Pune-based Online Science/Maths Learning Platform Function Space gets funding

Pune-based Function Space, an online “social” platform for learning science and maths has recently raised seed funding from Nexus Venture Partners.

Function Space is trying to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education fun and engaging, something that is seriously been missing from our education system

Function Space, already offers a strong community consisting of users from over 190 countries, including students, professors and researchers from MIT, Stanford, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, Indian Institute of Technology campuses, Indian Institute of Science and other prestigious institutions.

The funding will be used for expansion: of their content, their tools, and their customer reach.

Function Space was founded in 2013 by Adit Gupta, Sakshi Majmudar and Sumit Maniyar.

Read the full article

At MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM

The Boston Globe has an interesting opinion piece from Deborah K. Fitzgerald, dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences where she argues that at MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Why?

Because:

But the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

And due to this, MIT insists that its engineering students spend a quarter of their time on the humanities:

MIT’s curriculum has evolved significantly over the past 50 years to require all undergraduates to spend substantial time on subjects like literature, languages, economics, music, and history. In fact, every MIT undergraduate takes a minimum of eight such classes — nearly 25 percent of their total class time.

Because, in today’s global, internetworked world, just knowing the science and the technology is never really enough to solve any important problem:

In these classes, our students learn how individuals, organizations, and nations act on their desires and concerns. They gain historical and cultural perspectives, and critical thinking skills that help them collaborate with people across the globe, as well as communication skills that enable them to listen, explain, and inspire. They learn that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely, if ever, as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation.

In fact, I remember that as an undergraduate at IIT-Bombay, I was forced to take humanities courses, and I hated having to spend my time on those, instead of learning computer programming. However, in retrospect, I feel that the humanities courses (psychology, philosophy, economics) were probably the most important courses of my undergraduate education.

Read the full article

“Free Indian Science from Bureaucracy” – Mathai Joseph & Andrew Robinson

Nature has an interesting article by Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson who argue that Indian Science is being stifled by government bureaucracy and needs to be freed.

First, the government claims to care about science, but is not willing to invest in it:

Sadly, science and its administration, once seen as central to Indian development, are not currently on the agenda, despite some trenchant critiques from scientists and science policy-makers. Repeated government promises to increase the expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2% of India’s gross domestic product have not been kept. R&D spend remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia3 (down from 1.25% in 2009), 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China2 (see ‘Brick benchmarking’).

And whatever science that does happen in India is limited by bureaucratic rules:

The basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact

And the results of this bureaucracy are clear enough:

Today, although India ranks tenth in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citations per paper (see go.nature.com/xl3ldg). Almost 20% of patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2010 were from China, with just 1.9% from India (below Russia’s 2.1% but above Brazil’s 1.1%)

In other words, our scientific community is reacting as happens in any situation involving inflexible bureaucratic rules – by following the letter of the policy, but not the spirit.

Why is our scientific output so bad? The authors specify three important reasons:

First, scientists are promoted on the basis of years of service, rather than achievement, and once at the top they stay until retirement age; long after, in some cases. Even at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, which is less rule-bound than many other institutions, research groups are almost invariably headed by those who have been there the longest.

and:

Second, although research in the leading institutions is well funded — with more money available than requested in credible grant applications, a striking contrast to the situation in many nations — the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

and finally:

Third, the movement of researchers from one institution to another is discouraged, because administrators prefer senior positions to be filled by internal promotion rather than lateral hiring.

Is there a solution?

More than two decades ago, the threat of imminent national bankruptcy forced India’s government to liberate its economy from the notorious ‘licence–permit raj’, which had strait-jacketed commerce and industry since 1947. What will it take in 2014 to reinvigorate India’s decrepit scientific empires, trapped for decades in a similarly rigid bureaucracy?

Instead of just complaining, the authors give 4 specific suggestions on what can be done:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians

and:

A second step must be to ensure planned rotation of institutional roles and responsibilities.

and:

Third, the formation of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

and finally:

Fourth, how to spend that 2% of GDP when it finally materializes? Leading institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and many others are already well provided for, by any standards8. New research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10% of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s PhD

Read the full article – it has far more detail.

InnoVidya Event: Spinning Startups from Science & Technology R&D

InnoVidya, IUCAA and MCCIA present a talk by Dr. S. Sivaram on “Spinning off Start-ups from Science & Technology R&D” on Saturday, Mar 15, 2013, at 11am, 5th Floor, A-Wing, MCCIA, ICC Towers, SB Road. This is the next talk in the InnoVidya/IUCAA SPARK lecture series.

