26/09/2019 The Hindu Editorials Notes – Mains Sure Shot

 

Note : the other articles of today are mostly a critic of the government.

Question – Enumerate the importance of research in the biotechnology sector in the present world and why has the biotechnology sector lagged far behind the innovation technology sector in India?

Context – China moving far ahead of India in the field of biotechnology, though India starting early in the race.

What is research?

  • It is a long drawn process in which a researcher identifies a topic of his interest and creates some specific research questions about it and then through thorough reading and experiments and observations tries to address these questions.
  • Research is a learning and sharing process through which new knowledge about a particular subject is created.
  • This knowledge is then applied to our needs. For example, a new knowledge about a particular kind of virus can help find specific medicines to treat it.
  • But in this process the researcher requires funding and proper lab equipment.
  • This is where the role of the government comes in. The government needs to provide proper funding and ensure assistance to those undertaking research.
  • It is only when these steps work in harmony that new knowledge will be produced that will be helpful to all.

In this context what is biotechnology?

  • Most simply put, biotechnology is the technology that uses biology i.e. living organisms like microbes or biological systems like cells to develop technologies and products that help us improve our lives and also make inventions that help improve the health of our planet.
  • It is not something very new. For example,  we have used biological processes of microorganisms for more than 6000 years to make useful food products such as bread, cheese, preserve dairy and other products and so on or developing vaccines against infectious agents.

Why is research in the field of biotechnology important?

  1. The application of biotechnology in agriculture can help us improve food quality and quantity.
  2. Biotechnology helps us develop biofertilizers and biopesticides which are an eco-friendly source of eco-friendly agriculture that contain living microorganisms that also help in increasing the supply and availability of micronutrients to the soil.
  3. It’s proper application in farming can help the farmers to have better yield at low input cost thereby increasing profit.
  4. By invention of different drugs and recombinant vaccines it helps in effective treatment of various diseases.
  5. With the help of biotechnology many diagnostic tools have been introduced for detection of disease in a quick and effective manner.
  6. It also helps in the process of micro-propagation systems (a traditional method of plant breeding for producing many new plant species of new varieties with desirable characteristics).
  7. Also helps in the production of genetically engineered plants.
  8. It has also played an important role in improving human health by producing enriched food products such as Golden Rice, potato maize, groundnuts, soyabean etc.
  9. It is also helping to deal with environmental pollution through devising new technologies for recycling of waste, biodegradation procedures and other waste-management technologies.

An analysis of the biotechnology sector in India:

The present scenario:

  • India is among the first countries to set up specialized agency for the development of research and human resources in the biotechnology sector.
  • But, thirty years later, though India being among the first to realise the importance of this sector is lagging far behind.
  • Most of the few high-quality research in this sector comes from few institutions which have access to better scientific infrastructure. The rest of the research papers being published from other institutions, which form the bulk, are mediocre.

The possible reasons:

  1. First and foremost is the ‘publish or perish culture’. This culture places more importance to the number of research papers published by a person to judge their merit rather than the substance or quality of their research.
  2. Next is the shift of emphasis from fundamental research to applied research. By which we mean that more importance and funding is given to those who do research in topics that have applied market value than to those who do research about the fundamental theories of the subject. 
  3. The thing with the later is that it doesn’t have an immediate market value but the outcome of this research can completely change the way we look at certain things and these will reap immense benefit in the future. But this is highly neglected. One of the reasons why we no longer produce high quality researchers like Jagadish Chandra Bose or G.N. Ramachandran who not only made fundamental contributions to the subject but also made India proud in the international community.

Comparing biotechnology sector to the information technology sector (IT):

  • If we compare the human resource and jobs in both these sectors then the IT sector is far ahead. It is not that there is any dearth of talent in the biotechnology sector but the issues are different.
  • First, Biotechnology research often requires access to laboratories with high-end scientific infrastructure, the supply of expensive chemicals and reagents with minimum shipping time between the supplier and the user, and a disciplined work culture and documentation practice due to regulatory and intellectual property filing requirement.
  • second, unlike the products and solutions from the IT industry, biotechnology products and solutions often require ethical and regulatory clearance, making the process long, expensive and cumbersome.
  • Also, as the nature of the work in the biotechnology sector is specialised, most jobs are filled with experienced and skilled scientists leaving the demand for young and inexperienced ones low.

Way ahead:

  1. We can learn from our neighbour China. China has many more labs with the best of scientific infrastructure; each with more number of skilled human resources trained in regimental work culture and trained to practise rigorous documentation.
  2. A booming economy and a higher science budget coupled with a flexible hiring system has made Chinese universities and research labs attract many overseas Chinese scientists. Our government needs to make the process of hiring in our universities and national labs simpler and flexible, not necessarily provide more salary, to attract the bright overseas Indian scientists.
  3. There is a need to develop a culture of entrepreneurship among the students in academic institutions because most of biotechnological innovations happen in labs situated in academic institutions. This will help India successful hot-bed of biotechnological innovation.
  4. Developing an academia-industry linkage so that new innovations can be funded by private industries that are doing business in the biotechnological sector. Since most of the research is funded by the government, the government mainly focuses on applied research. The government can let the private industrialists do this job and concentrate more on funding basic research that doesn’t generate quick results.
  5. Also, without a sustained effort in encouraging and promoting science-driven innovation in our academic institutions, and a robust academia-industry collaboration, biotechnology-led innovation will not aid the nation’s economic growth.
  6. Further saying all of the above it is also important to not see the biotechnology sector as a simple employment and profit generating sector. This sector offers more than just that. Discoveries in biotechnology may help us solve some of the pressing societal issues of our time: cleaning our rivers, producing life-saving drugs, feeding our growing population with nutritious food and helping us clean the air we breathe.
  7. Finally, artificial intelligence-based tools and applications of big data in biotechnology sector will leverage India’s strength in IT and move biotech innovations faster to the marketplace.

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