed frog. Named after Mangaluru, called kodial in the Konkani language, Microhyla kodial was first spotted in Mangaluru. The newly discovered species is the 10th species of Microhyla from India.

A joint effort by a team comprising Vineeth Kumar K, Department of Applied Zoology, Mangalore University, Mangalagangothri, Konaje, Radhakrishna Upadhyaya K, Department of Applied Zoology, Mangalore University, Mangalagangothri, Konaje, Prof. Rajashekhar K Patil , Department of Applied Zoology, Mangalore University, Mangalagangothri, Konaje, Godwin Rodny D’Souza, St. Aloysius Pre University College, Mangalore, Anwesha Saha, Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), and Dr. N. A. Aravind Madhyastha, Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) - the discovery is published in the latest issue of International Taxonomic Journal, Zootaxa, says a release shared by ATREE. The study is supported by the Department of Science and Technology and the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

The newly described frog is characterized by the absence of a lateral body stripe, tuberculated dorsal skin surface, absence of webbing between fingers and dorsal marginal groove on finger and toe disc, and the presence of basal webbing between toes. According to the researchers, the new species discovered is also distinct in its shorter breeding season, limited to the rainy season (June to September) and the females lay up to 300 eggs per clutch.

The researchers encountered this new species while carrying out field surveys in the coastal region of western India as part of a more extensive study on community ecology of anurans (frogs and toads) in the urban landscape. The new species (unlike other described members of Microhyla), has been exclusively recorded from an urban industrial area that is surrounded by seaport, petrochemical, chemical and refinery industries. Given that this species occurs in high density, the researchers infer that it is tolerant and adapted to such disturbances. Since the industrial patch, where Microhyla kodial was spotted, used to be a depot for timber imported from Southeast Asia, the researchers suggest that the frog could have been accidentally introduced with timber that came from Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.

To confirm this inference, Dr. N. A. Aravind, a senior member of the research team mentioned that they have used molecular analysis (using DNA) along with morphological and bioacoustics characteristics to ascertain the distinction of this species. Elated with the discovery, Dr. Aravind says “the new species resembles closer to the South-east Asian ones than the South Asian ones.”

Speaking to Research Matters on the recent discovery, Dr. K. S. Seshadri, an amphibian researcher and an alumnus of the National University of Singapore, remarked that this discovery highlights the possibility of missing taxa suggesting that perhaps there are more species to be discovered from India and the Western Ghats in particular. And when such species are included in the molecular analysis, they might tell a different story of biogeographical relationships.

(Based on a press release shared by ATREE and inputs from researchers.)

Additional Resources shared by the researchers:

Watch the behavioural videos of the new species by clicking on following links:

Photo and video credits: Vineeth Kumar K

Section: General, Science, Ecology, News Source:
Bengaluru Tuesday, 22 May, 2018 - 14:49

In March 2018, the city of Mumbai woke up to long bygone visitors—the Olive Ridley turtles were crawling on the Versova beach after two decades! Mumbai beaches, infamous for being a pile of garbage, was being cleaned for years for this grand welcome. What’s so remarkable about these turtles, you ask? Well, turtles are the oldest reptiles inhabiting the earth and can live for up to a hundred years. Many of them are classified as ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’, making their sightings a feast.

Turtles are found in both freshwater and seawater, and lay eggs on land. For this, they travel miles between their feeding ground and nesting ground. Some sea turtles are known to go as long as 1400 miles! In some cases, these turtles migrate great distances to nest on the same beach year after year, and lay eggs in pits laboriously dug with their flippers. The phenomenal ‘arribada’, Spanish for arrival, where thousands of female turtles visit one of the eight shores of Odisha for mass nesting during October and April, is a fascinating event observed only in two species of turtles across the world—Olive Ridley and Kemp’s Ridley turtles.

India is home to five species of sea turtles; Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) turtles can be found all along the coastline spanning 7500 km. Although Loggerhead turtles are found in India, there is very little information about their nesting. There are about 25 species of freshwater turtles distributed across West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Mizoram.

Turtles - A vital link in the food chain

Turtles play a crucial role in nutrient cycling as they transport nutrients from the water to dunes that are nutrient-deficit, resulting in healthy beaches. Their shells are home to epibionts—organisms that live on the surface of another organism—and are eaten by seabirds. Sea turtles feed on seagrass—flowering plants that grow in the sea—thereby preventing their overgrowth that can hinder the water current and result in their decay. “In the Lakshadweep, green turtles have been doing the damnedest thing. They have been destroying seagrass meadows. In Agatti, an island in Lakshadweep, about 550 turtles counted a few years ago decimated the meadows”, says Mr. Muralidharan M, a Field Director at Dakshin Foundation, who works on turtle conservation projects in India.

