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  • Malini Goyal

Reaching for stars: India is betting big on mega, multi-country science projects

On a leafy Colaba street a stone’s throw away from the Gateway of India, stands the Old Yacht Club, a 137-year-old heritage property with stunning views of the Arabian Sea and a timeless air. This building houses the headquarters of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). For two days this past fortnight, some 70 senior scientists gathered in its rather salubrious settings to talk shop, led by the secretaries of DAE and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The meeting’s chief purpose was to take stock of the progress in some 10 large-scale, multi-country projects India is part of. The annual exercise was mostly routine: progress was reported, hurdles and risks discussed, budgets vetted and gains for the nation assessed. However, one thing stood out. There was a lot of emphasis on how these projects must create patents, stoke the startup ecosystem and help the industry. The idea is that India’s expensive scientific pursuits should benefit its economy, resulting in patents and commercial applications.

It marked two important shifts in India’s approach to major multi-national science projects. Once a peripheral participant with limited financial heft, India is increasingly moving to the nucleus of these important and expensive ventures that push the boundaries of human knowledge. Secondly, India is keen to ensure that our participation and resources also yield rich dividends for the country, in real and measurable ways.

“In the US and UK, I have heard such things. But not so in India. This was a new language,” said a prominent scientist who participated in the meeting, referring to the emphasis on commercial exploitation and patents. He asked not to be quoted because proceedings were confidential.

Speaking to ET Magazine from his expansive Lutyens’ Delhi office, India’s chief scientific advisor K VijayRaghavan articulates the vision unambiguously. “We want India’s science and scientists to play a role on the world stage. Mega multi-country projects are critical and bring many benefits to the country. We must also explore possibilities of deeper industry-institution partnership.”

Big Bang Ambition Over the last decade, India’s science ambitions have grown bigger and global. From small, India-focused projects, the government is increasingly betting big on mega, multi-country projects. The country wants a seat at the high table of global science. It is true that the buzz around science under the Narendra Modi government has acquired a needless mythological air, with talk of Ganesha’s head transplant and Pushpak Viman. But the government has also taken some serious steps in putting India on the world science map.

In 2017, India formally agreed to build a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in India, and joined the global LIGO project. In 2016, India became an associate member of the famous CERN project, the world’s largest nuclear and particle physics laboratory in Europe. In 2015, India became a full member of the SKA project, which is building the world’s largest radio telescope. From nuclear fusion project ITER in France to FAIR project (to study evolution of universe) in Germany and from cancer genome project to deep-ocean exploration, India is increasingly an important participant in the world’s most ambitious scientific projects.

Individually, Indian scientists have been participating in global projects from the 1960s. The neutrino research is a case in point. “The big shift is that India is moving from the periphery to the core of such mega global science pursuits. This shift has happened over the last decade and it is significant,” says RA Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

India’s science dreams are fuelled by two trends — one global and the other Indian. In society and economy, while globalisation seems to be in retreat, in the world of science it is thriving. Today’s mega science projects that explore new frontiers have become costly and resource-intensive, difficult for any single country to fund and execute. Take the Global Virome Project, announced earlier this year, where scientists from across the world will collaborate to study deadly viruses in an era where Ebola, SARS and Zika pandemic create panic. Not surprisingly, mega projects with multi-country funding and construct have been on the rise. These projects are also highly risky with uncertain outcomes for any one country to bear the risks.

The second factor has to do with the shifting of gears and ambitions within India. The $2.6 trillion Indian economy, now the world’s sixth largest, undeniably has problems to tackle, like poverty, malnutrition and open defecation. But the world’s fastest growing large economy is also aiming for the stars. It wants to undertake human space flight and study the universe and its creation, while indulging in some space diplomacy, offering free use of satellite communications to SAARC nations. “Such grand challenges (big science projects) bring both pride and prosperity to the country. For a nation, both are very important,” says Mashelkar.

