How Pakistan Beat India at Science’s Biggest Stage

Bikash Sinha, the doyen of Indian atom smashers, is angry. “This China obsession is horrible,” he declares. “Have you seen Chinese equipment for scientific experiments? They go bust in no time!”

The outburst comes when I tell Sinha that according to received wisdom, the Indian government is unsure about taking on a bigger role at CERN, because, of all reasons, China hasn’t shown similar enthusiasm. “That is stupid,” he says, dismayed. “Must we always compare ourselves with them?”

In his four-decade-long career, Sinha—former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, and member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India— has shaped India’s contribution to Geneva-based CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, founded in 1954). He has been at the vanguard of CERN’s efforts to demystify the behaviour of invisible, subatomic particles, and evangelised the very visible benefits that come out of them. Now, he is part of an increasingly vocal debate taking place within the rarefied circles of big science in India, where the country’s scientific ambitions clash with its policy priorities.

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At the heart of the debate is the government’s indecision about securing associate membership at CERN, the world’s largest laboratory of particle physics, lionised for the Big Bang experiment that led to the July 2012 discovery of the God particle—called thus because it gives mass to all matter, but also because it plays incredibly hard to get.

India’s association with CERN dates back to the 1970s—and it received wide attention after CERN called it “a historic father” of its God particle quest: One half of the particle’s technical name, Higgs boson, is a tribute to Indian physicist S.N. Bose, whose work in the 1920s along with Albert Einstein laid the foundation for CERN’s fabled pursuit.

However, notwithstanding its putative rights over it, India is still only an ‘observer’ at CERN, a designation that comes free but carries no say in the lab’s manifesto; no tenure for Indians working there (148 Indians were using CERN as of January 2013, and India also sends the highest number of summer interns to the lab); and no access for Indian companies to its multimillion-euro ecosystem, with disproportionate rub-offs on innovation and revenue growth: According to a study, every €1 (Rs 85) of business from CERN leads to €3 worth of additional business for its supplier companies. Associate membership, the next tieravailable, removes these bars at an annual cost of CHF 9 million (Rs 62 crore), chump change by modern science standards.

CERN's big-bang impact on business

Reports on India’s plan to apply for associate membership first surfaced in March 2011. With grand headlines (‘India readies for big bang role at CERN’), local newspapers projected all the benefits and trumpeted CERN’s keenness to have India on board. The anticlimax: In the almost three years since, India has still not finished the application formalities. A senior Indian scientist close to the subject who did not wish to be named says CERN authorities have been wondering what’s taking India so long: “They know what this partnership brings to the table, and want it with far greater urgency than India does.”

Meanwhile, there’s been an unlikely beneficiary of India’s procrastination. In June 2013, Pakistan—a ‘non-member’ state at CERN—put forth its own associate membership application. Barely three months later, in October, a follow-up report in Karachi-based The Express Tribune (published in association with The International New York Times) claimed that “the CERN Council unanimously approved in principle Pakistan’s name for the process of achieving associate membership”. The report said CERN’s fact-finding team was all set to visit Pakistan in February 2014, and quoted Pakistani physicist Hafeez Hoorani as saying that Pakistan has “beaten India” to the membership process. (When Fortune India contacted CERN, it confirmed that Pakistan was indeed an associate member in waiting.) Sinha says the developments are “very embarrassing” for India.

If he is emerging as the loudest critic of India’s delay, Sinha’s ringside view of CERN’s catalytic effect explains it. Since the ’70s, scientists from places like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) have  taken creditable part in different experiments at CERN. But a step jumpfrom their mostly theoretical contribution came in the ’80s, when Sinha led a young Indian team that produced certain critical parts known as Photon Multiplicity Detectors or PMDs (“55,000 plastic pads, each with an optical fibre inserted diagonally to detect the signals emitted by subatomic particles called quarks and gluons”).