Hawksbill turtles are known to feed on sponges in the ocean, making space for the growth of healthy coral populations. As the top predator of jellyfishes, turtles help in maintaining the balance in the food web.

However, all is not well with these magnificent and versatile creatures. In recent times, their survival is threatened by many factors. They are often victims of incidental catch in trawler fishing vessels and gill nets that scoop fish (and many other organisms) from the bottom of the sea. Their nesting spaces are destroyed by casuarina trees planted to reduce calamities during strong winds and for timber. Feral dogs, raptor birds such as eagles and kites, and a few communities eat their eggs. Unplanned beach developments involving the construction of resorts is a threat due to expanding tourism. Hunting and exploitation of turtles for meat and climate change are other woes these turtles face.

With their dwindling population, the ability of turtles to maintain the health of the world’s oceans goes down.  There are also misconceptions about how turtles affect the fish in the sea. In Agatti, for example, the local fishermen believe that the decline in fish catch is due to the increase in green turtles.

Realising the importance of turtles, they are now ‘protected’ under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which prevents their hunting and trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement provides absolute protection by banning some species of turtles from being involved in any trade, with offences prescribed with highest penalties. The forest departments in many states are trying to push the belief that turtles are an incarnation of Lord Vishnu according to Indian mythology, and hence they need to be conserved. However, these steps seem to be inadequate as hundreds of turtles are found dead on the coasts for various reasons.

A step towards saving India’s turtles

Realising the importance of turtles, many researchers, organisations and individuals have come together to address their declining numbers in the country and to protect coastal ecosystems. There are conservation efforts at multiple scales and levels, including educating local communities of the benefits of these turtles. One such effort is by Ms. Madhuri Ramesh from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. She advocates ‘conservation governance’ of turtles that involves identification of the threatened species and associated management practices, creation and maintenance of spatial enclosures in the form of ‘protected areas’ and identification of certain human activities as ‘threats’.

Turtle Action Group is a nationwide network of sea turtle conservation organisations, established by Dakshin Foundation, Bengaluru and headed by Dr. Kartik Shanker. It monitors leatherback turtles, a threatened species, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They also perform genetic studies and track turtles using satellite telemetry. “Our transmitter attachment procedure involves drilling through the ridge on the back of the turtle, and tying the transmitter in place with wires that are threaded through plastic tubing”, explains Mr. Muralidharan.

The Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a voluntary group in Chennai mainly comprising of students, is providing a unique opportunity for all to help conserve turtles through its citizen science initiatives. Mr. Arun Venkataraman, a coordinator of SSTCN, proudly says “This conservation work has been going on since the early 1970's when Romulus Whitaker, a well-known Indian herpetologist, and Zai Whitaker initiated it. If not for the work of this group and its predecessors and the forest department, many species of turtles would have gone locally extinct.”

SSTCN is actively involved in collecting the eggs and incubating them in a hatchery. Since volunteers run the entire activity, a small contribution of checking the hatchery in the middle of the night by someone returning from work is a significant one. “Over the last 30 years, a few hundred youths have carried the responsibility of the programme. Many of them are now involved in environmental work as researchers, conservationists, activists, journalists, environmental filmmakers, etc.”, says Mr. Venkataraman.

Most conservation efforts focus on involving not only researchers and ecologists but also local communities and helping them understand how small steps can help rebuild the population of turtles to healthy levels in India. Collection of eggs and setting up of hatcheries on the shores, turning off lights when hatchlings emerge and conducting various awareness programmes for the local community goes a long way in helping the survival of these turtles.

Aldo Leopold, an American ecologist, and conservationist famously said, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land”. It is this harmony many individuals and organisations are working towards, in the hope that we can preserve many forms of lives from being wiped off from the face of our planet.

Section: General, Science, Ecology, Policy, Deep-dive, Featured Source:
Bengaluru Tuesday, 22 May, 2018 - 08:44

Sweden's recent decision to terminate a contract with a scientific publisher, because the publisher was not making sufficient progress towards Sweden's demands for open access, has given rise to much jubilation in some quarters. It is argued that Sweden has stood up for the interests of the broad general public against the pecuniary interests of the scientific publishing industry.

