Announcing the India Science Media Fellows 2019

Nature India and the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (India Alliance) have chosen the first batch of India Science Media Fellows (2019), who will receive a fellowship of INR one lakh each over the next six months to publish or broadcast media stories on life sciences, biomedicine, application-based or basic biological research, and health.

Here is the first batch of ISMF Fellows, chosen through a highly competitive process that invited applications from across India:

 

Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai, Chief Sub Editor and Web presenter at Aajtak.in with the India Today Group in New Delhi. Aditya has been covering global environment issues, politics, medicine, and government policies for over seven years now.

Archana Jyoti

 

Archana Jyoti, Special Correspondent, The Pioneer newspaper, New Delhi. Archana has been covering the health, science, environment, and social welfare beats for media houses such as Press Trust of India, Asian Age and The Pioneer for more than 15 years.

Muhammad Sulhaf K

 

Muhammed Sulhaf K is a Sub Editor with Madhyamam Daily in Calicut, Kerala. He has over a decade of experience in communicating science in the regional Malayalam language media houses.

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman, Resident Editor, Research Matters, Gubbi Labs, New Delhi. Paramananda also manages their Assamese language section. He writes on life sciences and covers diverse areas such as health, medicine, ecology and environment and applied biology.

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor, freelance journalist at Greater Kashmir and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. Rabia has also worked with the Zee News Srinagar Bureau, Kashmir Speaks and Kashmir Affairs.

Congratulations to the ISMF 2019 fellows!

The India Science Media Fellowships (ISMF) were launched on the eve of India’s National Science Day 2019. The fellowships aim to boost the coverage of science in the Indian media, and consequently enrich the public understanding of and engagement with science and related policy issues. The fellowship is designed to support Indian journalists to build a body of science-based journalistic work.

The fellowship will also provide a platform for the Fellows to connect with science and communication experts, to receive mentorship on the nuances of science journalism and the dynamics of impactful science reportage.

Recognising the contribution of Nature Research journal referees

This guest blog comes from Ritu Dhand, VP Editorial, Nature Journals.

Nature’s trial to formally acknowledge the contribution of its peer reviewers by naming them on published papers with permission of the referee and author has been expanded to eight more Nature Research journals. 55% of referees opted in during the initial phase.

The Nature-branded journals publish over 8,000 primary research papers each year. Behind each paper is a talented team of reviewers who have helped our professional editors to assess the scientific claims being made. Peer review is the formal quality-assurance mechanism whereby research manuscripts are subjected to technical evaluation and assessment of impact, and is a cornerstone of quality, integrity and reproducibility in research. However, most reviewers receive little recognition for their efforts. Given how highly we value the contributions of our reviewers, we wanted to give them an option to be formally and publicly recognised for their role in the peer-review process.

We have also been exploring ways to introduce transparency to the peer review process. For several years, researchers have argued that single-blind peer review, where the referees are unknown to the author, is sub-optimal. The lack of transparency means researchers must have confidence that referees and editors are acting with integrity and without bias. In a survey with responses from 1,230 Nature referees, 82% agreed that the traditional peer review process is effective in ensuring work that is published is high-quality. Yet 63% of respondents also agreed that publishers should experiment with alternative peer review methods, and 51% agreed that peer review could be more transparent and that they expect publishers to do more.

As a way of both acknowledging the work of reviewers and introducing transparency to the peer-review process, we launched our referee recognition trial at Nature in spring 2016. At the end of the peer-review process, authors and peer reviewers are given the option of having referee names formally acknowledged on the published paper. If the authors also agree, peer reviewers who give permission will have their name included in the ‘reviewer information’ section of the paper where we thank them for their contribution. In some cases, some referees on a paper may choose to have their name listed, while others may choose to remain anonymous.

Over the last three years, around 3,700 Nature referees across the natural sciences have chosen to be publicly recognised and around 80% of Nature papers have at least one referee named. We have not seen any significant differences in behaviour between researchers in the life and physical sciences. 91% of Nature authors opted in to the trial, while among referees, 55% opted in (26% opted out and 19% did not respond). When surveyed, 80% of referees that had participated in the Nature referee recognition trial said they would be happy to be named again. The Nature reviews journals also rolled out the referee recognition trial one year ago and saw 57% of reviewers opting in to be publicly named. More recently, we have rolled out the trial at eight Nature Research journals:  Nature Astronomy, Nature Climate Change, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Physics, Nature Plants, Nature Protocols and Nature Communications.