“People thought I was mad to believe that we could make these in India,” he recounts, “but I have always felt that to gain the world’s respect, we must go beyond theory and produce high-quality, three-dimensional objects.” The success of the PMDs earned India bragging rights in the elite coteries of particle physics, opening doors for it in other prestigious laboratories, such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven in the U.S., the second most powerful collider of its kind in the world after CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Sinha also led the production of an acclaimed line of chips called MANAS (multiplex analogue signal processor) for the LHC. He says breakthroughs like these made a statement about India’s engineering capabilities: “Till then, the rest of the world viewed us like a poor but diligent boy who needed to be encouraged, but couldn’t be trusted with any position of responsibility.”

Sinha, and several others sharing his enthusiasm for product innovation, also scored a few crucial points for India in global diplomacy, where scientific and technological muscle is a major bargaining chip. Now, there is a feeling in this community that the dilly-dallying over the associate membership is sending out an unwanted signal.

Few dispute the positives of engaging more intimately with CERN, but opinion is divided on the speed with which India should have pursued the cause. There are heavyweights on either side of the divide: While Sinha argues that in the dynamic corridors of science, progress delayed is progress denied, others like Anil Kakodkar, former chairman and present member of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, remain staunch supporters of good old-fashioned deliberation. And then there are India’s science-related businesses, starved of high-quality international exposure and slammed for the lack of big ideas, for whom the gamechanging impact of rubbing shoulders with CERN can’t come a day too early.

No matter which side ultimately prevails, the debate has already betrayed symptoms of the larger contradictions plaguing Indian science, where lofty aspirations have long coexisted with systemic lethargy. While past governments have used science (vigyan) to create catchy rallying cries along with traditional soul-stirrers defence (jawaan) and agriculture (kisan), until recently India’s R&D expenditure languished at less than 1% of its GDP, compared with 1.16% of Brazil and almost 2% of China. Sinha calls it the “poverty syndrome” hobbling Indian science—more a reflection of narrow mindsets than a real constraint for a country with a trillion-dollar GDP. That some of this syndrome has crept into the government’s CERN files isn’t far off the mark.

TO KNOW WHY ASSOCIATE membership helps, sample some numbers. Take the concessions granted to companies from member countries that are allowed to vie for CERN’s annual procurement contracts, worth around Rs 2,000 crore. As noted, these contracts are known for their dramatic multiplier effect on suppliers’ revenues. Further, companies that have worked with CERN report that 75% of their increased business following the CERN projects have come from areas outside particle physics, including solar energy, the electrical industry, railways, and computers and telecommunications.

Such crosspollination happens because CERN is possibly the pushiest customer of its kind in the world— its nonpareil missions, such as unravelling the origins of the universe, give it an appetite for radically new products and a legendary intolerance for errors. This combination forces CERN’s suppliers to sweat over innovation and overhaul staid processes. Not that anyone’s complaining: In a survey of 154 companies that participated in CERN’s procurement activities between 1997 and 2001, over half admitted that their sales performance would have been poorer but for CERN.

At present, all CERN suppliers are European. For any strategic equipment that has to be tailored exclusively for its experiments, including particle accelerators and their key components, CERN makes the conceptual design and subcontracts to various players based on a pre-decided manufacturing methodology. For standard products, such as power converters and transformers, tenders are given out based on international quality standards, and suppliers take responsibility for the manufacturing process, with intervention from CERN as and when required. The Science & Technology Facilities Council of the U.K. points out that “CERN’s requirements are not all high tech. For example, CERN is a large site and around 14,000 people work there … so it has civil engineering requirements to maintain and develop infrastructure. It also has vast amounts of data to manage and needs computing equipment and support to achieve this.”

In 2004-05, a few Indian companies, including Crompton Greaves (CG), Kirloskar Electric, Avasarala Technologies, and the state-run Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL), supplied limited but important equipment to CERN. This wasn’t a regular business deal but part of the Indian government’s $25 million (Rs 130 crore then) commitment to the God particle experiment. For most of these companies, this was their first brush with European standards and best practices. The orders weren’t money-spinners—there was no lure of fat repeat business—and they were risky given their uncharted nature, but the companies knew that niche areas like this require a long time to approach anything like scale or profitability. What got them to take the leap was the chance to impress the world in a virgin field, and the nod of approbation they ultimately received vindicated their punt.

