A wider world

Immense though the threat of war between India and Pakistan is right now, it’s not the only thing happening in the world. This is The Wire‘s lead story right now:

No better way to give peace a chance than to talk about all the different things we can accomplish in peacetime.

Significance of China’s moon mission

I wrote the following analysis for chinaindiadialogue.com and China Pictorial. A big thank you to Mithila Phadke for the opportunity and for working on the text to make it sharper and more readable.

Beyond the Far Side

China has always publicly advocated for the peaceful use of outer space. It adopted its current Constitution in 1982 and ratified the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) in 1983. And since 1985, it has been working together with the US and the UK, among other countries, to develop space technologies.
But for this early eagerness, China still lacks a space law, especially one that can mediate between domestic ambitions and the requirements of multilateral instruments like the OST.
In fact, it has been difficult to balance China’s publicised stance with its activities. It began its space programme in the 1950s, after a period of civil unrest and during one of economic instability. It had no option but to go it independently.
The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, so China’s space ambitions from the start were linked to its military’s purpose: to safeguard the country’s borders and to maintain its independence during the Cold War. After a formal start in 1956, it launched its first satellite to space in 1970. Until the early 1990s, its operations were overseen by the country’s military leaders.
Today, it is an elite spacefaring nation, with an operational heavy-lift launch vehicle, a space station and crewed spaceflight programmes, a functional collaboration with a dozen world-class universities around the country and a flourishing private space sector.
Of course, it also has a space science division but it isn’t quite as expansive or full-fledged as its space technologies counterpart. Together with its failure to distinguish between civilian and military space aspirations, its capabilities are thus seen as a demonstration of its power more than of its technical prowess. The centrality of spacefaring assets in its 2015 military reform under President Xi Jinping attests to this.
Its Moon missions have only bolstered this image. When its Chang’e 4 mission deployed a rover on the far side on January 3, observers were surprised. The Chinese space agency aims to build an ‘outpost’ on the Moon’s south pole. As futuristic as that sounds, Chang’e 4’s success was a reminder that China might just achieve that goal in the 2030s, with the complicated mission profile attesting to the country’s capabilities.
Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, China has sent two orbiters, two landers, two rovers, and is expected to undertake two sample-return missions by 2021. Three decades from orbiter to outpost is bristling.
At the same time, China’s cislunar and lunar missions can’t be written off entirely as pilots to greater non-lunar endeavours. The Moon is not simply a springboard. Although crewed lunar missions ceased to be of interest in the 1990s, the natural satellite has been reborn as a ‘superpower destination’.
In November, NASA announced the selection of nine companies to “deliver services to the lunar surface”, starting as soon as 2019. Although the organisation’s chief called it the first step to “feed forward to Mars”, it still involves long-term scientific explorations of the body itself.
India is another country interested in the Moon, and its trajectory to the body and beyond is very similar to China’s. In fact, Chandrayaan 2 will land on the Moon at a spot close to where Chang’e 4 did, exploring a similar region with similar instruments. Both countries have also announced a similar suite of interplanetary missions and have built or are building capabilities that will allow them to launch both very heavy and very light satellites, send humans to space and ultimately to the Moon, and colonise Mars in the (not so) distant future.
The two countries are clearly locked in a space race that reflects the polarisation of powers on ground. Asia itself boasts of two major space cooperation organisations, led by China and Japan, with little collaboration between them. No points for guessing which side India is on.
In this context, India-China cooperation in space is highly unlikely, especially where potential military applications are concerned. In fact, it is possible India is paying more attention to space diplomacy only because China is, and getting a move on its human spaceflight programme – after many years of dismissing its value – because of the possibility of a Chinese space station in low-Earth orbit by 2024.
However, there remains one area where cooperation is still possible, not least because more than half of all countries to have independently developed spaceflight are from Asia, and because at least seven other countries from around the world are keen to get back to the Moon. If India, China and Japan join hands, they can effectively represent a conglomerate of 15 nations that can set the terms of the world’s return to the Moon.
And it is here that the OST, and China’s lack of a space law, becomes relevant. After NASA shut down its Space Shuttle programme in the 1990s, it hasn’t had the ability to launch astronauts to space, let alone to the Moon, and was in the outrageous situation of using Russian rockets to access the International Space Station. In effect, its choices had passively set up a gatekeeping situation.
It’s likely that China plans to do the same with the Moon. The OST is still in effect but it has become outmoded. It doesn’t have clear answers about who can own off-world resources and how their trade should be managed. In this framework, China has an opportunity to be the country that gets to decide, in a manner of speaking, who can access which lunar resource depending on their relationship with China on Earth, and lead the way for India and Japan as well.
This is only to be expected. Space exploration has a long way to go until it is completely democratic, thanks mostly to the cost and technological maturity it demands. Until then, China – as much as India, the US or Russia – will seek to extend its diplomacy where its rovers go, and build up spatio-economic leverage in this new world order.
The incentive here would be that other actors wouldn’t even have to want to go to Mars, which is the way Moon missions are justified at first. Instead, China could simply provide access to space like a PaaS endeavour, ‘unlocking’ access to the cislunar region together with its attendant prospects of space-rock mining, Moon-based manufacturing and off-world research.

