A mega-science project bound to put India on the map for cutting-edge research

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By Tarun Souradeep

A fortnight ago, the Union Cabinet approved the full budget for the LIGO-India mega-science project, which includes the construction, commissioning and joint scientific operation of a state-of-the-art, advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in India in collaboration with the NSF-funded LIGO Laboratory, USA, operated by Caltech and MIT. The approval emphatically reiterates the Indian government’s commitment to meet the rising aspirations of Indian science to make a far-reaching impact in the global arena. As noted in the “in-principle” approval granted by the Union Cabinet in February 2016, LIGO-India will provide a very broad spectrum of opportunities to Indian youth to pursue research careers in cutting-edge areas of science and technology.

The LIGO-India Observatory will enable dramatically enhanced global capability in the emergent field of gravitational-wave astronomy and astrophysics (A&A). This enabling of an entirely new window to our universe parallels in significance — of its potential contribution — to the growth of modern astronomy after Galileo pointed his first telescope to the skies 400 years ago. The global science community is unanimous that the key to gravitational-wave observations blooming into an essential, valuable element of multi-messenger A&A lies with LIGO-India.

LIGO-India will also prompt Indian S&T in academia, national laboratories and industries to leap-frog in a sweeping range of cutting-edge technologies of great national relevance. Integrating lasers, optics, vacuum, quantum metrology and control-system technologies, LIGO-India will bring together, on a common platform, researchers in fundamental and applied sciences from national research laboratories, IITs and IISERs to universities in partnership with the industry. This will also attract talent from the large pool of Indian researchers spread worldwide. Moreover, the synergy with the quantum sensing and metrology vertical of the  National Mission for Quantum Technology and Application holds high promise for India to take lead in the future advance of Gravitational wave detectors and feed in expertise to the mission.

LIGO-India has already created palpable excitement among scientists. A large number of young Indian students and researchers have chosen to join the global and national gravitational wave community. Many of the promising youngsters have trained on undergraduate projects in India. Further, the project will necessarily galvanise India Inc to enhance capability and capacity to engineer and manufacture complex components with precision to meet stringent scientific requirements. This has already been established in the successful fabrication of full-scale prototypes of challenging components. Clearly, the commissioning of LIGO-India will enhance the reputation of Indian industry.

Traditionally, around the world, academia and science policymakers face reservations before mega-science ventures are accepted and appreciated. Of late, it’s become clear that addressing problems at the frontiers poses challenges that demand very close collaboration between researchers from disparate areas of science and technology and, across geographies, working within an organised, goal-oriented management structure. Mega-science need not necessarily undermine individual research efforts. Indeed, the experience has been that it enriches the overall S&T culture as these two approaches intermingle in time, trade strengths and overcome weaknesses. Scientifically advanced countries work to create seamless ecosystems that connect academia, laboratories and industry on a national scale, most often with strong global links. Mega-science ventures, driven by grand scientific quests through challenging technological capabilities, provide ideal learning platforms to set up such model ecosystems on a more manageable scale.

In India, mega-science ventures got recognised, defined and delineated as a distinct category of scientific enterprise during the Planning Commission’s 11th plan period (2007-2012). Broadly, the defining feature of such ventures is to lead or partner in very high-science goals through large-scale collaborative effort requiring highly skilled human resources, significant fiscal capital and infrastructural investment and close academia-industry partnership.

It was also envisaged that needs of most mega-science projects would span across multiple departments of the government and, hence, encourage cooperative, coordination structures between partnering agencies. In this spirit, an MoU was set up between the Department of Science & Technology (DST) and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to jointly fund and administer “mega-science” projects, recognising the complementary strength of large laboratories with huge technical manpower under DAE and the nationwide S&T researchers with access to funding through DST.

India is walking this path with its partnership in “big-science” frontier international ventures, such as Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Facility for Antiproton & Ion Research (FAIR); ITER for taming thermo-nuclear fusion for energy generation; Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT); and Square Kilometre Array (SKA). On Indian soil, LIGO-India and Indian-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) are major, planned facilities that would extend the commendable legacy of very successful world-class facilities such as the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune and Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT) in Ladakh. While these mega-science projects are all governed under the DST-DAE MoU, envisaging even wider partnerships including other major departments and agencies of the government, for example, Department of Space, or Department of Higher Education, could serve to radically diversify the landscape of mega-science in India.

Mega-science projects also inculcate invaluable elements of work ethic in the scientific community. Key is the ability to create a focused but adequately large well-knit collaborative ecosystem that remains open to growing by bringing in wider participation. Of course, it also brings in the need for a culture within S&T communities to anticipate breakthroughs and appreciate new findings that may often deviate from the current comfort zone for policymakers to be receptive and for executing agencies to create robust mechanisms to assess, evaluate and respond expeditiously to allow sufficient time to set up the enterprise.

The first detection of gravitational-waves by LIGO laboratories in the US is an instructive case. It was the result of four decades of dogged pursuit of the anticipated breakthrough by a large, well-organised collaborative group of researchers of great diversity, scientists and technologists cutting across disciplines. In India, within the first decade of the new millennium, planned advanced gravitational-waves (GW) detectors indicated the imminent detection of gravitational waves from expected compact binary black hole and neutron star mergers. A few researchers in India recognised this unique opportunity and created, a decade in advance, an organised scientific consortium that planned and prepared a research programme and a national facility. The key motivation was to get entrenched in an emergent frontier well before it had blossomed.

That has helped the LIGO-India project team achieve all the goals set out in the pre-project stage and be in a state of high-readiness to commence full-scale construction, installation and commissioning. As we set up LIGO-India, there is confidence that our demographic advantage, coupled with our excellent education system, should see India attain global eminence in the field and its allied S&T. Those who proposed and championed the venture hope that the success of LIGO-India and other mega-science ventures in the coming decade will serve to strongly reinforce the view that a healthy sprinkling of mega-science efforts in the overall S&T policy empowers and enriches the nation.

The writer is Director, Raman Research Institute. An expert in cosmology, gravitational wave physics and astronomy, he has played key roles in the LIGO-India mega-science project. Views are personal