We analysed the gender and career stage of authors and referees who took part in the trial over a nine-month period (where these data were available in our peer review system or could be cross-checked with public sources). The percentages of female and male corresponding authors opting into the trial were similar: 90% and 93%, respectively. The proportion of female and male referees who agreed to be named was also similar: around 50% and 56%, respectively. A similar proportion of referees from early, middle and late career stages were happy to be named: 54% of researchers/post-docs, 50% of assistant/associate professors, and 55% of professors opted in to the trial.

We also surveyed all reviewers who had reviewed for our journals in the course of one year to better understand their motivations for participating in the peer-review process and their views on peer review more broadly. Altruism was a key driver of participation in peer review. 87% of researchers who responded said they considered it their academic duty to peer review and 77% said that participating would help to safeguard the quality of published research. Conversely, only 6% of reviewers noted that participating in peer review enhanced their CV and 7% said it encouraged favourable views from editors. Unsurprisingly, most reviewers (94%) said that the subject area is a key factor when deciding which manuscripts to review.

Despite the time and effort peer review requires, 71% of respondents did not expect acknowledgement for peer review and 58% thought that rewards may compromise the review procedure. However, when asked from whom would they most value recognition, 44% said they would most value recognition for peer review to come from publishers or editors.

We also asked reviewers what they thought the impacts of public referee recognition might be. 78% felt that naming the reviewers would result in better written reports; 68% thought it would have a positive impact on transparency; 47% thought it would have a positive effect on honesty of reporting; and 52% of those who had not been formally acknowledged by a Nature-branded journal indicated that they would consider being named if given the option.

About a quarter of researchers opted out of the trial and appeared to be against the principle of referees being named on published papers. Their concerns mainly focused around the practice could increase the chances of the system being gamed by individuals — perhaps starting a ‘you owe me’ mechanism — or referee reports being toned down, either to avoid upsetting or from fear of retaliation from disgruntled authors, particularly those in senior positions. Many of these researchers believe that peer review should always be confidential and are against this level of transparency. For these reasons, referee recognition remains optional on the Nature-branded journals.

To see so many of our referees choosing to be named is a reflection of the changing attitudes towards peer review.  We are happy that we can publicly acknowledge the contribution to peer review of so many of them. We continue to listen to the community and acknowledge the call for further consideration of other ways to do peer review. Nature Communications has been publishing referee reports for over three years, and we are discussing whether offering this as an option on other Nature Research journals is something we can practically consider in the future. Watch this space for further information!

 

A related Nature editorial is also available here: Three-year trial shows support for recognizing peer reviewers

A professional doctorate for a career beyond academics

In today’s guest post, Anushika Bose, an alumna of the University of Delhi, shares her journey as a researcher in the area of renewable energy, and her unusual choice of  a ‘professional doctorate’.

Anushika did a PhD from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, while being associated as a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin. What prompted her choice, what does such an association mean and how is it different from a doctorate in an academic University? Read on.

Anushika Bose

Science was not my first love

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in science or medicine to begin with. I wanted to study law and work as a corporate lawyer. But for my Bengali parents, the definition of education was simply “science”. They steered me into science but left me to get as creative as I could with the subject. I prepared to sit in the medical entrance examinations in India but got through dental sciences only. As I was aware of my pathetic practical hand, clubbed with the fear of not performing well (and keeping in mind the general well-being of humanity), I chose not to go ahead with it.

Despite the decision, the fascination of having the initial “Dr.” prefixed to my name lurked at the back of my mind.

I enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Delhi, where studying about the environment and its ordeals fascinated me. After a master’s in environment management, I got a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to do a PhD in Germany. I was 23. I knew it was too early, but I could not miss the chance. I felt a bit awkward amidst my fellow scholarship awardees, all of whom had previous research experience and publications in international journals.

Studying smart, eco-friendly energy

As a research scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, I worked on environmentally smart and safe deployment of wind energy infrastructure across landscapes, specifically minimising the direct collision of birds with turbines, thereby keeping green energy as green as possible.

