Chandrayaan 3 CERN Scientist Archana Sharma Exclusive Interview Huge Confidence Booster Reverse Brain Drain

Chandrayaan-3’s successful soft landing on the Moon’s south pole is a huge scientific triumph for India. After the historic touchdown of Chandrayaan-3 on August 23, 2023, India became the first country in the world to softly land a spacecraft in the lunar south pole. Not only is this feat expected to unravel the Moon’s mysteries, but will also help accelerate milestones in India’s space programme. 

As India celebrates the success of Chandrayaan-3, ABP Live asked CERN scientist Dr Archana Sharma how the historic soft-landing of the spacecraft on the Moon’s south pole will shape India’s space programme and future missions, and where the breakthrough places India in the global space race. Dr Sharma, who is also the Head of the Engagement Office at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment, CERN, was recently awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest award conferred on Indians living abroad by the President of India. 

She has conducted important research in particle physics, and played a crucial role in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. 

Dr Sharma explained that Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing is a “huge confidence booster”, and has made advanced countries recognise India. The milestone can also help reverse brain drain. 

She also said that quantum technologies, astrophysics research, and space exploration are expected to play a crucial role in India in the coming years.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing on the Moon has made India the first country to softly land a spacecraft on the lunar south pole. How will this achievement shape India’s space programme and future missions, and where does this place India in the global space race? 

Archana Sharma: Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing on the Moon’s south pole is a huge confidence booster. It is immaterial what comes out of the lander’s research on the Moon’s surface. The very act of landing the probe on the southern side of the Moon shows the advancement Indian science has made. It has made advanced countries wake up and recognise us.

This milestone also bursts the myth that only IITians can achieve great engineering feats. More funds will pour into these non IITian engineering colleges. 

Also, the popularity of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects will increase, especially among girls.

Contrary to what is being projected in the press, India was never in the space race. Indian space investment and research have been for India-specific needs and assistance to our neighbours in the spirit of “one world one future”.

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After Chandrayaan-3’s success, more funding will be allocated for space projects and many more startups will emerge in the private sector for space research.

ISRO would get a larger slice of international space commercial launches. Since new opportunities in STEM are likely to open up in India, brain drain will probably be reversed.

More cutting-edge technology will be developed in India, and the production of semiconductor chips will increase.

There will also be a soft power play, because India will be able to share its know-how with developing South Asian countries. 

Overall, the budget for research and development in all scientific domains will increase.

What can be expected in the field of physics in India in the coming years? How far will science advance in India in the next 10 years? What are your projections?

Some general insights into the potential developments in the field of physics in India in the coming years based on trends are research and innovation, collaborations and international projects, quantum technologies, space research and astrophysics, renewable energy and sustainability, and education and training. 

India has been making steady progress in the field of physics, with several research institutions and universities actively engaged in cutting-edge research. It is likely that this trend will continue, with a focus on areas such as condensed matter physics, particle physics, astrophysics, and quantum technologies. 

Megascience project management is a new area where we now find a lot of Indian names. Collaborative efforts with international institutions and organisations will likely increase. India has already been involved in various international projects like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN where I work, LIGO India, Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), DUNE, and FAIR, among others. These collaborations could lead to significant advancements in our understanding of fundamental physics and the universe. 

Quantum physics and technologies are expected to play a crucial role in the coming years. India has been investing in quantum research and applications, including quantum computing, quantum cryptography, and quantum communication. The development of quantum technologies could have a transformative impact on various industries. 

ISRO has been actively engaged in space exploration and research. There could be advancements in astrophysics through space missions, satellite observations, and space-based experiments. India’s contribution to international space missions and collaborations could also increase. 

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While not traditionally associated with physics, the application of physics principles in renewable energy technologies could see growth. Research in solar cells, energy storage, and sustainable materials could contribute to India’s efforts to address energy and environmental challenges. 

The quality of physics education and training in India is likely to improve, leading to a growing pool of skilled physicists. This, in turn, can drive further advancements in research and innovation. 

What challenges in the science sector is India likely to face in the next decade? 

