The INO Story Is Finally Going Somewhere, But Not Uphill

Even with the participation of so many actors, the observatory's fate is hinged today on the pleas of scientists desperate to have an institution setup before they retire.

At this point, matters are verging on the shameful. Three eminent Indian physicists have written an oped in The Hindu asking the Tamil Nadu government to not shift the planned India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) out of the district of Theni in the state. This is a new threat that has emerged since local politicians and activists filed cases in regional courts over the last four years based, broadly, on procedural lapses on the part of the experimental collaboration and on their own assumptions about the project’s agenda. The shame arises from the fact that many of India’s best researchers, who are participating in the INO collaboration, have failed to become capable administrators as well. The implication in other words is that more than procedural approvals and techno-logistical capabilities must come together for a project of the INO’s scale to bear fruit in India.

One of the more absurd allegations the INO team has had to deal with is that it will be a nuclear facility. Granted, the involvement of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that is funding the project has not helped matters – but the INO will itself quite evidently be a particle physics research enterprise, as well as that neutrinos have nothing to do with atomic energy. However, reckless allegations by some activists have fattened rumours that neutrinos are radioactive particles, that the INO will double up as a storage facility for nuclear waste, that it will poison the waters in the surrounding areas, that it will need to isolate a temple nearby, etc., turning the clock back on many months of outreach efforts by scientists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

The Wire‘s investigation into these claims – as well as the entire foundation of the project – debunked all of them. At various times, some complaint or other has been directed against the activists, the politicians, the administrators and the scientists. The last: because of the apparent complacency with which they had tried to obtain the environmental impact assessment report while being fully aware of the technical requirements. This led to legal petitions by some of the activists and then a high court verdict ordering that the INO collaboration file for a new clearance report from scratch, delaying the project further. Now, another complaint arises but directed at no one at all. This is best elucidated with an example.

The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (aLIGOs) in the US detected gravitational waves in September 2015 and announced it in February 2016 to great fanfare. Now, a Nobel Prize in physics is awaited for the physicists who conceived of the LIGO project. On the back of the February announcement, as well as some relentless lobbying, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleared the third aLIGO detector to be set up in India. Since then, a completion date for the project has been assigned, three sites have been shortlisted for the detector, and one piece of land has been purchased in Marathwada, Maharashtra, to set up the first Indian LIGO Lab.

This is faster than things have ever moved for the INO, for one important reason: The aLIGO experiments are ‘tried and tested’, to use the cliché. They have been operational in another part of the world without causing any disturbances in their neighbourhoods. And they have been operational with the effect that their impact on research, as well as their ‘purchasing power’ in terms of scientific credibility, is readily understood. In contrast, the INO involves a newly developed detection technique with hardware requirements completely different from that prevalent in other neutrino detectors around the world. Moreover, its research on neutrinos isn’t well-understood – despite the fact that seminal work on the same subject was conducted at the Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka, in the 1980s. Though the three physicists write in The Hindu that neutrinos-related Nobel Prizes were awarded in 2002 and 2015 in an apparent allusion to the aLIGOs discovery, the connection between what the INO will do and them is, for lack of a better term, not immediately inviting.

Because by the measure of “how will these experiments improve the daily life of the common man”, both score lowly. A related question at this point: is it easier to communicate the meaning of a gravitational wave than the meaning of neutrino oscillations? Yes – if only as a matter of gravitational waves needing to take a shorter path through abstract mathematics and a longer one through our visual imagination. Might this have had an impact on how well the INO was understood compared to the aLIGO? Possibly.

It seems there is no, or little at best, faith in locally cultivated efforts at innovation and exploration – axiomatically giving rise to one more precondition for Big Science to succeed in India – especially since there is also a vicious cycle at play. The INO’s inability to take off the ground will disincentivise international institutions from chipping in, which will make it even harder to get off the ground. The other conditions, as The Wire‘s investigation spelled out, are that the DAE must cut back on its involvement in funding projects led by institutions that were once the department’s source of nuclear know-how; that there must be cross-institutional consensus and solidarity in the decision to set up a new project (why are the national academies of science as well as the DAE silent?); that there must be a unified governing body composed both of scientists and government officials to better coordinate cross-departmental efforts; and that there must be transparent public outreach programmes to help the people understand what a project really will be about. As it turned out, the INO collaboration got lucky only on one count.

Today’s oped in The Hindu is perhaps the fourth on the topic in the last two years, including one coauthored by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in June 2015, followed by an article in the same month by Kapil Subramanian making some questionable claims, as well as one in March 2014 by this author. Different narratives of the INO story have left out different actors; in fact, it would be presumptuous to say even The Wire‘s account spanning 5,000 words put together over six months is the last word. The INO’s story has been more complex by far than most failed Indian science experiments, and herein lies the true tragedy. Even with the participation of so many actors, the observatory’s fate is hinged today on the pleas of scientists desperate to have an institution set up before they retire, one their successors can inherit.