Well aware of the urgent utility of my research, I applied for recognition from the United Nations for a visiting PhD and simultaneously worked as a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany.

It worked for me because of an existing system of cooperation between universities and research organisations in Germany. Scholars who join a research organisation for a PhD get associated to a professor (with a similar research background or interest) in a University. In such cases we serve the organisation and its projects. The scientific publication generated from these projects (authored by the scholars), published mostly in international peer-reviewed journals, is also compiled later to form a thesis. The scholar then defends his/her research by means of this thesis in the University and gets a doctoral degree from the University. The best part of such an association is that the years you spend doing research are counted as both work experience and academic record.

I came back to India to head the geospatial analytics wing of a renewable energy research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon, Haryana. We address the various technical, strategic and commercial challenges that the renewables industry faces, with a particular emphasis on risks and uncertainties at each stage of the value chain. We envision helping economies integrate renewable energy into their energy mix using our analytical platforms for a cleaner, sustainable and better tomorrow.

The German experience

At UFZ, I focused on environmentally safe and smart spatial planning of renewable energy infrastructures across the German landscape. My objective was to see how both the environment and people could benefit from sustainable use of wind energy.

UFZ’s approach of working with a global focus suited my career portfolio. Their research was through integration and synthesis of results on-ground, which was helpful when I later tried replicating the strategies in India. UFZ  gives young environmental science researchers ample freedom and insight into integrative research, alongside preparing them for political and managerial careers.

I also liked the flexible, no-fuss, punctuality-driven work environment. I loved the ‘work hard, party harder’ culture, where weekend planning begins by 2 p. m. on Fridays. The segregation of private and work life – no calls, no emails on the weekends, no last minute hassles, nothing ad-hoc – is priceless.

The cultural learning was enriching too – from waiting at traffic lights patiently to sorting trash, from making grocery shopping lists to reading every line in an agreement document before signing. I was amazed at how much the Germans love Indian culture and traditions – they participate in Indian festivals held in major cities there, wearing the Indian attire, relishing our “spicy” food.

The language barrier was never an issue because DAAD made sure we were trained in Deutsch before pursuing research. As far as racism goes, I did hear cases against fellow Indians from time to time though personally I did not face any. Many people confused me as being from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women often came up to me to ask why I haven’t covered my head. There is a substantial Middle Eastern community in Berlin and Leipzig, which maybe the reason I never faced discrimination.

The one challenge I did face was being homesick — especially I lived with my parents all my life. I missed family, food and friends, strictly in that order, during my time outside the country.

Academic vs. professional doctorate

Another challenge was pursuing a professional doctorate from a research organisation instead of a university. In general, a doctorate prepares one for an academic career, while a professional doctorate is geared more towards a professional career. While professional doctorates may hold an adjunct or even regular faculty position at Universities, the reverse is not true. This was my primary motivation behind opting for professional doctorate. All doctoral programmes, however, require coursework and an individual research project. The one at the University requires comprehensive exams and may include residencies, which is mostly not the case at research organisations.

The primary difference between these two types of doctorates is the type of research. University doctorates have a guided set up with assistance from professors, postdocs and fellow PhDs. Professional doctorate students, on the other hand, are expected to expand and apply existing knowledge and research to existing problems in their professional fields, often not with much guidance. A professional doctorate is counted under both work experience and educational experience. It benefits both ways but comes with an enormous pressure to perform and publish just as fellow experienced scientist colleagues.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue any of these types of doctorates should be based on assessing one’s career goals and how one plans to use the degree to meet these goals.

A postdoc is an individual choice. My focus had always been more towards a professional career instead of purely academics. Though scholarships and positions for postdocs exist in Germany, they expect a brilliant publication record and an equally good PhD research experience. This is mostly possible if you have worked in the same lab or institution and under the same project, preferably under the same supervisor/professor. Therefore, it is a common practice to absorb a graduating PhD from a lab as a postdoc in the same lab.

I would suggest aspiring Indian students to look for collaborations with their institutes/organisations here and the desired organisations in Germany. India’s Department of Science and Technology and the German government promote such joint research initiatives, allowing institutes and collaborators to connect.

Back Home

Back home now, my research is majorly into renewable energy development projects, primarily to guide India towards a renewable energy transition. The easy availability of technicalities from countries like Germany could facilitate India’s rapid energy transition into a future CO2 neutral economy in India.

