Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scientifying our lawmakers

I wished for every Member of Parliament to understand the impact of emerging technologies and be able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. It has been in my wish list for a long time to engage MPs and scientists in a dialogue to bring science to the corridors of power.

Sounds like an uphill task? It dawned on me that if you don’t try, you will never know if our lawmakers are interested in science. So I started to explore the possibility of organising the inaugural dialogue between scientists and MPs – from both sides of the political divide during the recent parliamentary session. I wrote to almost all the MPs.

The topic was on GM crops and its impact on food security and sustainable development, optimistically thinking the two challenges will be close to our MPs’ hearts. True enough, a number of MPs responded saying they are interested and some asked for a change in date.
It was a pleasant surprise that the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club (BNBC) not only helped in getting their MPs to attend, but was also present to facilitate their participation and to get first-hand information on the subject.

The dialogue was a success in spite of its small scale but the main challenge in organising such dialogues bogged me down – getting public sector scientists to participate. It is either the public sector scientists or the opposition MPs, not both under the same roof!

I can only conclude that we need to become a more matured society and sit on the same platform for discussion, especially on topics that are of utmost importance to nation building.
Science has its role and so has politics and the twain must come together for the betterment of society – especially on matters pertaining to climate change and food security. I trust it is not the politicians who set the “gag rule” for public sector scientists but these are self-imposed rules by their management. One need to understand that engaging the MPs from both sides on science and its policies will only strengthen the government’s robust initiatives.

On a positive note, to end 2013, the BNBC executive secretary and BN’s research assistant were more than happy to help organise future dialogues and concurred that such meetings are important for our lawmakers. This is a milestone for MABIC and an inroad towards science literacy and making science a culture.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A wish list for a reformation in science and technology

Reproduce from The Petri Dish April issue

It is election time once again. Parties from both sides of the political divide are feverishly campaigning to convince the electorate to embrace their manifestos. Bread and butter issues are being pedalled by both, the current caretaker government and the opposition coalition right out and upfront. On the macro level, eradication of corruption and transparent governance takes the slot.

For the next couple of weeks at least, the mainstream print and electronic media will be inundated with colourful news of political campaigning - which will all culminate with the outcome from the ballot boxes. There will be those wearing the victor’s crown and those standing on the loser’s pedestal.       

In fact even long before the dissolution of parliament - we have seen different sectors of societies, politicians from both sides of the divide, university students and NGOs championing various issues that will have an impact on the electorate. However, reformation on science, technology and innovation is hardly heard off – although in the United States and in the national British election campaign trails science, technology and innovation gets high mention in the agenda.

Science and technology are key pillars for economic development, national robustness and self-sufficiency. Science and technological innovation spearheads and provides a high quality and standard of life for the citizenry. How else can we attain a developed status as a nation and even create job opportunities for our graduates if science is put away in the back burner?

This is my wish list for the new Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation and Minister for Higher Education who comes on board when the colourful fanfare of our national elections on May 5 draws to a close:

>>  Inculcate a strong research culture among our scientists and researchers. When we walk into a research institute overseas we see labs buzzing with activities, researchers sipping their coffee in cafes and staff lounges while in discussion with their colleagues with journal papers and work plans in their hands, and meeting rooms occupied to discuss research and reports and not merely administrative meetings. The same certainly cannot be observed when we walk into our very own labs. Are there loud stories that can be told from every lab besides purchasing of new equipment?

>> A long term vision and direction. There should be focus on  continuity  of long term research and sustained research.  Research priorities change when there is a management change. Research is not followed through till the objectives are achieved. The frequently asked question is “when can we see the product?” And my answer would be “two years if we want to sell at night markets.”

>>   Understand the need for basic and translational research. We are currently too much into commercialisation that we fail to understand it is basic research that would lead to product development. How can we develop anti-cancer medicine without understanding tumorgenesis pathways and cell genetics?

>>  Prioritise research areas to set national challenges. Can we set priority areas for the various research and   proposed grand national challenges to address problems of the countries and the region. This will motivate different groups from different institutions   to work together within some timeline? Let us break the territorial walls and have scientists working in teams regardless of their affiliation and institutes with one goal in mind. I know there are teams made up from various institutes now, but I also often hear, “we should be the one working on this project as we are the designated institute for this crop/product/project.”

>>   Scientists to have an independent voice. Freedom of speech is not just important for the media but also for scientists to comment on policies, regulations and to rebut misinformation. How many of our scientists came out in the public to talk about Lynas, labelling of GM foods, GM mosquitoes, etc? Is it lack of time or lack of confidence/independence to speak without fear and favour?

>>   Tackling brain drain . How do we find ways to create job opportunities or incentives so we can keep our best brains at all levels to contribute to our national need and objective  of getting  50 scientists per 10,000 population
This is may be a tall order but I wish, with the hope of a renewed sense of commitment, direction and strategies - that my wish list in some way will catapult the country’s existing research laboratories to greater heights. It requires a paradigm shift and strong sense of commitment and perseverance.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Developing countries fared better than industrialised countries!

For the first time since GM crops were commercialised in 1996, developing countries took over industrialised countries in terms of GM crop hectarage. To date GM or biotech crops are grown on 170 million hectares of land. This is 100-fold increase where in 1996, 1.7 million hectares were used to grow GM crops.

The main question remains: Would farmers continue to adopt a technology that is not profitable, safe, and that does not have a market?

 “Biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history,” said Clive James, veteran author of the annual report and chair and founder of ISAAA.

 “This growth is contrary to the prediction of critics, who prior to the commercialization of the technology in 1996 prematurely declared that biotech crops were only for industrial countries, and would never be accepted and adopted by developing countries,” James said further.

