Can Big Science projects fulfil India’s big dreams?

Big Science boosts local economies, unfortunately, such projects have been stuck in India’s bureaucratic and legal limbo.

WrittenBy:Science Desk
Article image

By Saranya Ghosh

This is the day and age of large-scale science projects, also referred to as ‘Big Science’. Many branches of science have evolved to a level where scientists are collaborating across countries on a single large project. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment that recently detected gravitational waves—a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the ITER project that is aimed at utilising nuclear fission energy for generating electricity and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012 are some of the most prominent examples of such projects while there are many more around the world.

A large majority of these projects are based either in the US, Europe or Japan. China is also catching up with many new projects such as the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fibre Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST), which is designed for astronomical observation within and beyond our galaxy. These are countries that are hubs of scientific and technological innovation. So for India to catch up to these countries, it needs to invest in large-scale science projects.

The common feature across these projects is not only their aim to address complex scientific matters but also their far-reaching technological and economic benefits which extend beyond specific goals.

Such projects have a large number multi-national collaborators including scientists and engineers working on them, often working with complex instruments at the cutting edge of technology. They also require significant financial investment and are dependent on funding from multiple countries due to the quantum of resources required for their completion, though the funding from the host country forms the largest share. The returns from such projects are immense as well.

These projects are drivers of technological advancement, research and development with widespread collaboration with industries. For example, the technology used to detect particles at European Organisation of Nuclear Research(CERN), where the LHC experiments are based, has been modified for use in medical imaging, specifically for use in PET/CT scanners which are used as diagnostic tools for various diseases including cancer. Various other advancements made by the scientists have been passed on to the concerned industries to be used in their respective fields ranging from wireless technology to cochlear implants. The World Wide Web was effectively invented at CERN. With the development of the HTML protocol, the impact of the World Wide Web on individuals and the economy does not need any explanation.

Many scientists and engineers working on these projects have transitioned to industries and have played leading roles in research and development. Big Science projects have proved to be instrumental in creating human resource assets.

Especially for India, such projects have the potential to check the brain-drain that is so often spoken about. While there are many scientists and engineers who move abroad for want of a better lifestyle and income, there are also those who migrate in search of better and more advanced opportunities in their field. Having such scientific projects in India would help in retaining a significant part of that talent pool in the country.

Scientists from India have been a part of several of these large-scale science projects based abroad with the LIGO collaboration and the LHC experiments as examples of such engagements. Hence, the capability of Indian scientists in running such projects is not in doubt.

While scientists from across the world work on such projects, the benefits to the host country is naturally much more than that of participating countries. The collaboration with local industries, benefits to local universities and tertiary benefits to communities are significantly more for the host nation.

There is great potential in India to host such projects. Smaller projects such as the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune are providing valuable information to scientists around the world about many different astronomical objects including pulsars and neutron stars. Similar projects, but on a larger scale, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) coming up in South Africa (and in Australia) have given a boost to the infrastructure, the local job industry as well as local computing resources in that country.

Another project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) that has been stuck in bureaucratic and legal limbo. It would have been a marquee project, with cutting-edge research on neutrino particles which are not well understood. It would have also presented the scientific community with an opportunity to explore new and exciting properties.

INO’s major indirect benefits include setting up of an institute to serve as a hub for the project, leading to the development of scientific capital along with industry linkages for the construction of the neutrino detector.

Unfortunately, due to the inordinate delays in the project, there are fears that certain Chinese projects would be able to fulfil the research objectives before INO becomes functional. Then there is an Indian version of LIGO that the government has approved. If it proceeds as scheduled, then it would be a major boost to the country’s scientific setup.

The benefits of investing in Big Science projects in India would be immense. The government wants to foster greater collaboration between the academics and industry, and such projects have a tradition of doing just that. India needs to create jobs for its massive young population, and efforts such as the government’s Make in India initiative, aimed at getting foreign companies to set up manufacturing bases in the country, can only go so far. Investing in R&D is necessary for an initiative like Make in India to be successful in the longer run.

China is already moving towards becoming a hub for scientific innovation and to ensure that its own companies, such as Huawei, can compete with global giants. China recognises the benefits of investing in Science projects as evident from their recent investments in new Big Science projects. India needs to catch up fast, and one obvious way to do so would be to invest in large-scale science projects.

The author would like to thank the members of the Science Desk and Niranjan Kambi for reviewing this article.


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like