Joint research initiatives could allow German institutes and collaborators to connect and utilise their expertise gathered over decades, monitor the results on a different soil, and gain international experience through collaborations with India.

My pursuit remains to stay well connected and incorporated with my work in both the countries.

[Anushika Bose can be contacted at bose.anushka21@gmail.com]

The story behind the story: A billion dots of light

This week, Futures is pleased to welcome back Matt Thompson with his story A billion dots of light. A London-based experimental musician, Matt brought us the intriguing story Ded-Mek last year. You can catch up on his other work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, Matt reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing A billion dots of light

Generation starships, one of the mainstays of SF, never seemed entirely plausible to me. Who would volunteer to live out their entire lives in a tin can (or even a hollowed-out hunk of space rock) just so that their descendants could form a colony? No one, most likely. But while the solution proposed in this story has a certain elegance to it (leaving aside the thorny question of who the original crew might have been), it does raise some delicate ethical questions.

Being a non-meat eater, I’ve occasionally found myself involved in conversations where considerations on the farming and slaughter of animals are countered with statements along the lines of “But they’re just dumb beasts”. It’s a debatable point, true, but seems like a hangover from a waning Judeo-Christian viewpoint concerning the existence of the soul. But can a human being whose higher thought processes were cauterized at birth be said to even have a soul (should such a thing exist)? And, if not, has anyone really been hurt? Do the means always justify the ends? Perhaps our accelerating technological landscape requires a new set of standards.

That’s the conclusion the viewpoint character in the story, an AI that has achieved some level of sentience over the course of its vast journey, comes to when faced with the conflict between the ‘accepted’ humanitarian perspective it was programmed with and the grotesque reality of the charnel-house it’s presiding over. In its decision to set the future colonists free from the moral burden of the past, this tension is resolved only at the cost of forcing those unborn pioneers to start over from scratch.

The human race right now doesn’t have that luxury. The ‘one set of ethics for the rich, one for the poor’ attitude has brought us to the brink of self-annihilation. The free market has, in the end, proved a failure. If the onward march of science is to be undertaken as a process of prising open Pandora’s box we’d better make sure we know what’s inside.

Rivalry, crystal structure prediction and discovery of new materials

Post by Artem Oganov.

The review in Nature Reviews Materials can be read here.

The story of our review started in 2006 when my group and the duo of Chris Pickard and Richard Needs published papers that changed the view of the scientific community in an important way. Prior to this, it was widely believed that crystal structures are, in general, not predictable: the number of possible structures is just way too large, and going through all of them is impossible. Our works showed that this problem can be handled, and this opens a way for computational materials discovery. I developed an evolutionary approach, while Pickard and Needs used random sampling. Within a few years we found ourselves in an increasingly intense competition which drove us to develop our methods and explore new applications for them, which, of course, is good for science.

At some point it became clear that if the intensity of this competition was allowed to develop further it could slip into bitterness, and potentially outright hostility. Did I need to win such a fight, if it brought me nothing positive in the end? The question was how to change this. I knew two things: first, that every problem has a solution. Second, I knew that with the right approach every problem can be turned into an advantage. At some point Qiang Zhu, my former PhD student and now Assistant Professor, found a brilliant solution: to write together a review. First, we felt that the community really needed such a review of many years of hard work, now not just of two groups, but also of many others who joined this field later. Second, writing a review with your rivals makes the review actually better: reviews have to be balanced, and rivals are the best people for ensuring this balance! Third, working on something together helps to build bridges. So, with this in mind, after a thorough discussion with Qiang Zhu, Chris Pickard and Richard Needs, I talked to Giulia Pacchioni, an editor at Nature Reviews Materials, and convinced her that we could write something important for the community.

We began working on the review from a position of low trust. We had countless debates, and the writing initially went very slowly. This delay risked us losing the invitation. However, the editors were very patient and encouraging. However, the editors were very patient and encouraging. The first skeleton, basically, a set of bullet points, was sketched by Richard Needs, and then each of us expanded these points, transforming them into a more or less coherent text (I think I took the most bullet points, Chris Pickard took many as well). We tried different ways of co-writing, experimenting with Google-docs and Overleaf, but there was not one technical solution that everyone liked, so eventually we just created our own versions of the review and let Qiang Zhu merge and edit them all. Much later he told me that he quietly cut a lot of text which had a potential for igniting arguments; funny that at the time no one noticed this, which I guess shows that our differences of opinion are actually of little importance. Once we had a complete draft, everyone started editing the text written by everyone else. By the end of this process we were all on the same wavelength. After submission we had one round of peer review and quite a bit of proofreading, mostly handled by me. The end result is one we can be proud of: a nice review of a field that we were fortunate to catalyze. But also a human victory. Rivals becoming friends and gaining a shared understanding is so much more important than winning a competition.

Artem Oganov
Center for Energy Science and Technology
Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Moscow, Russia.

The story behind the story: Amped life

This week, Futures welcomes back John Cooper Hamilton with his cautionary tale about working in a space station: Amped life. John first appeared in Futures last year with his story This big, and you can find out more about his work by visiting his website. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Amped life

Half of Amped life’s inspiration is history. In 1973, NASA faced the first labour dispute in space. Skylab 4’s three-man crew was micromanaged through an over-ambitious schedule, and communication between mission control and the astronauts became so fraught that an unscheduled radio silence in October was characterized by the press as a mutiny. In December, the astronauts and mission control worked out a new schedule. The mission went on to a successful end, after 84 days in space. Future missions were organized using the lessons learnt.

The story’s remaining inspiration comes from the amazing neural-imaging and stimulation methods now being developed, along with an ever-advancing pharmacopeia.

In science-fiction rogue astronauts, like rogue AIs, tilt towards the homicidal, simply because it makes for a good story. But there are always new lessons to be learnt.

SciArt Scribbles: CRISPR and the smell of rain

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .

Mukund Thattai, a physicist practicing biology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), talks to us about bio-art and how some bio-artists from Bangalore are challenging scientists’ new-found power to edit life.

Mukund Thattai

Genetically enhanced humans have long been a staple of science fiction. He Jiankui’s announcement in November 2018 of the birth the world’s first genome-edited babies drew flak for flouting ethical norms governing the use of genome editing technologies. This wasn’t the first time scientists had used the DNA cutting-and-pasting tool known as CRISPR to modify genes in embryos. It was, however, the first time such embryos had been implanted and brought to term in their mothers’ womb. The modifications introduced into the twins’ genomes confer no medical benefit, and may even cause harm. It is an irreversible human tragedy: the baby girls, who never asked for this, will spend the rest of their lives as scientific specimens.

Nevertheless, genome editing is here to stay. Will we learn how to use this technology responsibly?

This is the central question that animates iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition. Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) robotics competitions, iGEM looks at a future in which engineering and biology are indistinguishable. What would happen if we could build new types of cells?

I was at MIT in the early 2000s when iGEM was founded. Though I was doing a PhD in the physics department, I’d grown fascinated with biology. Across campus in the computer science department, Tom Knight and Drew Endy were thinking about how to bring notions of abstraction and design to biological engineering. In 2003, they threw out an inspiring challenge to MIT undergrads: could they engineer bacteria that would blink like Christmas lights? The very next year, undergrads from five US universities tried their hand at engineering cells. In 2005, 13 undergrad teams from the US, Canada, the UK, and Switzerland participated in the first international iGEM at MIT, in what has now become an annual jamboree of creations for student teams from around the world.

Science with a dose of fantasy

iGEMmers think of cells as computers, running an operating system that provides basic functions such as the ability to replicate DNA, translate genes into proteins, and convert nutrients into energy. Designer genes are like applications running on top of the operating system. iGEM teams remix components known as BioBricks, an enormous collection of DNA-based “standard biological parts” that give cells new chemical and physical abilities. Over the years iGEM has featured applications that allow cells to keep time, store a digital bit of information, sense toxic chemicals, and carry out basic computations.

The ethos of iGEM, and indeed of the entire synthetic biology community, has always included a culture of openness, sharing, and excitement for science, coupled with rigorous engineering and ethical practice. In the early 2000s, iGEM embodied a bracing and idealistic vision of our biological future, with a dose of fantasy. At the time our actual ability to manipulate genomes was rather limited. With the advent of CRISPR, this has now changed.

From 2012 to 2014 He Jiankui was the leader of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTC) iGEM team. In December 2018, the iGEM Foundation released this statement: “We are stunned and disappointed by Dr. He’s actions, particularly as a former iGEM team leader. Conducting human genome engineering – and further, doing so without proper research or backing from the broader scientific community – is a clear violation of iGEM’s standards as well as those of the scientific community at large. Had this project been proposed within the iGEM competition, it would have been disqualified for violating iGEM’s policies.”

The power of genome editing is rapidly outpacing our ability to predict its effects or regulate its practice. To deal with this monumental challenge, biologists will need to go far beyond the routine laboratory spaces in which they operate. They will need to partner with historians, social scientists, ethicists and artists. An energetic collective of bio-artists is leading the charge.

Making bacteria that evoke petrichor

In 2009, a group of art students from Bangalore stood before the iGEM judging panel describing an unusual summer project: to construct bacteria that would synthesise geosmin, the substance responsible for the evocative smell of the first monsoon rains. The team’s presentation documented their journey of discovery, as they learned the language and techniques of the life sciences and explored its cultural, ethical, and aesthetic implications. As one of their team leaders, I sat nervously in the back row. My nervousness evaporated when we received thunderous applause from a packed hall. One of the iGEM judges declared: “This changes the way I think about synthetic biology.”

Here’s a little back story to this extraordinary scene.

In 2004, I relocated from MIT to India to set up a synthetic biology lab at the NCBS in Bangalore. Reshma Shetty, an MIT graduate student working with Drew Endy, and I discussed how to put together an iGEM team from India. In the summer of 2006 I ran an open workshop called “A crash course in designer biological networks” to overwhelming response. We assembled an NCBS student team that brainstormed on the kinds of “genetic circuits” that could be built. We zeroed in on one old classic idea: teaching cells to blink. But then we confronted the messiness of biology: all the circuits we built expressed the right proteins and seemed to be correctly assembled, but did not do what they were supposed to.

The team went to MIT as the first from India, and competed with 31 others, only to report three negative results. These were later published in a paper which (to my great surprise) has actually been cited! (In 2012 Navneet Rai, a student guided by K.V. Venkatesh at IIT Bombay and me, finally succeeded in making blinking cells as part of his PhD research).

The iGEM atmosphere was electric, and each one of us came away with a lifelong memory of being present at the start of something big.

Next year, with help from a summer research fellows programme at Indian Academy of Sciences, I assembled a team of six undergraduate students from six Indian institutions. Our project was a proof of principle: “How to build and test a genetically engineered machine in six weeks”. 2008 saw a group of IIT Madras students mentored by their professor Guhan Jayaraman, raise funds with institute alumnus and biotech entrepreneur Shrikumar Suryanarayanan. The team was judged as having the “Best Foundational Advance” at iGEM 2008, and got a special prize for the “Best Engineered BioBrick device”. Many members of this team went on to co-found, with Suryanarayanan, the biotech company Sea6 Energy.

Later IIT Madras iGEM teams have also had great success: the 2011 team was awarded the “Best New BioBrick Part” for a light-induced pump, and in 2013 it received the award for “Best Human Practices”. Since iGEM 2009, which involved 100 teams from 25 countries, multiple teams from India have made consistent appearances each year. Credit for this goes to iGEM mentors across the country, and also to India’s Department of Biotechnology, which encourages and supports the teams through the Indian Biological Engineering Competition (iBEC).

Breaking boundaries

At iGEM 2009, we broke many boundaries.

I had just started working with Yashas Shetty from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. Yashas combines art and technology, pushing the boundaries of synthesis and sensation. He wondered whether a living piece of art would be an appropriate iGEM project, something that could provoke and inspire people to think about biology. He then narrowed down the problem, asking: “Could we make a biological device that can influence human emotions?” Out of this was born the “Smell of Rain” project. Yashas and his students landed up in my lab, where they learned molecular biology under Navneet’s experienced stewardship, and formally signed up as iGEM contenders. Describing themselves as “outsiders” in a competition dominated by engineers and scientists, the very existence of the team was a unique experiment in art-science collaboration.