India may continue to face challenges such as funding constraints, infrastructure limitations, and brain drain to foreign institutions to some extent. Overcoming these challenges will be crucial for sustained growth in the field. With our strength in young educated people, we need to convert brain drain to brain gain which implies that the Indian diaspora must “learn, earn, return and give back to the country” kind of an ecosystem. The future will be influenced by various factors including government policies, funding allocation, international collaborations, technological breakthroughs, and societal demands specific to India. We need evidence-driven policies towards sustained development. 

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How can India overcome the different scientific challenges which lie ahead?

Adequate funding for research and development is crucial for scientific progress. However, limited funding can hamper the growth of scientific endeavours. To address funding constraints, India needs to allocate a higher percentage of its GDP to research and development. This includes increased public investment as well as encouraging private sector involvement through partnerships and grants. One idea could be to have an overarching CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) investment into the various megascience experiments of choice. 

That would include technological benefits to the participants, apart from being a contributor or participator.

Many scientific disciplines, including physics, require state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment. Insufficient infrastructure can limit the scope and quality of research. 

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Continued investment in building and maintaining research infrastructure is essential. Collaborative efforts between institutions and sharing of facilities can also help optimise resource utilisation. 

Brain drain is another challenge. Talented scientists and researchers often seek opportunities abroad due to better research facilities and career prospects. This brain drain can lead to a loss of expertise. 

India can incentivise scientists to remain in the country by offering competitive research opportunities, funding, and career advancement prospects. Establishing research centres of excellence can help retain and attract top talent. 

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The quality of science education at various levels can vary. Strong educational foundations are necessary for producing skilled scientists. Enhancing the quality of science education requires curriculum improvements, teacher training programs, and interactive teaching methods. Encouraging hands-on learning and practical experimentation can also make science education more engaging.

Administrative red tape and bureaucratic hurdles can delay research projects and hinder collaboration between institutions. Simplifying administrative processes and creating a conducive environment for collaboration can help researchers focus more on their work and less on administrative complexities. 

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Many scientific breakthroughs occur at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration can be challenging in traditional academic structures. Creating interdisciplinary research centres, facilitating cross-disciplinary networking, and offering incentives for collaborative projects can promote synergistic research. 

In some cases, the value of scientific research might not be fully appreciated by the general public or policymakers. Public awareness campaigns, science communication initiatives, and showcasing the real-world impact of scientific advancements can help bridge the gap between scientific research and its societal relevance. 

Limited access to costly research publications can hinder researchers’ ability to stay updated with the latest findings and contribute effectively. 

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Promoting open-access publishing models, supporting institutional subscriptions, and encouraging researchers to share preprints can help ensure wider dissemination of knowledge. 

Addressing these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach involving government policies, institutional collaborations, funding reforms, and a strong commitment to scientific advancement. By overcoming these challenges, India can continue to make significant contributions to the global scientific community and foster a thriving scientific ecosystem within the country. 

What landmarks in science, especially physics, does India aim to achieve?

India has set several ambitious goals and landmarks in the field of physics. These goals reflect India’s aspirations to contribute significantly to scientific research, technological advancement, and our understanding of the universe. Some of the key landmarks and goals include the Gaganyaan mission, astrophysical observations, neutrino research, high-energy physics research, space missions and lunar exploration, materials science and nanotechnology, green energy solutions, and international collaborations.

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While primarily a space exploration endeavour, the Gaganyaan mission aims to send Indian astronauts into space, marking a significant achievement in space science and technology. This project also involves various aspects of physics, such as life support systems, materials science, and human adaptation to space environments. 

India has been actively engaged in space-based and ground-based astrophysical observations. Landmarks in this area could include discoveries related to black holes, neutron stars, cosmic microwave background radiation, and more, contributing to our understanding of the cosmos. 

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India’s INO (India-based Neutrino Observatory) project aims to study neutrinos, elusive subatomic particles that can provide insights into fundamental aspects of particle physics and the early universe. Achieving operational status for the observatory and conducting cutting-edge neutrino research would be a significant landmark. 

Sending humans to the Moon could be a significant achievement.

Advancements in materials science, especially nanotechnology, could lead to breakthroughs in areas like advanced materials, electronics, and energy storage. 

What are India’s greatest achievements in science following independence?

