2010 saw both highs and lows on science front

Controversy was the flavour of the year for science as top academies got the flak in the heated debate on commercialising genetically-modified crops and mishandling of radiation sources by universities that resulted in the death of a person in the capital.

The year gone by also saw the country’s atomic power plants generating more electricity as the crucial uranium fuel became available as the international community lifted the nuclear trade embargo imposed on India.

India also became the sixth country in the world to have 20 or more nuclear power plants as the fourth unit of Kaiga Generating Station was commissioned in November.

Space scientists had their share highs and lows. They celebrated as India’s own Chandrayaan-I found ice deposits near the lunar north pole and finalised the payload for a sequel to the maiden moon mission.

The year literally began with a bang with a full-blown and often acrimonious debate on the safety and efficacy of genetically-modified brinjal and is commercialisation. The pro and anti-Bt brinjal camps were well prepared with each making claims on the safety of transgenic variety of the eggplant which was cleared for release by Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a panel of top scientists, in October 2009.

However, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh over-ruled the scientific opinion and put a moratorium on its release. He later asked six leading science academies go into the issue of biotechnology in food crops with focus on transgenic crops and submit a report to him and the Planning Commission.

The report, which was released for limited circulation, triggered a furore with allegations of plagiarism against the six leading academies, including the prestigious Indian National Science Academy. Ramesh trashed the report contending that it was based on the opinion of one scientist known for his stand in favour of genetically modified crops.

The academies, representing leading scientists of the country, later updated their reports and incorporated views of researchers known for their stand against GM crops and also made proper attributions and references to material sourced from experts.

However, the damage had already been done and the first attempt to get six leading science academies to produce a collective report had resulted in a certainly avoidable instance.

Another slur on the scientific community was the radiation incident in Delhi’s Mayapuri locality where scrap dealers were exposed to radioactive material Cobalt-60 leading to death of one person and grievous injuries to 10 others.

The culprit here was the Delhi University whose officials sold as scrap a Gamma irradiator which was lying in disuse in the varsity’s chemistry department. By doing so, it had violated safe disposal of radioactive waste and radiation protection rules.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) had banned the university from using any radioactive substances in its laboratories.

The incident triggered alarm in the nuclear establishment and led to tightening of norms for disposal of radioactive waste as also strengthening screening of scrap imported from across the world for sources of radiation.

The Mayapuri incident laid bare a loophole in the system which did not have any laws dealing with such incidents. There have been calls from the scientific community for the needs to have a separate legal provision to deal with cases involving radiation exposure from equipment in the domain owned by organisations like hospitals, varsities and industry.

A Greenpeace scientist takes radiation measurements at the Mayapuri scrap market in New Delhi.

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act applies only to nuclear installations owned or controlled by the Centre either by itself or through any authority or Corporation established by it or a government company.

As a result, a University Grants Commission panel had also suggested setting up of University Safety Committees to review safety in handling radioactive and other hazardous materials used by educational institutions.

Controversies apart, Indian scientists were also involved in many a breakthrough and ‘one-shot insulin’ technique developed by Avadhesha Surolia, Director of the National Institute of Immunology definitely ranks at the top.

A team of scientists led by Surolia, developed a technique by which it may be possible for patients to take a shot of insulin just once every four to five months as against daily injections at present.

Interestingly, the team has been able to achieve this without the use of any chemical additives or a device such as a pump or a patch. Their technique primarily involved getting individual molecules of insulin to come together and form multi-molecular or supra-molecular assemblies.

The technology has been transferred to a US-based company for further development including clinical trials. The new agent could be available in the market in about six years after all the trials and other formalities are completed.

The National Institute for Plant Genome Research, Delhi, had two notable breakthroughs this year — genetically-modified potato which packs 60 per cent more protein than the conventional tuber and the GM-tomato which remains meaty and succulent even after 45 days after harvesting.

A team scientists led by Rasik Ravindra, Director of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) hoisted the tri-colour at the geographic South Pole on November 23 after a 10-day journey through the icy continent in special vehicles. On their way, the scientist collected ice cores and gathered atmospheric data in their bid to understand the changes in the environment over past 1,000 years.

Experiments involving geomorphology — the study of landforms and geophysics — which includes movements of tectonic plates were conducted in the course of their journey.

These studies are expected to add to the knowledge of how the ancient landmass, once fused with other continents in a super-continent before being separated 200 million years ago, has evolved.

During the year, Rawatbhata in Rajasthan emerged as the single largest nuclear site with six reactors with peak generating capacity of 1180 MW of the total 4780 MW of the country’s installed capacity.

Most of the units at Rawatbhata use international fuel, thus making available domestically available uranium for units at places like Kaiga, which have not been placed under international safeguards.

The fourth unit at the Kaiga Generating Station (KGS) in Karwar district became operational in November. The year also saw the beginning of construction of indigenously developed 700 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors at Kakrapar in Gujarat.

Among the big ticket events early next year are the commissioning of the first 1,000 MW nuclear reactor developed with Russian assistance at Kudankulam and final steps in commissioning the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam.

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