Curious Bends – Vandana Shiva, antibiotics in chicken, asteroid hunters and more

Few technologies, not the car, the phone, or even the computer, have been adopted as rapidly and as widely as the products of agricultural biotechnology. The tools of genetic engineering have allowed a good proportion of the current population to survive and prosper. But such statistics (or any scientific argument) does not stop Vandana Shiva from thinking that the root of all evil lies in GM technology. (42 min read)

2. Chicken consumption is at an all-time high in India. It may be contributing to antibiotic resistance

An investigation of chicken from around Delhi shows that they contain antibiotics beyond the limits setup by international bodies. These antibiotics are used not to treat diseased chicken but to prevent them. However, there are no regulations in India for their use in poultry. This means the amounts used are often excessive, probably contributing to increasing antibiotic resistance. (21 min read)

3. India’s outdated approach to education is hurting students and academia

The University Grants Commission wants to reign in elite institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, by making their courses shorter. This decision, however, isn’t based on any sound research. If such institutions aren’t allowed to experiment with education, then how would you know what works best for Indian students and academics? (5 min read)

+ The author, Vishu Guttal, is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science.

4. India has an asteroid search mission made up of mostly students

“Four years, 260 teams across India, 1200 observations of celestial bodies and 21 discoveries of asteroids. All India Asteroid Search Campaign was started by SPACE, an NGO in India, in 2010 with an aim to increase the love for science, astronomy and scientific research in Indian students. SPACE provides training to students and amateur astronomers to hunt for asteroids.” (2 min read)

5. An interview with Manjul Bhargava, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal

The first Indian-origin mathematician has won the Fields Medal, which is considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics. In an interview, he talks about growing up in India, Canada and the US and how his upbringing shaped up his desire to pursue mathematics, tabla and sanskrit. His hope is that Indian youth will take up research in basic science.

Chart of the week

You must have heard that even today half of India’s population lives off agricultural activities. But how true is that? Turns out that estimating how many cultivators and agricultural labourers India has is no easy task. Here’s an attempt by Hindustan Times.

Is education the great leveller? No, says UNESCO

Immigrant students and those from poor backgrounds living in developed countries are being failed by the school system and face a high risk of marginalisation, according to a UNESCO report.

Data from the 2009 results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that only 60% of French 15-year-old students pass the minimum benchmark for reading if they are immigrants. This is the same proportion achieved by an average Mexican student. Non-immigrant students in France fare much better, with 82% achieving that benchmark.

Similarly, reading levels of England’s immigrant students’ are on par with an average student in Turkey, and Germany’s are on par with an average student in Chile.

Rich poor education-01

According to Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, “On average economic migrants and refugees from less educated social backgrounds may tend to do worse, wherever they go.” He said that when UNESCO quotes difference in attainment rates for immigrants in different countries, “it is important to bear in mind how developed these countries are and where the influx is from.”

This comparison between immigrants and non-immigrants may mask issues over first-generation immigrants studying in a second language. Gorard said factors of social class are of key importance. Where new children perform worse at school than their indigenous peers, “this is not necessarily a consequence of their immigrant status of their treatment by others.”

The key question is what happens over time, perhaps over a generation or two. But, he said, “This is in no way an excuse for situations where there is direct evidence of unfair treatment of recent immigrant students.”

A 2013 report by the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, pointed to chidren of some migrants being denied access to education and housing.

Their analysis found that in England, the gap between rich and poor children achieving minimum levels in maths grows as they progress through school. At grade four (nine-year-olds), the gap was 8%, but it was 19% by grade eight (13-year-olds).

New Zealand has similar disparities, with only two thirds of poor students achieving standards, compared to nearly all rich students. In Australia, the problem has persisted for more than a decade, with two-thirds of indigenous grade 8 students achieving the minimum level in maths between 1994-5 and 2011, compared to 90% of non-indigenous students.

Rich poor divide-01

Such discrepancies are not inevitable. Policies in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, as well as in Finland, have promoted quality teaching and helped level reduce disparities in learning, creating a level playing field for students from different social class.

Policy interventions to address discrepancies between ethnic groups can be difficult to get political attention. When it comes to analysis of achievement of different ethnic groups, David Gilborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham, said race equality isn’t currently taken very seriously in debates around education in the UK. “I think certainly over the last few years, policymakers have not just taken their eye off the ball in terms of inclusive education. They’ve removed it from the agenda all together.”

Gilborn has worked on the differences in attainment between children of black Caribbean heritage, and the national average, which he said remain pronounced. “Education policy at the moment is dominated by a kind of colour blind rhetoric that emphasises standards and choice, and if anything, talk about inclusion and social justice tends to emphasise a particular view of white students being the race victims,” he said.

The UNESCO report points out that 250m of the world’s 650m primary school-age children are not learning the basics of reading and maths. The researchers put the cost of this to governments at $129bn, or 10% of global spending on primary education.

Bearing the price in mind and the fact that many of the children going through the school system are not actually achieving basic levels in reading and maths, it is possible to break down the cost-efficiency of spending on primary education. For example, in Burundi, the average spend per pupil is $60. But if you remove those who are not learning the basics, and the cost per pupil is $204.The Conversation

Written with Gemma Ware. First published on The Conversation

Image credit: PennState

Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work
Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.