Matter of Pride

It has been a steady evolution. Earlier, poorer and less confident of its resources and its place in the world, India was shy about such projects. “In the past, there was a little reluctance. The feeling was that we may not get many benefits and may, in fact, be exploited. The culture of global collaboration and data sharing has really expanded in the past two decades,” says Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general for programmes, WHO. It was also difficult for the country to write large cheques for risky science projects when there was a pressing need at home for resources to solve socio-economic challenges.

In the previous decade, when global genome project or later the HapMap genome project was being crafted, India declined to participate. The cited reason was that India was ill-prepared and, also, there was a lurking suspicion of the US leading the project. By 2012-13, the attitude changed. “It is a matter of pride that India is a founder member of the global cancer genome project,” says Partha P Majumder, distinguished professor, National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, West Bengal. The cancer project aims to understand the genomic changes that different kinds of cancer induce. India is focused on understanding the impact of oral cancer.

While some of the projects were initiated during the previous UPA government, it is true that “this government has been very positive and took some bold decisions,” says Pune-based Somak Raychaudhury, director, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, or IUCAA. The nod also came more easily because of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for gravitational wave discovery (part of the global LIGO project), in which many Indian scientists were co-authors.

“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Yashwant Gupta, centre director, National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Pune. When he joined the Rs 40 crore GMRT (Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope) in the 1990s, nothing was easy, including funding. Now that India is contributing to the building of the SKA, “we have grown substantially since then in our knowledge, confidence… and also it makes it easier to secure funds for big projects,” he says.

Vishal Dhupar, MD of Nvidia India, which is developing software and supplying GPUs for the SKA project, says: “Increased thrust on three-way collaboration between research labs, private sector and government is a win-win and refreshing change.”

Institutional Lag

India’s mega science dreams face multiple hurdles. Indian institutions and its researchers still lag far behind the top institutes like MIT and Caltech in their capabilities. Absence of original critical thinking and of a culture of challenging norms are issues. Science projects are also long-term often, with little immediate payoffs.

“Dreams have grown bigger. But people and institutional mechanism behind it remain the same,” says a senior scientist who did not wish to be quoted. It is like mounting 21st century global mega dreams on 20th century institutions used to thinking small and working in institutional silos and marked by bureaucratic attitudes and delays. Most mega science projects in developed countries like the US work in SPV (special purpose vehicle) mode where there is a dedicated project management team led by a CEO completely in charge of the project.

Projects in India, on the other hand, are run by committees manned by people drawn from different institutions. Seniority decides the director pick. The about-to-retire directors are at the helm for short periods on projects that can easily be 10-15 year long.

Huge time lag between fund commitment and its release pose a big challenge. The challenge in India is that projects are often vetted by committee members who are technically ill-equipped. Government’s tendering process can be challenging in areas that is uncharted territory where no supplier exists. Being part of global project with many moving parts, each with its own deadlines, means Indian scientists and institutions often chase global deadlines with their hands and legs tied, in comparison to the well-oiled machinery in countries like the US and Germany.

The fact that most mega science projects are funded/managed by the DAE and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) creates another set of diplomatic and visa challenges. The atomic energy label on these projects creates additional security and regulatory problems in terms of increased scrutiny, permissions and visa processing for teams moving in and out of the country. Scientists say the biggest reason why the neutrino observatory (INO) project in Tamil Nadu ran into problem is because it was under the DAE banner even though INO has nothing to do with radioactive nuclear energy. In the US, funding is routed through NSF (National Science Foundation).

The Upsides If managed well, global science projects can have a multiplier effect. For an ascendant nation, these projects are good signalling proxies. They help move India’s scientists, its institutions and its entire ecosystem onto a higher orbit. Take the GMRT (Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope) project. It has helped Indian scientists discover new pulsars and publish more than 40 papers annually in renowned journals.

