India seeks bigger role in CERN

Waiting for budgetary approval

By Dinsa Sachan
Published: Saturday 15 September 2012

After playing a significant role in the discovery of the god particle, India is set become an associate member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the premier particle physics laboratory in Geneva. At present, India has an observer status, which allows only participation in CERN meetings. The step up will mean greater participation of India’s scientists and industry in CERN’s projects and bidding for equipment used in experiments, respectively.

Speaking at a conference organised by Vigyan Prasar on India’s role in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on August 29, R Chidambaram, principal scientific advisor to the government of India, said that meetings are on within the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for the membership. “We should get the budgetary approval for associate membership soon,” he added.

Last month, scientists at CERN announced that they had detected the god particle– Higgs Boson –at a facility that houses the LHC, a 27-km long and 100m deep tunnel along the Franco-Swiss border. The elusive particle is believed to help all matter in the universe acquire mass.

After the budgetary approval is granted, India would have to submit an application to CERN. The country will have to shell out between Rs 40 and Rs 50 crore per year towards CERN after it becomes an associate member. An associate member’s contribution is determined through a bilateral agreement between the concerned country and CERN. India’s bid is likely to be approved without any hassles. “CERN is keen to take India on board,” says Atul Gurtu, former professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Physics in Mumbai.

Between 2003 and 2011, Gurtu headed the Indian group that contributed in an experiment on the Higgs boson.

The experiments at CERN to discover Universe’s secrets started in 1954. India joined the league in 1992. The experiments on the Higgs boson began only in 2010. Its finding was aided by researchers from Delhi University, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Panjab University, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) in Kolkata.

Boost for industry

At present, Indian scientists are making equipment in their own institutes with funds from DAE and Department of Science and Technology. The upgraded membership will open up opportunities for all kinds of companies, ranging from heavy electrical and engineering firms to software and steel companies. “Indian industry will be competing with French and German players. They will have to offer the best material at cheap prices. The intervention will help in making equipment at a cheaper rate,” says Gurtu.

CERN’s previous criteria for associate membership “were too harsh and not in the interest of applicants”, says Gurtu. It required an associate member to spend at least 50 per cent of what they would have spent as a member state. A member state’s contribution depends on its GDP and varies from country to country. Despite the jump in monetary investment, the associate members were not allowed to vote and speak during council meetings. For this reason, there were no associate members till October, 2011, when Israel was inducted as one.

However, in September 2009, when India started lobbying for associate membership, Indian scientists submitted a proposal to CERN, calling for altering certain clauses in the criteria for associate membership. “They took us seriously and made the necessary changes in 2010,” says Gurtu. “When India gains associate membership, it  will be allowed to speak at meetings and influence policy matters in experiments they are involved in. India will also be granted voting rights after it has made considered contribution as an associate member.” Associate membership will also allow Indian scientists to be part of CERN’s trainings.

Bikash Sinha, former SINP director, suggested that just like the  EU countries came together after the second World War to establish CERN, SAARC countries should join forces to make similar “mega science” projects. Reacting to the suggestion, Chidambaram said that India already has the infrastructure, and scientists from SAARC countries are free to collaborate with Indian scientists for their research work. On whether associate membership would be a stepping stone to becoming a member state, Gurtu says it would an expensive affair. What’s more, currently India doesn’t have the workforce that is required from a member state.

Currently, CERN has 20 member states, including Austria, the UK, France, Germany and Greece. Countries that have observer status at CERN programmes are India, Japan, the Russian Federation, Turkey, and the US. Israel and Serbia are currently associate members. They have been inducted into CERN in the past two years. The two countries are also in the running for gaining member status.

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