The benefits of GM crops are multiple: increase in yield, savings in fuel, time and machinery, reduction in pesticide use, higher quality of product and more growing cycles. And these are the factors that contribute to the increase in hectarage year after year.

Food security, sustainable development and climate change are the serious challenges and evidence points to GM crops as one of the solutions.

Africa missed the Green Revolution but is catching up with gene revolution now with Sudan joining South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Cuba was also a first timer last year, growing GM cotton.
China, India, Brazil and Argentina together grew 46 per cent of global GM crops. Brazil is becoming a leader in this with its science-based and very efficient regulatory system which could be a model for other economies to follow.

Golden Rice might finally see the light of the day in 2013/14. This crop is slated to benefit millions of people in Asia and Africa, especially young children.

For more info, please check:

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Banking for the future (Part II)

On the subject of seedbanks in my previous blog on 11th December 2012, let’s look further on the types of seeds that exist and how to store them long term. The seed has an embryo and is well protected by the testa or seed coat. When the seed is in storage it is said to be at resting stage or dormant. After a long period or short period of rest the seed can be woken up! This happens in the environment, in the soil. When the conditions are suitable the seed begins to grow. Legume seeds have been found to be alive (viable) for 25 years. Even more remarkable is the fact that wheat seeds buried in the Egyptian tombs for centuries been found to be alive. There are many examples such as these that puzzle us on the seed’s ability to be alive and withstand desiccation and survive the stress. This is one strange mystery of life.

There are a few types of seeds categorised according to the seed’s ability to withstand storage conditions. Seeds that can be stored for very long periods with low moisture content are known as orthodox seeds while those that cannot be stored for long especially in seed banks are known as recalcitrant seeds. Modern methods to store these recalcitrant seeds include tissue culture technology or cryopreservation which is actually storing embryos that have been excised and kept in liquid nitrogen (-1960C).

As mentioned previously seed banks keep seeds safely for a ‘rainy day’. They carry out the basic function of getting new germplasm either through collection or exchange. Each lot of seed is given a passport, so to speak, so that there is no duplication. Conservation is then carried out making available genetic material for crop improvement and to restore it where it has been lost in a country. A gene bank carries out viability tests regularly to ensure stored seeds are always alive and of good quality.

To sum it all we can attribute a seed bank to be an agriculture insurance policy.

By Christina Stephensons

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Truth Prevails

In the past weeks lots of support has been pouring in for GM crops. Many who have been working tirelessly to promote GM crops understand the contribution of these crops to food security, poverty alleviation, reduction in environmental footprints, and in mitigating climate change. And for these people it is often frustrating to see bad press and scaremongering tactics used to create fear among the public.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Downing Street joins the chorus of proponents of GM crops saying GM crops should be grown and sold widely in Britain. A spokesperson has been quoted as saying opposition to GM crops is “complete nonsense”. I hope this drives some sense into those who religiously spend their time and resources to do all they can to deprive the world from benefiting from GM crops.

Next to join this is WWF Vice President, Jason Clay who backs intensive agriculture and GM crops. Clay understands that the burden on the environment can be reduced through intensive farming and by adopting GM crops. He says intensive agriculture is more sustainable than extensive farming.

And then comes Mark Lynas, a one-time strong opponent of GM crops who says “What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it”. In his lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas said the anti-GM movement  has rendered the process of official approval of new crop technologies too long-winded and prohibitively expensive.

(This is something I never understood – anti-GM activists complain that the technology is monopolised by the giant companies and then make it easier for them by prohibiting public sectors from entering by raising the regulatory costs.)

Anyways, I hope the public and the policymakers and the politicians will start to realise the science behind GM crops and able to differentiate science and pseudoscience.

Will Seralini take a cue from Lynas?

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


I am always amused with the talks of new year resolutions and its impact on our achievements. Can anyone tell me if new year resolutions have really made a great impact on your life? I don’t make new year resolutions as we have 365 opportunities (if not more)  to make resolutions on any other days. I make resolutions all the time, so I don’t wait till the 1st of Jan.

Anyways, to those who  religiously followed through your resolutions  - my sincerest congratulations!

I would like to reproduce my editorial note from the Dec issue of Petri Dish and hope we could connect with each other on the issues discussed.

“THE year is coming to an end. And as usual it is time to take stock of our success and failures to improve in the coming years. A number of biotechnology related policies were launched in 2012.

The Bioeconomy Policy took the limelight, so did all the EPPs under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). The National Biomass Strategy and the various strategies to promote innovations all looked very ambitious.

It created a number of high-level positions and involved huge investments and expenses and these have to be justified and the return of investment has to be quantified in terms of number of successful biotech companies, commercialisation of research at universities and research institutes, and creation of job opportunities.

So what is on my Christmas and New Year wish list? Pointedly it is for the country to pay urgent attention to fundamental research. I am reiterating what I have always preached - if we don’t have strong fundamentals or basic research, we can never have successful commercialisation of high-end products. We will end up with herbal supplements with no global standards and markets, buying technologies from outside, luring foreign companies to set up their plants here with locals working as second-class workers, seeking assistance from outside to address national challenges such as tropical diseases, food security, managing diseases and pests in the agricultural sector, etc.

We keep encouraging our students to take up science but are the job opportunities promised a reality? How would biotech companies emerge if there is no fundamental research? Is that why a number of Bionexus companies have closed shop and none have reached global status?

There are no short-cuts in biotechnology. Just like how a building without a strong foundation would crumble, a biotech industry without strong fundamental research would not last long. Players will come and go and no legacy would be created.”

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan