Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Nanoscale shines a light on how society influences research at India’s premier science institutes

Pankaj Sekhsaria takes us inside laboratories in India to show how the research inside these labs can’t be disconnected from the societal realities India lives with

Nimish Sawant September 04, 2020 12:11:59 IST
Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Nanoscale shines a light on how society influences research at India’s premier science institutes

I remember pouring over back issues of IEEE Spectrum in my engineering college library back in the early noughts, gobbling any and every news feature about nanotechnology. I was fascinated with the field, which deals with research at a scale that’s one-billionth of a metre, and particularly impressed with the artwork accompanying nanotech stories which illustrated how nano-robots could combat certain viruses or bacteria in our bodies to fight diseases, the many applications of carbon nanotubes and much more. Picking up Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Nanoscale: Society’s deep impact on science, technology and innovation in India, it seemed like it would be taking a trip down to that engineering library.

But it wasn’t. And not in a bad way.

Nanoscale isn’t about the latest innovations in the world of nanotechnology, but rather about how laboratories in India working in this discipline of nanoscience and technology have to also take into consideration factors that may not necessarily be scientific in nature. To that effect, the book is more sociological in nature. Sure, nanoscience is the major protagonist in the book, but it’s the various character actors presented by the Indian society that make this book one of its kind. Unlike research laboratories abroad, in the Indian context, it would be naive to discount the impact the world outside the laboratory has on the work that’s happening inside it. The author, Pankaj Sekhsaria, is an associate professor, Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay, and wrote this book as part of his thesis for the doctorate he was awarded in the discipline of Science and Technology Studies from Maastricht University, Netherlands. Having written extensively on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and its indigenous communities, wildlife and environment, Sekhsaria has succeeded in seamlessly interweaving nanoscience, technology and society in this book.

There are few technologies where India has been at the forefront of things from the get-go. Nanotechnology is one discipline where our scientists and researchers have had a head start since the last two decades. As of 2019, India ranks third after China and the USA when it comes to nanotechnology-related scientific paper publications.

To explain in a nutshell, nanotechnology is a field of research related to building materials and devices at the scale of atoms and molecules (1 to 100 nanometres) or one-billionth of a metre. To put things in context, the human hair is 80,000 nanometres thick. Basically, nanoscale is that scale where regular laws of physics and chemistry don’t apply much. By its very nature, researching at this scale requires a multi-disciplinary approach.

Nanoscale lays out its scope in the first chapter itself and also sets the expectations. Let's get one thing out of the way - Nanoscale isn’t for everyone. While Sekhsaria has done a great job of trying to keep things simple, the book has been divided in a way that half of it will be relatable to a general reader whereas the other half will only appeal to those who love reading nerdy science writing. The chapters ‘A Microscope by Jugad’, ‘Ancient Ayurveda, New Nanotechnology’ strictly fall in this latter category. The remaining chapters are quite approachable as the narration focuses more on the human interest angle with science just hanging in the background. A lot of the case studies are anecdotal in nature. Sekhsaria hasn’t claimed anywhere that the trends being discussed here are empirically tested scientific studies. The idea seems to have been to open avenues for discussion, which he has succeeded at.

Water purification with the Nanosilver edge’ deals more with how scientific research and business practices intersect. It looks at this aspect through the failure of a ceramic candle water filter that’s impregnated with nanosilver crystals which helped in purifying water. This product, which was priced marginally above the existing ceramic candle filters, couldn’t stand a chance in the marketplace flooded with big brands and cheaper alternatives. It ponders over the question: What’s more important — scientific success in the laboratory or commercial success outside it?

Dealing with a malignant eye or with a complex social and historical reality?

Nanotechnology for the treatment of Retinoblastoma’ is a sympathetic look at the dilemmas doctors and patients' families have to deal with. Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the eye, generally found in little children which is curable either by removing the eye with cancer (at later stages) or by nano drug-delivery mechanism which doesn’t necessitate the removal of the eye, even though it can’t save the vision in that eye. Under an ideal situation, if a doctor tells you that your daughter has a dangerous ailment which needs to be treated soon, as a parent you wouldn’t have any reservations apart from the cost it would involve. But only in India will a future rite of passage influence a decision that needs to be taken right now. At the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, according to Dr M Javed Ali, doctors have to deal with parents who are more concerned about how their daughters will get married if the doctors talk about removing one of their eyes — not doing which would prove fatal to the very life of the child.

“If the parents refused to bring the girl child for treatment, what was the use of technology and a cure that a clinic or a lab might have to offer? Was the clinician dealing with a malignant eye or with a complex social and historical reality? How could one be separated from the other?” asks Sekhsaria in the book.

Having spoken extensively to doctors dealing with such cases, Sekhsaria reaches the conclusion that it’s impossible to reconcile the critical treatment with the weight of societal expectations. The deeply embedded societal biases rear their ugly head even when it's a matter of life and death. Many families consider alternative medicine and approach a proper medical facility only when it’s too late.

Sekhsaria has also touched upon how at times, government leaders don't really help matters. There's ample proof in this regard. Over the last couple of years, we have seen some prominent politicians parrot ridiculous pseudoscience at important scientific conferences. Even the prime minister isn’t exempt from it. For a country which produces some great scientific minds, it’s a pity when political leaders make a mockery of science on important scientific forums. It's no surprise then that during a raging pandemic asking logical questions to the health ministry gets no answers, but someone who claims 'COVID-19 cure’ pills get national media coverage.

Technological jugaad in making India’s first scanning tunnelling microscope

The chapter I found to be quite insightful apart from the LV Prasad Eye Institute case was how India’s first scaling tunnelling microscope (STM microscope) came about back in 1988. Sekhsaria’s documentation of the laboratory, the dogged nature of experimentation by Prof CV Dharmadhikari at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, making the best of limited resources at his disposal, is quite the eye-opener. Given the lack of the state-of-the-art facilities and limited funds, Prof Dharmadhikari took help across the board, sometimes from non-scientific experts as well, who were great at making a small cog in the overall wheel. From using a car tyre to prevent vibrations to using an emptied out refrigerator which provided a good acoustic shell, Prof Dharmadhikari’s labs saw a lot of upcycling. It almost reminds one of those early photos of how ISRO’s rockets and satellites were transported. That culture of extracting the most out of the given situation exists even today with current day ISRO missions happening at a fraction of the cost of their international counterparts.

Sekhsaria has also spent quite some pages putting up a defence for jugaad and why it should be seen as something that’s required in the Indian context where resources are scarce and materials can, at times, be hard to come by. To work within a budget and expect the same standardised output does require innovation that can be fulfilled by jugaad mindset. Sekhsaria reiterates time and again that jugaad shouldn’t be seen in any negative light.

“Use of materials and skill sets that are available in and contingent to the context come across as key elements of Dharmadhikari’s efforts and his success. It was not just part of knowing and being embedded in the geography and extended network of relationships, but also an acceptance and acknowledgement that capacity, skill and knowledge lie in other domains as well,” notes Sekhsaria in the book.

One would assume that the instruments made by Prof Dharmadhikari and the prototypes would be housed in a museum of sorts, honouring the evolution of indigenous innovations. But after Prof Dharmadhikari retired, his laboratory was emptied of all his material and his prototypes were placed unattended in the institute's corridors where they sat collecting dust. And that isn’t a one-off case. If institutes cannot value the hard work of its scientists and researchers after they leave, how can there ever be a valid documentation of the work they have done? There is really no excuse for such attitudes by institutions of learning and needs to be corrected soon. How long will institutions keep quoting ‘lack of space to store’ as a reason?

If it weren’t for this book, the evolution of the first Indian STM microscope would have been lost to history. It’s no mean feat to make such precise instruments in India. To not honour this hard work smacks a disrespect of science and technology innovations in India. There are enough examples in this book which show clear evidence of the apathy towards our research laboratories. Is it any wonder then that a lot of researchers apply for programs abroad, which not only offer a higher pay but also immense respect to the documentation aspect of science as well?

Pure science verifying age-old Ayurvedic techniques

As I mentioned earlier, a multi-disciplinary approach is a requirement when doing nanoscale research. You are given an extreme taste of this at the Centre for Nanobioscience (CNB) at the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, which amalgamates research between nanotechnology and Ayurveda. The result of this intermingling has resulted in the development of nanocrystalline silver gel for the treatment of burns and wounds; microspore DNA preservation technology and many more commercialised products. Researchers at CNB are subject-matter experts in disciplines as varied as microbiology and biotechnology, but also botany and pharmacology as well as Ayurveda practitioners. Sekhsaria illustrates this symbiosis of disciplines with how CNB used Ayurvedic steps to make swarna bhasma (literally gold ash which is instrumental in many treatments such as arthritis) and then verified the nanoscale gold ash (56 nm) produced thus using scientific instruments and methods. That there is an institute where an Ayurveda practitioner is working alongside other pure science experts is an effort worth replicating in other areas.

But interesting as this revelation was, it was quite a task to read through some sections of this chapter. It just didn’t flow as smoothly for me as the rest of the book did. It might be because I am not too familiar with Ayurvedic Rasashastra. In terms of narration, I found this to be the weakest part of the book.

The book concludes with an interesting photo-essay with scientists posing beside their favourite instruments which range from the humble voltmeter and micro-pipette to the complicated atomic force microscope and in-vitro cell lines. After reading about these scientists throughout the book, it’s a great way to attach a picture to a name.

The larger message I could extract from the book was the importance of a multidisciplinary approach in our educational system. Unlike universities abroad, in India, you are pigeonholed into a particular branch of study and as the years progress, your syllabus just keeps getting narrower and more specialised. If we can’t let students pop in and out of subjects according to their interest areas, efforts need to be made to encourage interaction between different disciplines right at the educational stage. Laboratories also need to be made more accessible for anyone interested in knowing how things work. In an age of social media, there is no reason for laboratories to be a ‘black box’ as Sekhsaria observed in the first chapter.

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