Six concerns over India’s plan to join Coalition S

On February 12, K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, announced that India would join a global consortium of countries that is attempting to standardise the way their scientists publish their papers, such that the papers are freely available to the public.
The consortium is grounded in a scheme called Plan S. It was originally mooted by Science Europe, a nongovernmental body of “research-funding” and “research-performing” organisations headquartered in Brussels, in September 2018. The burden of achieving Plan S’s goals is borne primarily by the research-funders, including the national government in India’s case, and the journals they will be working with.
At present, there are various ways for a scientist to have her paper published. They can be divided broadly into two groups: open access (OA) and subscription. OA “refers to the practice of making peer-reviewed scholarly research and literature freely available online to anyone interested in reading it” (source).
In OA publishing – specifically, in a paradigm called ‘gold OA’ – the publisher recoups their cost of publishing through an article-processing charge (APC), paid for by the scientists or the scientists’ funders. In subscription publishing, the publisher recoups their cost of publishing by placing the paper behind a paywall, charging readers hefty sums to rent or purchase it.
Against this background, Plan S released a now-famous 10-point guideline specifying the researchers’ rights and the funders’ responsibilities, all with the following goal:

After 1 January 2020, scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies must be published in compliant OA journals or on compliant OA platforms.

In effect, research-funders are required to pay the APCs so that the research they fund can be published in OA journals, and the funders can mandate that studies they enable only be published in such journals.
If India is set to join the Plan S coalition, this means the Government of India, through its Ministry of Finance and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), will pay to have Indian scientists’ papers published in OA journals. In turn, everyone in the world will be able to access publicly funded research from India, and vice versa.
At the outset, Plan S’s participants want to set up a global commons of scientific knowledge. This is admirable because OA publishing removes barriers to knowledge that people working in less-developed and resource-poorer areas might not be able to access – but to which they can contribute or which they can use. However, it’s not all rosy: gold OA, as well as Plan S, come with multiple problems, and if they aren’t addressed, the coalition could fail.
First: The most immediate issue is the APC. PeerJ, a noted OA title, publishes a “life and environmental sciences” journal whose APC is $1,095 (Rs 77,300). According to Scimago, Indian scientists publish 145,000 papers a year (2015-2017 average). Considering 55% of India’s R&D expense is currently borne by the government, and assuming the PeerJ APC as the baseline, that’s an additional expense of Rs 616.46 crore. And PeerJ is among the more affordable ones.
Where is the government going to get this money from? Its R&D expense is already considered insufficient. State-run institutions are generally worse off than centrally funded ones, PhD scholars have been agitating since last year for higher stipend and fewer arrears, and increasing allocations belie funding for pure science, which has taken a hit.
One quick way out is to turn to business enterprises, whose participation in national R&D expenditure increased from 34.2% in 2009 to 43.6% in 2014, and is likely to have increased further since. Another is to increase private sector participation, which languishes at 38.1%, among the lowest in countries of comparable power. A third is to have the government allocate its existing resources better: in 2014, a full 66% of R&D funds went to the DRDO, DoS and DAE alone. (Source for all numbers here.)
But a common issue with these options is that Indian R&D could become even more biased in favour of “national priorities” and business interests, considering they’re already treated poorly. If the Government of India is considering one of these routes, it will have to ensure research priorities don’t become enslaved by profit motives.
Second: Plan S in its current form is an aggressive push towards OA that foists a lot of the burden on research-funders. It doesn’t deal with the problem of research-publishers – i.e. the journals – maintaining gargantuan profit margins, which led to the ‘access to knowledge’ crisis in the first place.
