Safety a liability as scholars work at low cost

The scene of the explosion at an IISc lab. (DH photo/Janardhan B K)

Indian Institute of Science (IISc) scholars work on frontier technologies with minimum expenditure, compromising on safety, say sources from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, requesting anonymity.

It is a challenge to innovate low-cost frontier technology and research scholars are very passionate about their work.

While on one the hand, one can appreciate their daring passion for innovation, on the other, the institute should ensure that they do not compromise on safety. A controlled environment is required to prevent accidents. The onus is on the institution to provide a controlled, safe environment for experiments, sources said.

A day after the hydrogen cylinder blast at the IISc laboratory killed Manoj Kumar (32), a research scholar and injured three others, the IISc management on Thursday instructed its staff, faculty and scholars not to speak to the media.

Department sources also pointed out that scholars’ passions are driven by the institute’s reputation for making daring attempts to find breakthroughs in low-cost frontier technology. “In other words, you are interning with a reputed pharma industry as a drug discovery expert, earning handsomely — but working on a low-cost future drug which could be potentially harmful or even fatal for you,” a scholar said.

There is a lack of government funding too for maintaining global safety standards in such laboratories.


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At the Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research Laboratory on Wednesday, the scholars were working on an experiment on aerospace and fracking technology in hydrocarbon exploration, said a source. A suitable environment using a medium of gases (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and helium) inside a cylinder/tunnel is created and high-frequency sound waves are sent through it. The scholars then study pressure variations inside the tunnel, the source added. The pressure management inside the cylinder/tunnel is tricky and a controlled environment was absent outside the experimental apparatus resulting in the accident, they said. According to a foreign R&D centre head, companies follow strict security practices while undertaking research and development practices. “The accident at IISc is a stark reality of abject negligence from government and policy makers towards scientific community and startup founders. We have to rise to global standards,” he said.

John F. Welch Technology Center, Shell Bengaluru Technology Centre and Intel Outer Ring Road Campuses are doing frontier research in Bengaluru availing globally accepted best security practices.

According to a CSIR lab security expert, the Union government will undertake a security audit of various labs in accordance with the A, B and C grade of centres. “Besides Intelligence Bureau’s biannual assessment, these labs will be audited by Ernst and Young,” said the official.

India is reeling under resource crunch in R&D, according to a Unesco report, spending only 0.8% of GDP on R&D compared to countries like Israel and South Korea who spend 4.2% and 4.3% respectively. The report also adds that there are only 156 researchers per million inhabitants in India.

While China spends 2% of its GDP on its R&D, the US spends 2.7%. There is a rat race going globally among administrations to tap scientific talent.

According to an analyst, China now produces more scientific publications than the US. “China has even created the Thousand Talent Plan to attract researchers from across the globe to do R&D activities in their country. Indian scientific community should be supported by the government,” he said.

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Safety a liability as scholars work at low cost

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