How has the chemical science community responded to the pandemic?
The whole scientific community, including chemical scientists, has really come together. In April 2020 a group of experts from different disciplines formed Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19. Today this group has more than 500 scientists, engineers, technologists, doctors, public health researchers and science communicators who are using their skills to tackle the pandemic. For example, they publish data analysis to help predict the spread of the virus.
Another important aspect of this group is tackling the pandemic of misinformation. They publish information for the public to bust popular myths about the virus. I think this pandemic has really highlighted the need for clear, effective scientific communication.
Could you share a little more about some of the scientific developments related to Covid-19?
The most well-known story is vaccines of course. India has been quick to develop its own vaccine, Covaxin, created by Bharat Biotech, which was approved for emergency use in January 2021. India also has very strong vaccine manufacturing capacity. Until recently it was effectively been the vaccine factory of the world. Unfortunately, an export ban was introduced in April, due to the urgent need for India to vaccinate its own population. This is obviously a very complex and sensitive topic, but I think it highlights some of the challenges of international collaboration in times of crisis.
Something else I would like to highlight is the focus on affordable healthcare innovation, which India has a strong track record in. Our scientists are very good at leveraging opportunities and coming up with cutting-edge, yet inclusive solutions to complex problems. For example, a team at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi has developed an inexpensive paper-based rapid Covid-19 test called FELUDA, which is being manufactured by Tata.
Chemists have also been working with colleagues from other disciplines to solve the oxygen crisis. A team at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay has shown how nitrogen plants, which are used across India at industrial sites, could be adapted into oxygen generators, while researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhopal have developed a low-cost oxygen concentrator.
What has been the impact on chemistry teachers and students?
The Covid-19 pandemic has created immediate and unprecedented challenges in the field of education. Starting March 2020, most schools across India shifted to online instruction. The concept of education changed overnight and in these times of crisis, digital learning has emerged as an indispensable resource.
This has had its challenges in terms of access. A recent survey suggests that more than three in four (75%) of children in India face barriers to accessing online teaching, such as lack of reliable Internet connection or not being able to afford data. Students from already disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to face these issues, with some estimates suggesting that this group will have lost 40% of their learning over the past year.
However, digital technology is also providing all sorts of remote learning opportunities for students and many teachers embraced this new way of working and are creating really engaging online experiences.
How had the RSC team adapted your work in India?
The RSC India team is very passionate about supporting scientists, from primary school students to esteemed professors. Prior to Covid, we supported round 50 scientific conferences and workshops around the country every year, as well as running workshops for teachers and Salter’s chemistry camps for school students.
Since the pandemic we’ve had to move all our events online, which has been working quite well I’m pleased to say. For example, we’ve web events such as Meet the Editor and Desktop Seminars, in collaboration with Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER). These have been a great way of bringing the community together and enabling people to share knowledge at time when travel has been restricted.
From September to December 2020 we also held a joint webinar series with the IISER in Pune. These sessions focused on topics ranging from engagement and active learning techniques, simulation and project-based learning, to assessments. In all, more than 3,000 educators across India registered for the series. We had an overwhelmingly positive response, with 95% of participants saying they would recommend the seminars to colleagues.
Interestingly, we also had teachers from 18 other countries also taking part, from the UK and US to the UAE, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. So, the move to running events online has allowed us to reach a much wider audience than we did previously.
Are there any interesting developments beyond Covid-19?
Beyond the pandemic, climate change and sustainability pose a much greater threat to our future. One initiative we’re really excited about is the Innovation and Sustainability Chemistry Consortium, which has been set up by a group of scientists from the UK and India, with funding from the UK Government and support from the RSC. This is a virtual platform for multi-disciplinary collaboration on topics such as the environment, future technologies, flow chemistry, electrochemistry, and sustainable materials, technologies and pathways. There is also a focus on bringing together academics with scientists in industry, which is going to be essential for scaling up innovations.