In fact, because scientists are also concerned with notions like “prestige” and regularly seek to have their work published in fancy journals like Nature, Science and Cell, there’s no way to keep them from looking at Nature Communications instead of PeerJ. And Nature Communications charges Rs 3.43 lakh per paper.
Third: While it’s admirable to make publications available to everyone through the gold OA mode, Plan S simply pushes the cost from the people to the government, and forces tax money towards atrocious fees charged by private vendors like Nature. Plan S does have a specification that the APCs will be capped, such that no journal can charge more than the cap.
However, “a price cap is de facto unenforceable, as authors pay any price above the cap if they deem the cost worth the benefit,” Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg, Germany, wrote on his blog. “Here in Germany, it has become routine in the last decade, to pay any APC above the €2,000 cap imposed by the [German Research Foundation] from other sources.”
So if Plan S has to work, researcher-funders also have to help reform scientists’ and administrators’ attitude towards notions like “prestige”. A top-down mandate to publish only in certain journals won’t work if the institutions aren’t equipped, for example, to evaluate research based on factors other than ‘prestige’. And it’s nigh impossible to understate the difficulty of this challenge, especially in India – so much so that a new idea the DST is mulling to boost research plays along instead of trying to fight it.
Fourth: This DST scheme proposes paying researchers to have their papers published, with Rs 50,000 for publishing in foreign journals and Rs 20,000 for publishing in Indian ones. This already shows a preference towards foreign titles, although that’s partly understandable (such as because of the pressures of universities wanting to achieve good global rankings).
More importantly, it also raises concerns about how the government’s negotiations with journals over the APCs will go. Rs 20,000-50,000 sounds like a big figure but in international scientific publishing, it’s really not. Even domestically speaking, India spent Rs 85,326 crore on R&D in 2014, when 130,891 papers were published (indexed by Scimago), which works out to Rs 65 lakh per paper, excluding patents and other outcomes. However, if the government is not willing to spend more, then Plan S journals might not be keen on working with India.
Fifth: Indeed, for all the machinations, it’s an unwritten truth that the centre of power in scientific publishing lies with the publishers – not with the people who pay the funders, the funders who pay the researchers, not even the researchers who fill the publishers’ pages. Apart from reforming academics’ attitudes, Plan S also has to take this beast head-on, lest it is left kowtowing to the journals’ interests.
In 2012, Ross Mounce, the open access grants manager at Arcadia Fund, noticed that the Nature Publishing Group was charging more for admitting papers on which a CC BY license had to be attached – i.e. the gold OA route. Such a license, which stands for Creative Commons Attribution, allows readers to reproduce the contents of the paper elsewhere at no additional cost and together with proper attribution.
Mounce wrote, “Applying a license to a digital work costs nothing. By charging £100-400 more for CC BY, they’re really taking the piss – charging more for ABSOLUTELY NO ADDITIONAL EFFORT on their part” (emphasis in the original). His comment spotlights the central animus well: journals can arbitrarily increase their APCs because they can, the researchers and universities will still want to publish there because they think they ought to – and a Plan S that doesn’t prepare for this will simply recast the problem, postponing its tipping point instead of resolving it.
This in turn could come back to bite India in the back, as it will every other country where the government wants research output to grow together with quality even as it underspends on R&D and education.
Sixth: The larger publishers aside, Plan S will also hit numerous society journals – i.e. journals published by societies dedicated to the study and popularisation of specific areas of science – in which many Indian researchers publish.
These publishers are relatively smaller in scale and more diminutive in their influence on the relationship between research administrators and publishers. In other words, they are less able to modify their business models to make room for Plan S by 2020.

