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India will lose edge over rivals if neutrino project in TN delayed by another year: Scientists

CHENNAI: The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), an underground laboratory proposed in the Bodi Hills of Theni district in Tamil Nadu, has been a non-starter for years. If there is a delay of another year, scientists say the country would lose its edge over competitors.

Sandip Trivedi, noted theoretical physicist and former director of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), told The New Indian Express on the sidelines of a conference organised by the Department of Physics of IIT Madras that India has a narrow window of one year for getting this project through with respect to pending clearances. “After a year, other competitors will be ahead of us and there is no second prize for discovery in science,” he said.

China has begun construction of an Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO) near the city of Jiangmen in Guangdong province. The construction is likely to be completed by 2022. Similarly, other neutrino experiments, such as Hyper-Kamiokande (Hyper-K) in Japan and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) in the USA, are also under construction.

Although the INO project had similar timelines, it got stuck due to difficulties in getting approvals both at the central and state level. India can proudly say that the first detection of cosmic-ray produced neutrinos was in the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) experiment in 1965.

Trivedi said India still has an edge over others. “The detector technology which TIFR and related institutes built is unique in the world. It’s a great experiment. We have a unique way to do the experiment with proven ideas that no one in the world can match.” He also rued the fact that scientists failed to convince the public and explain effectively the importance of the project. “It’s a shocking failure.”

Meanwhile, a joint statement from the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi National Academy of Science, Allahabad, and Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, said the INO experiment was purely scientific and would cause no harm.

“Neutrinos which are elementary particles have no charge and almost no mass and therefore do not affect anything they pass through. They are naturally produced in the atmosphere of the Earth and are present around us at all times, causing no damage. The INO is one of a set of major experiments that can consolidate our position as a leading scientific nation. The Science Academies hereby appeal to people of the district, state and country to support this educational and research project wholeheartedly,” it said.

Nobel laureate David J Gross from the University of California said India has great potential, while Spenta R Wadia, the founding director of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), said India has to enhance its investment in science and innovation.

“In 2018, India allocated 0.69 per cent of GDP, which is a steady decline from 0.84 per cent in 2008. In comparision, China spends 2.1 per cent of GDP on science and innovation and US 2.8 per cent. The number of researchers per one lakh of population is 15 in India, while in China it is 111 and in the US it is 423. Less than 1 per cent of higher education institutes engage in research,” said Wadia.