India has achieved several significant milestones in the field of science, including physics, since gaining independence in 1947. Some of the notable achievements include nuclear energy and research, space exploration programmes such as the Chandrayaan missions and Mangalyaan, development of indigenous supercomputers, the discovery of the God particle, quantum technologies, renewable energy initiatives, space exploration collaboration, and advanced materials research.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has played a crucial role in advancing nuclear research and technology. The successful test of the Pokhran-II nuclear devices in 1998 demonstrated India’s capability in this field. ISRO has achieved numerous milestones, including launching satellites for communication, navigation, and scientific research. 

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The Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) in 2014 made India the first Asian nation to reach Mars orbit and ISRO the fourth space agency globally to do so. 

India’s lunar exploration missions, Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Chandrayaan-2 (2019) significantly contributed to our understanding of the Moon’s geology, mineralogy, and water presence. 

India’s efforts in high-performance computing have led to the development of indigenous supercomputers like PARAM, contributing to scientific research, weather forecasting, and other applications.

Indian scientists at universities and research institutions played a role in the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012 during the CMS Experiment. 

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Indian space-based observatories like the Astrosat, launched in 2015, have enabled groundbreaking observations across the electromagnetic spectrum, leading to insights into high-energy astrophysical phenomena. 

India has participated in international space collaborations, such as launching satellites for various countries and contributing to global space missions. 

Indian researchers have contributed to advancements in materials science, nanotechnology, and condensed matter physics, with potential applications in various industries. 

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These achievements reflect India’s commitment to scientific progress and its growing presence on the global scientific stage. India continues to invest in research, education, and infrastructure to drive further advancements in various scientific disciplines, including physics. 

How has the status of women scientists changed since India’s independence?

Since India’s independence in 1947, the status of women scientists has evolved, with significant progress made in terms of opportunities, recognition, and representation. While challenges persist, there have been notable advancements in various aspects of women’s participation in scientific research and academia: For instance, there have been increased participation of women in scientific research, increased representation in academia, a greater number of leadership positions, government initiatives for women, recognition and awards, women-specific programmes, and international collaborations.

The number of women pursuing careers in science and research has been steadily increasing. More women are entering higher education institutions and choosing to specialise in various scientific disciplines. 

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Women scientists are now more visible in academic institutions and research organisations. Many universities and research institutes have taken steps to promote gender diversity in faculty and research positions. 

Women scientists have made substantial contributions to a wide range of scientific fields. They have conducted groundbreaking research, published influential papers, and received recognition for their work. 

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Over the years, more women have risen to leadership positions in academia and research institutions. This includes positions such as department heads, research directors, and deans. 

The Indian government and various funding agencies have introduced policies and initiatives to promote women’s participation in science and research. These include scholarships, fellowships, and grants exclusively for women researchers. 

Many academic institutions and research organisations have established programs to support women scientists, including mentoring programs, workshops, and networking events. 

Women scientists have received prestigious awards and honours for their contributions to science. These recognitions help highlight their achievements and inspire younger generations. 

Women scientists from India have participated in international collaborations, conferences, and research projects, contributing to the global scientific community. 

There has been an ongoing effort to challenge gender stereotypes and biases that may hinder women’s participation in science. Promoting positive role models and showcasing women’s achievements can help counter these stereotypes. Despite these positive developments, challenges persist.

These include gender disparities, difficulty maintaining a work-life balance, inadequate institutional support, and lack of role models, among others.

Women remain underrepresented in certain scientific disciplines, especially in engineering and physical sciences. This is often due to societal perceptions and biases. 

Balancing research careers with family responsibilities can be challenging for women scientists, especially in a culture where traditional gender roles are still prevalent. 

While many institutions have made strides in promoting gender diversity, more can be done to provide supportive environments for women scientists, including flexible work arrangements and parental leave policies. 

Despite progress, the visibility of women scientists in leadership positions and as role models is still relatively limited. 

Efforts to further improve the status of women scientists should focus on addressing these challenges through targeted policies, awareness campaigns, mentorship programs, and advocacy for gender equality in science and research. It is important for society as a whole to recognise the value of diverse perspectives and contributions in advancing scientific knowledge and innovation.

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