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A position paper by the UK-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers drew attention to Plan S’s encouragement of what it calls “transformative deals”, or “agreements”. Through these deals, Plan S wants publishers to waive APCs for low-income countries and discounted rates for middle-income countries, like India and China.
If such deals do come through, it will be great for Asian, African and Latin American researchers, who will suddenly have unfettered access to high-quality titles like PLOS One, PeerJ, etc. But it’s not clear how society publishers, such as the European Molecular Biology Organisation, will be expected to deal with the costs and (not insignificant) technical issues.
As Michael Clarke wrote on The Scholarly Kitchen,

… society journals tend to publish hybrid titles, providing authors with a choice. For authors who wish to have their work immediately accessible via liberal reuse licenses, gold OA options are readily available. For those authors who cannot, or do not wish to pay an APC, society journals nearly all support green OA with embargo periods ranging from 3 to 24 months, depending on the field…

According to Publisso, “Gold open access is where an author publishes their article in an online open access journal” together with an APC. “In contrast, green open access is where an author publishes their article in any journal and then self-archives a copy in a freely accessible institutional or specialist online archive known as a repository, or on a website.” (The DST and the Department of Biotechnology already maintain a green OA repository of studies they fund.)
So Plan S will effectively expect society publishers to ‘flip’ their publishing model towards gold OA starting 2020. And society publishers might not be ready to do so by then, especially since Plan S also doesn’t offer any helpful suggestions on this front.
The Wire
February 13, 2019

Are we obsessed with nominal identities?

In an interview to The Wire Science last month, Venki Ramakrishnan, the molecular biologist, acknowledged that Indians had a bizarre relationship with the fact that he was a Nobel laureate:

… the business from India was really strange because I’d left India when I was 19. I had almost nothing to do with Indian science except that I started coming to Bangalore and a few other places from about 2006. So the people who knew me in India were people in my field: molecular and structural biology. They knew my work. Nobody else cared about it. At all. (Emphasis added)

I gave a lecture in honour of G.N. Ramachandran in 2008 in Chennai. The hall was maybe half full. The next year a hall that was about three times as big was packed. What was the difference between 2008 and 2009? My work hadn’t changed. So I think it’s a very strange business.

The fact that he spent his whole scientific career outside India doesn’t seem to matter to many Indians, who simply gravitate towards his Indian origins and the nominal identity and think of him as Indian.

This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that his success is considered to be the success of an Indian scientist. It’s not.

The reason I bring this up now is this tweet, where you can see a similar problem at play:

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Like Kaswan points out, Pritish Nandy’s and Tapan Chaki’s selection is flawed at the outset, and can’t be taken seriously for its complete lack of women. But beyond that, there’s also the identity problem. Manjul Bhargava neither studied nor worked in India, ever. Salman Rushdie studied abroad and has lived outside of India for most of his life. Siddhartha Mukherjee only did his schooling in India; he went abroad for his higher education and has been working there since. It’s a similar story with Zubin Mehta.

Many people have skewered Nandy and Chaki on Twitter for ‘packaging’ these people as Indians nonetheless, but to be fair, it is The Economic Times‘s doing, at least because the book’s page on the publisher website only says that these are “leaders who are constantly bringing change not just in India but across the world”.

This being the case, its lack of women – apart from Lata Mangeshkar – is the major problem (judging the book by its cover). In fact, it’s funny that it has been billed as a collector’s item and is set for “private circulation” in a market where the patriarchy that guided its creation is neither.

However, it also bothers me that the newspaper looks at these faces and sees all of them as Indians.

These people are, to me, Indians only in name, and for The Economic Times – or anyone else – to call them “India’s most famous” is offensive (although not for the anti-nationalist nonsense). First, it sets a bar for the sort of fame that begets recognition that’s unjust to the many people who have lived and worked here, who are most familiar with its conditions and, most importantly, whose success represents work that is more meaningful to the country’s status quo and aspirations.

For example, if a mathematician who studied in India and works in India solves a major problem, her life and her views will be of great interest to anyone interested in the conditions in which India excels irrespective of whether someone in the US or Europe thinks so.

Bhargava’s excellence, deserving though it is, is on the other hand purely academic. It contains no imprints of the experience of persevering in India except perhaps in a theoretical sense (caveat: I haven’t read the book, and likely won’t). But he is celebrated as a “famous Indian” anyway, just the way Ramakrishnan is.

Taking recourse through Western recognition also risks false positives: celebrating work that a White Man has expressed interest in, even when it is actually par for the course in its context. Here’s a good example.

