When science dominates global news, particle accelerators – machines that speed up subatomic particles – are quite often behind the headlines. The discovery of the Higgs boson prompted a spate of articles all over the world. It was achieved using the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular underground tunnel at the European particle-physics laboratory CERN.

Now, a particle accelerator is in the news in India, but there has been no big discovery. According to the Deccan Herald, the venerable Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has just scrapped plans to build what would have been India’s biggest particle accelerator. Although IISc has dismissed the report, saying that plans remain in place, there is no confirmation yet that they can afford to pay the construction cost of Rs 2,000 crore without help from the central government.

The idea of building a type of particle accelerator called the synchrotron was announced in 2011 by IISc's associate director N Balakrishnan. “A synchrotron of the kind we are looking at will be an engineering marvel. That is why it will take 12 years to build, because we don’t actually have the people yet in the country to build something like that,” he told LiveMint.

The Large Hadron Collider smashed sub-atomic particles at great speeds in the hope of discovering the fundamental secrets of the universe. The construction of the LHC cost $9 billion, and India is unlikely to get anything similar. Instead, according to Anirban Kundu, a particle physicist at the University of Calcutta, “Indian particle physicists collaborate with those at CERN and other such facilities to do their work”.

However, it is the smaller particle accelerator that Indian scientists desperately need. These are commonly used to work on real-world problems. For instance, synchrotrons produce exceptionally bright X-rays, which allow the study of, say, the arrangement of atoms in proteins in the hope of making new drugs. Smaller particle accelerators that fire electrons can have everyday applications, such as sealing a packet of chips.

In 2011, the mood among Indian physicists was positive. M Vijayan, Homi Bhabha professor at IISc’s molecular biophysics unit and past president of the Indian National Academy of Sciences said that “the availability of money was no longer a problem in Indian science”.

But by the end of 2013, nothing had happened. That is when CNR Rao, one of India’s top scientists and the chairman of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister, sent a letter to the planning commission requesting them to ensure India gets a synchrotron that would befit its scientific ambitions. Although the plans to provide funds for a synchrotron have been considered since the 11th plan, spanning 2007 to 2012, no money has been marked out in even the 12th plan.

The synchrotron was supposed to be built over 100 acres of land within a 10,000-acre science facility in the Chitradurga district in Karnataka, and to be shared by IISc, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Defence Research and Development Organisation, and other top scientific bodies. But protests by local communities, who consider the grazing land vital for animal-rearing, has raised other issues which the leadership hasn't been able to resolve. There are doubts about the whole project now.

In dismissing the report that the synchrotron has been scuttled, DD Sarma, a chemist at IISc, told The Hindu, “The expert committee is still active, and a meeting was convened by the Planning Commission just a few months ago to chalk out what is needed to acquire a very advanced research synchrotron.”

Leadership Vacuum
It seems money and a suitable location are not the only problems. In 2012, Gautam Desiraju, an accomplished chemist at IISc, wrote in the journal Nature that Indian science needed not money, but good leadership. He said that although India’s investment in scientific research – less than 1% of the GDP, when other global powers spend more than double that – is not great, throwing more money at the problem won’t help. The country needed to make bold moves if it wanted to compete globally.

IISc was given the go-ahead to submit a feasibility report in 2010, yet after four years there has been little progress. The handling of the IISc synchrotron project suggests that the leadership Desiraju pointed to is still lacking.

“What is surprising is that Brazil is now building its second synchrotron and even a small country like Taiwan has good synchrotron facilities,” said Rao in his 2013 letter. Currently, India has three particle accelerators and one of those facilities houses a synchrotron. From the number of particle accelerators, when compared with countries around the world (see map), it may seem that India is doing well.

But that ignores the fact that most of these facilities are more than two decades old. The synchrotron in Indore, for instance, was built in 1999 and has a moderate power output. It is not considered internationally competitive. To bolster Indian science, a modern, high power synchrotron is needed. But it seems unlikely that it will get one soon.