About the Speaker – Dr. S. Sivaram

Dr. Sivaram is a renowned polymer chemist and is. an alumnus of Madras Christian College + IIT-Kanpur & received his PhD in Chemistry from Purdue University, USA, After serving as Deputy General Manager (R&D) at Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd., Vadodara, he joined NCL in 1988 as Head of the Polymer Chemistry Division and was the Director of NCL from 2002-2010. He has mentored the PhD theses of 36 graduate students. He has over 210 publications in peer reviewed scientific journals and holds 47 European and US patents and 46 Indian patents. He is the founder-Chairman and presently a member of the Board of Directors of Entrepreneurship Development Center, Pune, a ‘not-for-profit’ Company promoted by CSIR-NCL and a Founder Director of CSIR-Tech Private Limited, Pune, a ‘for-profit’ company, to commercialize IPR and technologies of CSIR as well as other publicly funded research institutions. He is a CSIR Bhatnagar Fellow and J.C.Bose National Fellow at the NCL. The President of India had conferred the “Padma Shri”, on Dr. Sivaram in 2006.

Abstract of the talk:

Spinning off new start-ups is a key component of science and technology (S&T) based innovation. This requires cutting edge scientific discoveries, a robust IPR portfolio, an entrepreneurial mind set and an enabling “eco-system. In India, the burgeoning IT, E Commerce & Service sectors of the economy have seen increasingly buoyant “start-up” activity. Sadly, S&T driven entrepreneurship has been conspicuously missing. This Talk will focus on a brief history and evolution of S&T driven entrepreneurship and the enabling policy framework that triggered a resurgence of “start-up” enterprises in more developed countries of the world. The elements of the “eco-system” needed to nurture scientific entrepreneurship will be discussed. The weakness of the “eco-system” in the Indian context will be elaborated with some prescriptions for change. Some recent examples of technology driven enterprises from India will be enumerated, especially, in the area of health care, diagnostics and clean energy. A large part of Indian S&T is currently outside of this ecosystem. The question of how to bring them into the ecosystem, therefore, assumes great importance. If S&T has to become an engine of innovation and economic growth, “spin–offs” and “start-ups’ have to become an integral part of India’s innovation systems.

About the InnoVidya IUCAA Spark Program

The SPARK program is a series of events jointly conducted by InnoVidya and IUCAA. These are special events that <spark> imagination & curiosity of our young, build bonds between participants of different disciplines, catalyze interactivity & promote peer links

If you’re interested in the state of education in India, please subscribe to get updates by email

Event Details

The event is on Saturday, March 15, 2013, at 11am, at 5th Floor, A-Wing, MCCIA, ICC Towers, SB Road

Fees and Registration

This event is free and open for anybody to attend. Register here.

Event Report: Alternate Energy Systems – Myths, Facts & Challenges

This is the full video and slides of the InnoVidya/IUCAA talk by Padmashree Paul Ratnasamy, that has helt on 23 Feb, at IUCAA.

Click “full screen” icon at the bottom right of window above to see the video in addition to the slides. If you’re unable to see the video above, click here.

(What follows is a live-blog of the talk. You should really watch the video above – read the live-blog below only if you’re too lazy to watch the full video. The live-blog below is just a collection of some of the interesting points made. It is not intended to be a full transcript, and large sections might be missing. Please forgive the typos and bad grammar.)