Second: Nandy’s and Chaki’s choices have excluded not just these people but the real change-makers in India, the people working on the ground, with communities, and who often go unnamed (until they’re arrested on specious charges). It is not hard for me or any other English-speaking urbanite who reads The Economic Times to find out what Bhargava’s, Mukherjee’s or Rushdie’s views are. But it’s very hard to hear from the community workers, above and beyond the skewed incentives that keep the mainstream media’s gaze looking away from them – including perhaps The Economic Times‘s, given the glowing review.

I’m not sure if it’s the paucity of homegrown champions who have won international  – especially Western – recognition, but something about it, an Indian name and even the slightest hint of brown skin has people – at least the upper-caste middle and upper class readers of the English media – sitting upright, paying attention and clutching at the pride straws. But when the recognition has a more local and caste-just flavour, the interest vanishes.

At a time when pandering to the aspirations of just this group makes for good business, and when such business increasingly controls what we don’t see or read or hear, it’s important to define our heroes properly and make sure we keep them in our sights.

Research funds gridlock: who wants what

On January 30, the Union ministry of finance announced a 24-25% hike in the junior (JRF) and senior research fellowships (SRF) amounts effective from January 1, 2019.

The decision had been prompted by a longstanding demand of India’s community of young scholars, who availed these fellowships to support themselves at the start of their careers as scientists. In 2018, their discontent snowballed into widespread protests, with scholars demanding an 80% hike in the JRF/SRF amounts.

Their demands reveal a picture of people trying to wriggle out of a system that, through its various inadvertent flaws, has been exploiting them.

After the protests, officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), together with K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific advisor, intervened, deliberated with the scholars and presented their case to the finance ministry.

But because of the large difference between the ask and what has been given, scholars have confirmed that the protests will continue. In fact, on February 2, many of them will gather at AIIMS, New Delhi, for a stock-taking exercise and to plan their next steps.

Different win-win situations

Time is also of the essence, as the scholars are looking for a speedy resolution. However, VijayRaghavan noted, “There are many fellowships, many agencies, and the bottlenecks are there from the laboratory, the institution to the agencies and back.”

According to the DST, the 24-25% hike will benefit 60,000 fellows, and incur an additional expense of Rs 1,500 crore. In this milieu, VijayRaghavan believes that effecting yet another one-time hike and keeping the students waiting for four more years would not solve the problem.

Most people agree that perhaps the worst part issue in all of this is that the scholars don’t receive fellowships that have already been sanctioned on time. VijayRaghavan said that the DST is working on installing a “mechanism” that will ensure the JRF/SRF emoluments are disbursed on time. With this in place, he added, the 24-25% hike “is better seen as the base of a ramp”.

As heartening as this is, scholars are wary because neither this mechanism nor the committee that will oversee it were mentioned in the official memo they received from the DST announcing the hike. And because verbal assurances have yielded subpar – from their point of view – results thus far, they’re less inclined to hope until a formal decision has been made.

A PhD student (who requested anonymity) added that young scientists funded by the Centre should simply be brought under the Pay Commission instead of pursuing anything else: “That would solve most of our problems.”

A poster at a protest depicting the MHRD's promises of a speedy resolution. Credit: IISc Students Council
A poster at a protest depicting the MHRD’s promises of a speedy resolution. Credit: IISc Students Council

And not doing so also detracts from the scholars’ attempts to acquire more respect. As another scholar said, “We need to be treated better. If we’re treated as employees instead of students – equivalent to children – in the professional place, it would improve the professionalism.”

Beyond the one-time transactions of the hikes themselves, VijayRaghavan said he and his colleagues are considering a slew of additional incentives that they are hoping will prove to be a win for the research at large as well as a win for individual researchers.

He said they are mulling incentives for teaching (TA) and research assistance (RA). The TA/RA scheme is expected to be similar to the one in most American universities, where PhD students conduct undergraduate classes and assist senior researchers, both against an offset in their fees.

But another PhD scholar said that TA schemes already exist in some places, and the problem was different. “The institutes try their best to get as much job done as possible by paying less. The TA amount we receive is Rs 100 per hour and for a maximum of 120 hours.”

And even when the hours worked increase, “the amounts don’t,” and there is no way to complain when this happens.

What’s a paper worth?

Officials are also considering a ‘rewards for publication’ scheme, the contours of which are less clear. VijayRaghavan said, “The goal is to gently nudge a turn towards quality, not quantity, driven by the student also taking the initiative.”