Take CG. The $2 billion, Mumbai-headquartered engineering conglomerate worked with CERN in 2005 and swears by the transformations enforced by the exposure. “They demanded incredible levels of precision,” says Laurent Demortier, CG’s French CEO and MD. “The manufacturing location had to be completely free of dust … our technicians even had to take a shower before entering the place.” CG supplied some small motors for the Proton Synchrotron (PS), a key part of CERN’s machinations. Motors are a CG staple, except these ones were meant to function at -271°C: That’s the temperature inside the PS, officially the coldest place in the world.

The achievement appears even more momentous if you consider the general sloth around innovation in the Indian market—even as late as 2011, says Demortier, the worst motor in Europe was twice as efficient as the best motor in India. “It’s not that we can’t do better, but the Indian market appreciates low cost more than high technology,” he adds. That’s where a customer like CERN can make a huge difference. CG picked up two critical new skills from this experience. The first one, miniaturisation, is at the heart of a prototype-stage motor being developed for a new line of tanks for the Indian Army. When installed, Demortier claims it will save a neat 30% energy inside the tanks. The second skill, cryogenics (cold-resistant technology), has also yielded two subsequent orders. But Demortier says all this is not about the bottom line: “Our aim is to create an Indian company that is a global leader, and for that we need to catch up with the rest of the world.”

This drive to rise above limitations and the willingness to look beyond a quick buck are recurring themes in all the companies that have got a taste of CERN. But perhaps the most remarkable thread running through them is a nationalistic agenda that would appear gimmicky in any other context. Bangalore-based Avasarala Technologies supplied magnet positioning systems to CERN, and T.T. Mani, its CEO and managing director, says that his biggest satisfaction was being able to make a dent in the West’s sniggering attitude towards Indian industry. “The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. The world’s most powerful telescope in Hawaii. The world’s largest solar telescope in Ladakh…,” he reels off the names of all the classified projects Avasarala has got access to, thanks to endorsement from CERN. “We continue to lose heavily on these projects,” Mani admits, “but we are in it for the challenge.”

Even the public sector, generally stoical, sings a different tune when it comes to CERN. P. Sudhakar, chairman and managing director of Hyderabad-based ECIL, says working with CERN was a masterclass in attention to detail: “They made us automate even the process of fixing screws to rule out the slightest error of the human hand.” He points out that another major benefit of the CERN project was that it brought together two unlikely bed mates—India’s R&D institutions (led in this instance by Mumbai’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Indore’s Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology) and industry. The company, typically catering to government clients, has been raring for international opportunities to showcase its newfound competencies. “Because of our track record with CERN,” Sudhakar tells me, “we got the first call from the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research,” a new German installation where India is a stakeholder. ECIL’s business from similar projects is expected to soon touch a hundred crores.

BUT THAT’S STILL a pittance in the context of particle physics, a branch of science that compensates for its esoteric nature by fuelling a bevy of multibillion-dollar applications. A CERN report on particle accelerators—the key apparatuses of particle physics
used to speed up subatomic particles at tremendously high energy levels—says that the market for just one of these applications, nuclear medicine imaging, is an estimated €10 billion a year, growing 10% annually. The report lists more: modelling proteins, irradiating deep tumours, curing carbon composites to make them a substitute for steel, treating nuclear waste, sterilising food, and, for good measure, probing precious works of art and exploring archaeological discoveries.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are over 30,000 accelerators around the world. India has only four of note—in Indore, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi—but the energy levels at which they operate limit their application and make them tame compared to CERN’s multitrillion-electric-volt beast that replicated the Big Bang. The incentives for India to stay plugged into CERN run deeper. Sinha points to CERN’s role in the revival of the battered post-World War II economies of Europe: “Consider Germany. In 1945, they were nowhere. Ten years later, they are uniting other European countries to build CERN. And look where they are now.”