It marked the beginning of an unusual and fruitful collaboration between NCBS and Srishti, under the provocative name ArtScienceBangalore. Building on their “Smell of Rain” success, in 2010 the students imagined a “post-natural ecology” exploring the interactions of genetically-engineered bacteria and worms on a petri-dish, in collaboration with Sandhya Koushika and her student Sunaina Surana at NCBS.

In 2011 the team went even further with their project “Searching for the ubiquitous genetically engineered machine”. They imagined a far future in which bioengineered cells from iGEM covered the planet. How could we tell what was natural and what was artificial then, if we did not establish a baseline today? The students sampled ecosystems across the state of Karnataka, including urban, rural, and forest areas, and used a sensitive method called PCR to search for any evidence of BioBricks in the environment. They did not find any, implying that any future BioBricks in the wild must come from human activity. This foundational effort was awarded the “Best Human Practices Advance”, with the judges particularly praising the role of art-science engagement.

These ArtScienceBangalore projects have gone on to win honourable mentions at the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica prizes, and are currently displayed at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

Does science belong just to scientists?

The idea that artists should be taught molecular biology strikes some scientists as frivolous, and appears to others as dangerous. Is it a worthy use of genetic engineering to make bacteria that can evoke the smell of rain? Why should non-scientists – “outsiders” – be trusted with these hard-won powers? But by the same token, it is reasonable to ask why scientists should be trusted with these very powers.

Scientists and inventors have used genetic engineering to probe the inner workings of cells, as well as to create new medicines, cure diseases and improve crops. The combined benefit of these activities to humanity has been tremendous. In this backdop, cases like He Jiankui’s are an aberration. Nevertheless, the genome-edited baby controversy is a critical opportunity to move the conversation forward.

It is the responsibility of the scientific community to continually earn society’s trust. In this ongoing process, artists have a unique role as observers of the human condition. Bio-artists push the limits of what can be done using the tools of science. They do this to provoke, to make us uncomfortable, to make us think. They do this now, today, so we are forced to imagine and prepare for what might happen in the future.

[Mukund Thattai is at the Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. He can be contacted at thattai@ncbs.res.in.]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Bringing art and science together for greater good

SciArt scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

Announcing the first members of our new Senior Editorial Board

Today, we are pleased to announce the formation of a new Senior Editorial Board, the members of which will guide our larger Editorial Board membership and will play a lead role in setting standards for papers submitted to Scientific Data.
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The story behind the story: The librarian

In this week’s Futures, Robert Dawson returns with a slightly nostalgic feeling in The librarian. Robert has appeared in Futures twice before, once lamenting the rise of Pop-ups and once experiencing Sparrowfall. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The librarian

When I was a student, in those lost days between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Internet, if you wanted to find me the library was one of the first places to look. Most likely you’d find me in the math and physics stacks, but the whole library was a wonderful playground of the mind. Over the course of a week I’d spend many hours there.

Today, the Internet has vastly increased not only the amount of material available, but the ease of finding it — especially for anybody lucky enough to be searching from a university, or any other site that subscribes to paywalled journals electronically. The time that I would once have spent going between the card catalogue and the stacks, or between the printed Math Reviews and the bound volumes of journals, is now spent at my desk: and the range of journals that I can access from the small teaching-oriented university where I work rivals (it seems to me) what I had access to as a graduate student at Cambridge.

As a result of this, fewer books are being bought. Subscriptions to physical magazines have plummeted (though we still subscribe to Nature) and back issues are often stored off campus, available in a day or so if anybody really needs them. Stack space is slowly being diverted to other purposes.  In many ways, the feel and the smell of books and journals is leaving our lives; this change is likely to continue for some time. Downtown and in the shopping malls, many bookstores have closed.  In homes around the world, the shelves where the family encyclopedia used to stand are empty, the books’ place taken by Google and the Internet. And this makes me sad, though I know that sorrow to be illogical. There are scenarios, I suppose, where a supervirus or EMP weapon could wipe out the Internet and leave us with nothing; but my feelings are based on nostalgia, not (I hope) on any real risk to the enormous virtual library that we all share today.

And yet nostalgia is a real and a powerful emotion. And so I wrote this story of a library closing down; and, in it, I gave a tip of the hat to Ray Bradbury, of all science-fiction writers perhaps the one who evoked nostalgia and simpler days most powerfully.