A parallel scheme is already at work in China, where, according to many observers, it has reaped great rewards for the country’s institutions and for their international ranking. But it has also raised grave doubts about how it could be damaging the country’s research ethos.

In the early 1990s, Nanjing University began rewarding its researchers for publishing papers in certain journals. By the late 1990s, it was the top Chinese university by number of papers published in journals indexed in the Web of Science database. This in turn increased the university’s ranking and encouraged other universities to follow suit. At the time, a higher ranking meant more funds from the government.

Exactly how much a scientist received for each paper wasn’t clear until 2017. Then, a group of Chinese and American researchers revealed that scientists publishing in prestigious titles like Nature and Science earned over $43,000 – or Rs 30.7 lakh – per paper.

This raises many questions about how a similar scheme in India could work without damaging the publishing culture. It would also require guarding against a variety of threats that India’s academic setup will need to be ‘upgraded’ to handle.

For example, an already prevalent obsession with publishing in ‘prestigious’ journals often prompts evaluators to devalue studies published in other journals – even if they have equal or greater merit.

Part of the reason this happens is that a journal’s prestige is used as a proxy for the quality of research published in it. Such proxies are necessary because evaluators either don’t have the time to judge each paper on its own or don’t want to. So a new reward system that asks for more of their time might not work.

Gautam Menon, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, said that if the Chinese model is anything to go by, “it’s a bad idea”.

The scheme “introduces an incentive that favours certain types of work over others, especially in ‘flavour-of-the-moment’ areas where publishing is easier since journals always want to increase their impact factors; it increases the incentive to cheat, especially if the monetary rewards are substantial,” he added.

And “it reduces the value of ‘intellectual scholarship’, if the only way one assumes such scholarship is whether the scientist has been appropriately rewarded in this manner.”

Its ultimate effect would be to “downgrade long, scholarly publications in society journals in favour of the more magazine-type articles in Science, Nature, etc.”

VijayRaghavan acknowledged the idea is “double-edged” for all these reasons. “So steps have to be taken to maximise the positive and minimise the negatives. If this is not possible, it may be wiser not to do this at all.”

“Rewards should be part of the grant system,” said Rahul Siddharthan, Menon’s colleague at IMSc, “and not a reward after the fact. For scientists, good research
is its own reward. Recognise it by more generous and flexible funding.”

Generous, flexible funding – that’s where all conversations on these topics stop, almost as if a lot of what’s ailing India’s research community is because too many people have been crammed into a small fiscal space. And in turn this has localised prestige, resources and attention in awkward places.

As an alternative, Menon suggests increasing the “number of high-risk, high-reward proposals, ensuring they are funded fast, and ensuring they are publicised.” Together with fewer constraints on how that money is spent and advertising them as ‘prestigious’, such a scheme could be a more workable “alternative” to ‘rewards for publication’.

This could also help tackle the anti-basic-science bias many scholars are starting to see in the government’s actions and ministers’ speeches, and also beat back divisive schemes like the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship.

In all of this, one goal has been achieved. The conversations that have to happen if the scholars are to be treated better are finally happening now, thanks to greater – but still insufficient – government participation. It is only regrettable that the trigger had to be distress.

The Wire
February 2, 2019

The history, culture and science of ‘cardiac coherence breathing’

A recent article in Scientific American on the benefits of “proper breathing” for overall health has ignited anger across social media, with many in India accusing the magazine of rebranding or even appropriating the ancient Indian breathing technique of ‘pranayama’.

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The outrage on display seems prompted by Scientific American‘s tweet, rather than the article itself, which makes multiple flattering references to pranayama, yoga and the knowledge of the East.

Of course, given the track record of the West, the outrage is perfectly understandable. Western scientists have frequently been guilty of (re)discovering something that’s been around for many centuries, attempting to package it as something new, and in the process depriving it of its cultural heritage in the name of sanitising it for scientific examination. There was a similar incident with banana leaves last year and with turmeric latte before that.

However, Scientific American‘s article and the reaction it has prompted offer more than an opportunity to just outrage; they offer a chance to reflect on and unpack a lot of things going on here. One example that comes immediately to mind is the role of science in society, as opposed to science’s relation to society, as if it were a separate entity somehow.