The argument made by proponents of open access journals is that the results of publicly-funded research must be made freely available to the public. The public, it is argued, have already paid for the research as tax-payers, and should not be asked to pay a second time to access publications that emerge from that research. While the argument appears compelling at first sight, there is more to the issue than meets the eye.

Open access journals are journals whose content is available free of charge on the Internet. Readers can freely access papers in open access journals without any financial or legal barriers. In contrast, subscription-based journals charge a subscription fee to grant access to the research papers published in such journals.

Most publishers of journals, both open-access and subscription-based, do not pay authors, editors or reviewers. Nevertheless, they must bear expenses related to typesetting, and if they produce a paper version, costs associated with printing and distribution. In conventional, subscription-based journals, these costs are then recouped from subscribers, typically universities, public libraries, other corporate and individual subscribers.

If research publications are made freely available to readers through open access publishing, the publishers are forced to look elsewhere to recoup their costs. One popular source is the authors of these publications themselves who are increasingly asked to pay publication fees (sometimes called author fees, page charges or processing fees). Researchers often receive grants from universities and funding agencies to pay these fees. However, these charges increase the difficulties of getting published for researchers from less well-funded institutions, often located in third-world countries.

This system of open access journals funded by author fees creates powerful perverse incentives for publishers. If more research papers are published, revenues and profits go up. As publishers clamour to publish more and more research papers, reviewers are increasingly pressured not to reject research papers that are submitted, and the quality of research published tends to suffer. A few years ago, a sting operation by Science revealed that more than one hundred and fifty open access journals accepted a spoof paper that any reviewer with a high-school level knowledge of the field would allegedly have rejected, with one charging nearly two lakh rupees as author fees. Moreover, 60% of the decisions were allegedly made without any sign of peer review.

Academics are often under immense pressure to ‘publish or perish’. Open access publishing funded by author fees feeds a system where academics may be evaluated more by quantity than quality. There is a danger of universities filling up with people of questionable academic credentials whose primary skill is not 'research', but gathering and husbanding the resources needed to publish a large number of research papers, albeit of questionable quality, in these open access journals.

Several commercial organisations use published research to drive product development. In the traditional subscription-based model of publishing, they pay for access to the journals, thereby bearing some of the cost of publication. But under the open access regime, they gain free access to the research findings that can add to their profits. One has to ponder about whether publicly funded research must subsidise private profit.

Despite these compelling arguments, few would argue with the proposition that research findings ought to be accessible to the public. It is worth bearing in mind that access is not reducible to the cost of a subscription to the journal. It is also necessary for readers to have a basic education and for papers to be written in a comprehensible language. Nevertheless, once these conditions are met, the high cost of the subscription to journals often poses a barrier that needs to be addressed.

One successful model for providing free, public access to the results of research is arXiv.org, an electronic repository of preprints of research papers. It is funded by Cornell University, the Simons Foundation and voluntary contributions by other universities, and therefore free to use for both authors and readers. Scientists can post papers to the repository, often in addition to submitting them to a peer-reviewed journal. However, one shortcoming of this model is that there is no peer review of research papers posted to repositories like arXiv.org, and hence there are no quality controls. Nevertheless, there is a provision for authors to state whether their paper has been accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal, thereby addressing reader concerns about quality.

To avoid potential copyright battles between researchers who wish to post their papers to electronic repositories like arxiv.org and publish them in journals, in Germany, researchers have gained the legal right to post their publications on the Internet; a right that other countries would do well to replicate.
   
Another intriguing possibility is to have electronic-only journals that make use of electronic repositories like arxiv.org. Submitting a paper to such a journal would involve nothing more than sending a link to the preprint to the editor who would, in turn, find a reviewer. Upon completion of the peer review process, the editor would grant the author a virtual ‘badge’ to display alongside the paper on the electronic repository, without any need for the journal to typeset the paper or run an independent website. Since editors and reviewers are typically not paid in any case, a journal operating on these lines would cost very little money to run.

The ideal solution is for journals to be fully funded directly by universities, governments or professional societies, thereby making their use free of charge for both authors and readers. In such a system, we can ensure that the incentives of publishers are firmly aligned with their envisaged role as gatekeepers of good science. Such a system need not be prohibitively expensive if measures like those discussed above are adopted.

Instead of the unbridled clamour for open access journals, science would be better served by journals that can provide access to the public while safeguarding the quality of research. Alongside this, governments and universities must also make greater efforts to communicate the results of scientific research in a manner that is understandable to the general public. 

Section: General, Science, Society, Deep-dive, Op-ed Source:

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