  • Who is the one God that we see everyday? The Sun. The Sun’s energy is so important, that it has been elevated to a God all over the world – Ra (Egypt), Tonatiuh (Aztec), Apollo (Greek), Shamash (Sumer), etc.
  • In the last 25 years, world energy consumption is going up. And it’s mostly oil, coal and gas. In spite of all the talk of biofuels and renewable energy replacing fossil fuels, we are actually using more fossil fuels every day.
  • There is a direct correlation between Energy usage per capita and GDP per capita of a country – with two important exceptions (Russia, high energy consumption, but low GDP, and Japan which has low energy consumption even though it is rich).
  • We have a problem:
    • GDP and Economic Progress depends upon greater energy use.
    • Most fuel used today is fossil fuel
    • Hence, more energy = more environment degradation
  • Historical sources of energy:
    • Muscle (human/animal) power
    • Fire (wood) / Solar (agriculture)
    • Wood; Charcoal; Coal; Wind; Water (Sails/Mills)
    • Energy Conversation technologies catalyzed the Industrial revolution:
      • Steam Engine (Factories, Ships, Trains)
      • Steel – Ships, Rails
      • etc.
    • Petroleum
    • Natural Gas
    • Nuclear
    • BioFuels
  • India’s Reserves:
    • Coal – 500+ years
    • Lignite – 1000 years
    • Crude Oil – 30 years
    • Natural Gas – 20 years
  • India’s Imports:
    • Oil: used mainly in transport (40%), industry (20%), electricity (15%), agriculture (10%)
  • India’s shortage of liquid/gas hydrocarbons is the problem. $30B of it every year is used in electricity and agriculture. Both of these can be replaced.
  • Reducing energy consumption is not an option. Because that can only be done by reducing the standard of living (and essentially going back to the stone age).
  • Today’s Fuel Usage:
    • Cooking / Lighting: Wood, Kerosene, LPG, bio gas, electricity
    • Electricity: Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Oil, Solar, Wind, Bagasse
    • Transportation: Electricity (mainly Trains), Hydrocarbon liquids (Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, kerosene, bunker oil) from oil, coal, natural gas
  • We cannot do transportation without liquid hydrocarbons. So any “renewable energy solution” needs to tackle this problem
    • Fossil fuels have high energy density. This high energy density is needed for transportation
    • Renewable energy has low energy density.
    • Energy densities: Petrol=48MJ/kg, Coal=32, Biomass=15. This is a problem.
    • Why? Hydrocarbons are just carbon and hydrogen – and hydrogen is what gives the energy. Biomass has carbon, hydrogen and lots of oxygen. Oxygen not only does not give energy, but it consumes energy because we have to spend effort to remove it. That is why biomass energy density is much lower than hydrocarbons.
  • Example of biofuel use: We can convert sugar to LPG. A sugar mill that processes 6000 tons per day of sugar cane, will produce 70 tons of LPG per day.
  • Biofuels are not only environmentally friendly, but due to their decentralized nature, they have other major advantages:
    • Move jobs from urban to rural areas
    • Capture of energy is not catastrophic to the area where the energy is being captured. (A visit to a coal mine town will convince you of this point.)
    • Additional source of energy at point of consumption…
    • Lower distribution costs
    • Lower theft/loss during distribution
    • Security against terrorist / cyber attacks
  • Petroleum subsidy by Government of India: Diesel Rs 11 per liter, LPG Rs 33/kg, Kerosene Rs. 32/l, Petrol Rs. 1.5/l.
  • The same subsidies should be available to biofuels. This will:
    • lower the import bills
    • pump more money into the rural economy
    • reduce global warming
  • Solar Energy:
    • Major problems: It’s diffuse, it’s intermittent, it cannot be stored easily
    • Types:
      • Solar Thermal: direct heat/steam and electricity
      • Solar Photovoltaic: direct conversion to electricity. Modules last 20 to 40 years. Very little maintenance cost. Cost of installation is the only real cost.
      • Solar Bio – algae + CO2 -> algae oil -> ethanol etc.
    • Economics:
      • At $1/watt is “break-even” price for solar power
      • Prices have gone from $100/watt in 1976, to $1/watt now. So we are at break-even price
      • Now, the best solar power is competitive with the best coal power in terms of price
    • Random note: China invested in Solar R&D. Now 50% of all solar panels in India come from China
  • Fuel from municipal solid waste
    • MSW -> biogas -> heat/electricity
    • MSW -> Syngas -> ethanol/electricity
  • Summary:
    • There is no major shortage of fossil fuels at current consumption rates
    • Global Warming is the major driving force for renewable energy
    • Onshore wind is already competitive with grid (but not available everywhere)
    • Solar PV is competitive with diesel set electricity (generators, pumpsets, emergency power)
    • Biofuels meet specifications for transportation fuels
    • Technology Challenges:
      • Improve Solar/Wind energy storage efficiency
      • Reduce capital expenses of solar/biofuels
  • Strategies for Clean Energy Growth:
    • Government should mandate cleaner fuels & fuel efficient engines
    • Promote CO2 capture and use in growing algae -> algae oil -> diesel.
    • Government should use subsidies to promote this:
      • Use Solar/MSW electricity for sugar mills
      • Use bagasse for ethanol/gasolien/diesel/LPG and chemicals.
      • (Note: fossil fuels are already subsidized by the government)
    • Decontrol the sale/purchase/price of fuels and electricity from solar/wind/biomass. Give private market and free enterprise a free hand in this market
    • Foster growth of startup companies for alternate energy tecnology

And Grow More Tree.