‘Cardiac coherence breathing’, as the article characterises pranayama, is the language of a specialist within science. That doesn’t make it wrong, even though claiming it is something novel would be misguided, but that does remove the technique from the commons and away from the people, using language that isn’t very accessible, and making it sound more alien than it actually is. On the other hand, calling it ‘pranayama’ – by way of its storied relationship with yoga – keeps it within the commons.

This is simply a reflection of the scientist’s isolation from society’s broader goals, in the West as much as in the modern East. It’s also a reflection of the kind of language scientists have been trained to, and are encouraged to, use. For example, you no longer read scientific papers today that are easy to understand. The writing is predominantly in the passive voice, very dense and is typified by the overuse of ‘science-ese’ like “‘moreover,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘distinct’ and ‘underlying’”. The following is what some scientists have said about the scientific literature:

Typically, it is bloated, dense and so dry that no amount of chewing can make it tasty. (source)

That science has become more difficult for nonspecialists to understand is a truth universally acknowledged. (source)

Modern scientific texts are more impenetrable than they were over a century ago, suggests a team of researchers in Sweden. It’s easy to believe that. (source)

Fans of the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory will have seen this tendency mocked in the title of each episode: ‘The Allowance Evaporation’, ‘The Romance Recalibration’, ‘The Collaboration Contamination’, etc. So ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ sounds about right for pranayama.

Another issue at play here is the seeming incompatibility of knowledge and the tests used to verify knowledge. India has had the former for a very, very long time, as have numerous other non-modern civilisations around the world.

On the other hand, the tests used to verify knowledge have evolved continuously, and the set of tests used today are of Western origin. Further, because of the West’s colonial mindset, knowledge that isn’t verifiable by their methods is treated as non-knowledge or pseudoscience.

Where we have come up short is in breaching this past/present divide – as Youyou Tu did – instead of dismissing one in favour of the other. But even here, it’s still only the regrettable global struggle for primacy at play, motivated by the incentives capitalism offers for it. As the philosopher Samir Chopra wrote:

Legal protections appropriate for tangible objects … are a disaster in the realm of culture, which relies on a richly populated, open-for-borrowing-and-reuse public domain. It is here, where our culture is born and grows and is reproduced, that the term ‘intellectual property’ holds sway and does considerable mischief.

Then again, one can’t just wish this complication away, and the (re)discovery of ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ might just be a good thing. It’s useful that scientists – anywhere, not just in India – are examining pranayama through the scientific method, with the potential to unlock some detail that an Indian, by virtue of her traditional knowledge alone, doesn’t already have.

As the Scientific American article goes on to note:

The method was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.

This is certainly good to know. Where the ‘discovery’ errs is in passing it off as something new, where it runs the risk of being translocated from the commons to the specialists. Terms like ‘vagus nerve’, ‘parasympathetic’ and ‘neurobiological mechanisms’ aren’t exactly part of casual conversation.

An attendant issue is that of cultural misappropriation. Many readers will remember the hoopla over Coldplay’s music video for ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ in 2016. In 2018, we discovered how the British author J.K. Rowling had shoehorned an Indonesian character, played by a Korean actress, into the script for the second Fantastic Beasts film in a bid to have diversity where none existed in her books. The only problem: the mythology she chose to draw from was of Indian origin.

The result, in the writer Achala Upendran’s words:

[Rowling] refuses to accept that her position as creator does not entitle her to rewrite cultural histories and rebrand different mythologies according to her own convenience, especially when this rebranding is so fraught with political implications.

In much the same way, many Western commentators and thinkers – if not scientists and policymakers – refuse to acknowledge that their cultural hegemony doesn’t give them the license to recast existing knowledge according to their convenience. Instead of slicing off one portion for scientific study and another to promote pseudoscience, we need scientists to work together with pranayama and yoga practitioners to marry technical inputs with cultural and spiritual rituals, and enhance their benefits for everyone’s sake.

The Wire
January 31, 2019

Which supercollider will be built?

After CERN announced the plans for its new supercollider, I was surprised no one wanted to address the elephant in the room: the supercollider’s similarity to one announced by China a few months ago.

The Chinese machine is called CEPC (Circular Electron Proton Collider) and the CERN machine, FCC (Future Circular Collider). Both CEPC and FCC have a tunnel length – i.e. ring circumference – of 100 km, four phases of operation, with plans to study the same set of particles in the same time period.