While it is difficult to quantify CERN’s exact contribution to the wealth of Europe, there is data handy to prove the economic impact of its most famous flagship before the God particle: The World Wide Web, invented in CERN in 1989 to help collaborators share information, now sees €1.5 trillion in annual commercial traffic. WWW’s progeny grid computing, “a global collaboration of computer centres” managing petrabytes of data, which India is party to, was also pioneered at CERN in 2002.

If CERN is such a force multiplier, why doesn’t India simply build a replica? Sinha says that’s because no one country can run such a place “in its backyard”. Building the LHC—the 27 km-long lynchpin of the God particle quest, sitting 100 m underground—alone cost £2.6 billion (Rs 26,104 crore), a corpus propped up by the combined economic might of close to two dozen European countries. Even contemplating a solo act would be a tall order for India. Hence, it must find a way to crank up its piggybacking on CERN’s superstructure.

IF THE GENERAL pulse of the government’s decision-making is anything to go by, there doesn’t seem to be much scope of this happening till the general elections. (Fortune India’s attempts to meet the minister and the secretary for science and technology and various other government authorities were unsuccessful. At the time of going to press, a Right to Information query to the Department of Atomic Energy [DAE], the apex decision-making body in this matter, was yet to be answered.)

To get clarity on the status of India’s application, I write to Rolf Dieter-Heuer, CERN’s German director-general. In his response, Dieter-Heuer reveals that the Atomic Energy Commission—a governing body under the DAE, which is itself under the direct watch of the prime minister of India—approved India’s application for associate membership way back in April 2012. The DAE subsequently included this in its five-year plan, and forwarded the application file to the Government of India for final consideration. CERN can take formal action only on the basis of the official application file, which it has not yet received. Once the file comes through, the CERN Council will send a task force on a fact-finding mission to India, to evaluate the application in greater detail, against criteria established by the Council. If the task force’s report results in a positive evaluation, “the Council may authorise the director general to submit the actual association agreement to the Government of India for approval and signature”. In other words, India has to wait longer before it can become part of an exclusive club: Apart from the 20 European full members (Israel is in waiting), only Serbia currently has the associate member tag.

Should India hurry lest Pakistan ‘beat it’? Kakodkar of the Atomic Energy Commission doesn’t think so: “We should not be desperate,” he says. “Not getting associate membership before some other country doesn’t mean [they beat us].” Atul Gurtu, a former TIFR professor who led the 80-member Indian team that worked on the LHC experiment, says CERN doesn’t discriminate between countries based on “value judgements”: “Pakistan may not be comparable to India in science. However, CERN is happy to welcome any country so long as it has even a small group of people who are serious about science, and its government has money to spare.” He invokes CERN’s apolitical history to prove his point: “Even at the height of the Cold War, CERN had Americans and Russians working hand in hand.”

Sinha warns against labelling Pakistan’s advances a non-issue. “The same thing was said about their ability to build a nuclear bomb,” he argues.“Most people don’t know that Pakistan has tremendous credibility in CERN.” Much of that is because of the exploits of Abdus Salam, a renowned particle physicist and Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize winner; the CERN campus even has a road named after him.

Even if one were to underplay Pakistan, the impasse in decision making is certainly a dampener, especially after all the momentum in India’s favour for its role in finding the God particle, arguably the biggest scientific discovery ever. But Kakodkar argues that the government has every right to be watchful: “A child may want to go for a picnic, but parents will do their own checks about where they are going and with whom,” he says. “You have to understand that the government too has to go through its own processes.” India’s bigger priority should be to create an ecosystem, he asserts, so that any new skills industry acquires—irrespective of the source—don’t go to seed for lack of use: “High-tech endeavours must see some continuity. Taps turning on and off is very damaging, especially in the learning curve.”