GMRT runs a half-yearly proposal cycle for which they get 70-100 pitches. “The competition is tough and global. It improves the quality of science our scientists do,” says TIFR’s Gupta. Working on cutting-edge science projects with best-in-class global peers offers a huge learning curve and plugs Indian scientists into the global science network. It helps upgrade Indian labs, exposing them to new technologies and offering access to valuable data sets.

Commercial and technological spin-offs are significant. “Scientific research projects are good to motivate staff… and can be remunerative and profitable too,” says Anand Deshpande, chairman, Persistent Systems, which works on astronomy-linked projects. A large chunk of money — in case of the SKA project, over 70% — will be spent in India. Besides new patents, these projects provide invaluable training and exposure to scientists. “Science is often a battle of the mind conquering new frontiers,” says Anurag Agrawal, director, Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology. Global science projects equip Indian scientists well to explore those new frontiers.

MEGA PROJECTS LIGO PROJECT: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. BUDGET: India to spend $300 million for the $950 million project. PLAN: The experiment in astronomy and fundamental physics is to detect cosmic gravitational waves. The strongest sources of the waves are among the most enigmatic objects (like black holes) in the universe. These gravitational waves have to be detected. LIGO operates two detectors in the US and a EU consortium operates the third one in Italy. In 2016, India signed up to set up one in Maharashtra by 2025, to improve coverage & accuracy. Globally, over 1,200 scientists — 91 in India — are part of it. From India, 40 scientists were part of 1,000 co-authors of the discovery paper that won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2017.

SKA PROJECT: Square Kilometre Array.

BUDGET: India to chip in 6-10% of the €700 million project.

PLAN: Twelve countries are building the world’s largest radio telescope. SKA’s thousands of antennas and dishes will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and faster. India plays a major role in the construction of the telescope manager and some other aspects of the project. Over 100 organisations from various countries are working on the design of SKA. Indian scientists and industry partners have designed the telescope manager, the brain and nerve centre of the SKA Observatory.

ITER PROJECT: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. BUDGET: India to fund 9.1% of project, now estimated to cost $40 bn.

PLAN: To build a bit of the sun in a laboratory. Conventional nuclear reactors use fission to break heavy atoms like plutonium to generate energy. Instead of using radioactive materials, fusion reactors like ITER will use light elements like hydrogen and helium to generate clean green energy. ITER, being built in France, is funded by seven countries. India joined the project as a full partner in 2005 and most of its expenditure will be in the form of components made by Indian companies. After years of setback, the project that was billed as a 10-year, $5 billion project in 2005, has now turned into a $40 billion project that will now hopefully be completed by 2030.

TMT PROJECT: Thirty Meter Telescope. BUDGET: India to chip in $213 mn* to the $1.47 bn project. *Rs 61.14 to a $, according to 2014-15 average exchange rate.

PLAN: The world’s largest optical and infrared telescope in the northern hemisphere will be built in Hawaii by Canada, China, Japan, India and the US. TMT will enable scientists to study faraway fainter objects, to throw light on how the universe evolved. It will also help find planets and objects in the solar system. TMT will be operational by 2023-24. Project will help Indian scientists learn about the technology to manufacture fine aspherical mirror segments, which will also help in building nextgeneration spy satellites. TMT will contain 492 hexagonal mirror segments of 82 kinds. Together they will behave like a single mirror with a 30 m aperture. India will create the control systems and software to keep the mirror aligned and collect the data. Many Indian companies, including General Optics, Avasarala Technologies and Godrej, would be working on the project.

FAIR PROJECT: Facility for Anti Proton and Ion Research. BUDGET: India will chip in with 3.5% of the $2 billion project.

PLAN: India is among the founder-members of FAIR, being built in Germany to study the building blocks of matter and the evolution of universe. FAIR will use high-energy, precisely tailored ion beams to mimic the conditions inside the core of stars and the early phase of the universe. While helium and hydrogen were formed in the early universe, the hypothesis is that other elements were cooked inside stars. Indian institutions will supply critical components worth over Rs 270 crore to the project.

Courtesy : The Economic Times


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