Both Yifang Wang and Michael Benedikt, the respective heads of projects, told me that the similarities validate their respective decisions to go with this particular design, and both of them also evaded the question of which machine will ultimately be built.

To be clear, it’s not likely that both machines will be built. Even if they are, they won’t receive equal support – both in the press and among the world governments – during the initial phase. Physicists working on the projects are free to believe that having two supercolliders can only be a good thing because one will be able to validate the findings of the other. However, the world doesn’t have enough money for both.

The CEPC is expected to cost over $5 billion and the FCC, $15 billion. Both China and CERN have said that their machines will be built with international collaboration, with multiple participating countries supplying the people, the technology and, crucially, the money. And no country in the world is going to want to cough up the moolah for two identical machines to be built at the same time. The counter-argument is simple: the Large Hadron Collider is doing just fine as the only one of its kind.

Now, which machine are you willing to bet will get built? It’s not easy to decide.

CERN already has a working international collaboration and doesn’t have to forge one anew. But the flip side of this is that it could be more bureaucratic at the outset, with the organisation having to clear multiple checks before it can begin construction.

On the other hand, if China isn’t able to build a collaboration that could help fund the project, the CEPC will face all the more resistance than it currently does. Building a supercollider by yourself is a colossal undertaking for any country. But that said, if anyone can do it, it has to be China – we all know this. And if the government sets its mind to it, it won’t even have to deal with the same amount of paperwork that CERN already faces.

In fact, further complications could arise depending on who builds a supercollider first. For example, if China gets a suitable head-start and builds the CEPC half a decade before the FCC, say, then funders of the European project may not be so keen to continue investing.

The only way to break this gridlock would be for one machine to offer something that the other can’t. To my mind, CERN seems better placed to make this happen than its Chinese counterpart, the Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing. The European lab already has an array of accelerators and detectors studying different aspects of nuclear physics.

With a little more effort and money, the FCC can be integrated into a larger suite of experiments that can conduct experiments of wider scope. But even then, the possibility of the Chinese going it alone doesn’t seem to go away. We’re already seeing this happen in spaceflight.

I personally believe a CERN machine will be more useful for two reasons: access and diversity. CERN already has mechanisms in place to ensure scientists from developing nations don’t find it harder to access its experiments. It has also undertaken to make papers published based on its findings freely accessible online.

Its workforce is more diverse thanks to its large, functional collaboration, and has demonstrated its commitment to protecting the rights of all those working there. In fact, it looks like CERN has already started advertising this via YouTube.

It will be harder to implement similar, if not the same, policies in China, with its closed-off nature and its problematic human rights record.


Update (1:30 pm, same day): A Vox explainer based on the opinions of a few scientists, including Sean Carroll and Sabine Hossenfelder, presents a few interesting perspectives:

  • As I mentioned before, CERN has to get a lot more greenlights on board before it can proceed than China does – that also means opening itself up to opposition from more quarters
  • The cost is proving to be a significant roadblock for both CERN and IHEP, but if at any time China believes itself ready to go it alone, then it will be able to – unlike CERN, and the CEPC will get built instead of the FCC
  • China could just build the supercollider while CERN uses its money to fund smaller science experiments; but the other way round may not work, if Carroll’s caution is to be believed: that if governments don’t have to give $5/15 billion to one physics experiment, they will “never” give it to other physicists for different experiments
  • CERN, according to Hossenfelder, has been overselling what the FCC will be able to actually achieve (more here)

In light of all this information, I think I would be inclined to bet on the CEPC. However, it still unclear whether it is a good idea to advertise the FCC or the CEPC in terms of potential spinoff technologies:

  1. They are unpredictable
  2. If you’re going to throw $5/15 billion at a large group of scientists working on a bunch of experiments on a common subject over three decades, of course something is going to come of it; the question is whether that would be enough
  3. The idea that governments will not bite if “potential spinoffs” aren’t in the offing should merit a reexamination of why we ‘do’ science, and whether spending more on an abstract physics experiment is likely to drive the wedge between science and society further down

As a human being, I believe that ‘knowing’ is the highest aspiration of all, and that we must fund science projects simply because they help us know things about the world, and the universe. The question is how much and when, and given the constraints described above, it shouldn’t be hard to find a solution that everyone can agree with.

Featured image: LHC undergoing upgrades. Credit: CERN.