Do people lobbying for the associate membership, most of them career scientists, appreciate that decisions like this take time? Gurtu says they do. What they have a problem with is “silly” questions like why the U.S., or China, or Japan doesn’t have the same urgency towards CERN. “These countries don’t depend on CERN,” he explains, “because they have their own vigorous accelerator programmes.” China, for instance, promoted particle physics big time after the Mao era, investing in a powerful particle collider in Beijing. Today, as a report in The New York Times put it, the Beijing collider is quite a celebrity for producing “results that are critical to efforts … at more famous and much larger accelerators”, including at CERN.

But rather than worry about what others are doing, Gurtu feels the Indian government should have been satisfied long ago that there are “sufficient reasons” for it to stake a bigger claim at CERN. “If we still dither and raise objections, then to me it signifies a policy paralysis.” One reason for this paralysis could be the lack of effective leadership. On condition of anonymity, a senior scientist says that the science and technology ministry has been treated “like an adopted child”, with no minister being given a long enough tenure to make a difference.

This could be partly because fundamental science is not politically relevant. Unlike pharma or IT, it doesn’t move markets or serve to impress the electorate. Sinha though refuses to dump all the blame on the usual suspects: “In India, politicians and bureaucrats are more pro-science than scientists themselves. The government has a reputation for sticking to its commitments once it signs on the dotted line. But among scientists themselves there are all kinds of prejudices and jealousy.”

Shyam Saran, former Indian foreign secretary, and the man who played a key role in the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, also feels blaming the government is “somewhat unfair”. “Even without any immediate returns, the government funds a lot of cutting-edge science, from space research to the data station in Antarctica.” The problem of perception arises because “governments in India are very bad in communicating, so even when they can take credit for something, they are not able to.” I probe Saran on the question of funding. Given the overhanging mood of austerity, does it make sense to pump money into a foreign body? “We [already] contribute good money to many international projects because we do not want to be seen just as a Third-World recipient of funds,” he says, giving the example of India’s 9.1% share in the €13 billion ITER project, which aims to develop nuclear fusion (as opposed to the generally used fission) as a source of reliable energy.

The clout that sponsoring mega science brings is significant, particularly at a time when budgets in much of the developed world are under intense scrutiny. In May last year, the American Congress cut funding to Chicago-based Fermilab—once the site of the Tevatron, the world’s second-largest particle accelerator—by 9%. The lab has seen job losses, and the Tevatron itself was shut down in 2011. Europe’s fiscal struggles have also raised similar spectres in the past: In 2012, news website GlobalPost questioned whether “debt-swamped Europe [can] afford expensive science”, with a direct reference to CERN. Though the director-general’s office claims that CERN “enjoys robust support from its European member states”, recent moves to woo countries such as Qatar and Brazil indicate de-risking at work.

THE HOPE IS THAT THE Indian government has finally got all this. In September 2014, CERN will celebrate its 60th anniversary, and according to sources close to India’s application, hectic dialogue is under way to get it cleared at least in time for that. Even as I write this, I hear that authorities in the DAE are meeting in New Delhi to, well, accelerate the process. But what India does with its new powers—if and when it gets them—is another story.

Sinha for one has it all figured out. “We are consulting CERN about putting in place a business model for a few high-powered industrial pockets that will boost fundamental science, maybe in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, or somewhere in Gujarat. In fact we have already had a number of meetings with industry players…,” he pauses, making room for the inevitable anticlimax, “but whether it is the Tatas, or L&T, or BHEL … the big boys don’t come.”

Sinha’s disappointment with the “big boys” complements his views on Indian industry: “This is not a country of industrialists,” he had lashed out earlier in our conversation, referring to the shallow investments in science and technology by India’s feted business houses. “It is a country of only traders and businessmen”. Though that assessment has its followers, it strikes me that a bold new face of business is emerging from New Delhi to Hyderabad. All it needs now is a firm push forward. And a fair shot at the next big galactic adventure.

 

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