DOE Blocks Physicists From Indian Meeting

CHICAGO--The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has refused to allow physicists at its national laboratories to travel to a major particle physics conference in India this week, in apparent retaliation for that country's series of nuclear tests last May. At least seven physicists from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, both outside Chicago, were denied requests for travel to the 13th Topical Conference on Hadron Collider Physics, which will begin tomorrow at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

The decision, which does not affect U.S. university researchers, has sown confusion among physicists and lab officials, who fear they have become pawns in a political chess match. The conference "has nothing to do with weapons," says Daniel Green, a Fermilab physicist who was scheduled to give a talk at the conference. "We never even did this with the Russians at the worst part of the Cold War," adds John Peoples, Fermilab's director. "This is a precedent."

Last summer, DOE decided not to allow Indian physicists from the Tata Institute to continue their collaboration on Fermilab's D0 project, which aims to detect new subatomic particles--even though the Indian government has already contributed half a million dollars' worth of hardware to D0's particle detectors. As a Kafkaesque touch, Peoples says that DOE also ordered him--in writing--to remove the Indian flag from the United Nations-like display in front of Fermilab's main building.

Tata, one of the country's most prestigious scientific institutes, was placed on a list of restricted sites because it conducts joint research with the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, "which is at the heart of India's nuclear weapons program," says an official at the State Department, which made the final decision. "For this reason, we concluded that participation by [DOE] lab scientists in a conference sponsored by the Tata Institute was not appropriate."

"This will alienate the Indian scientific community, which is largely pro-U.S.," says Rajendran Raja, an Indian-born U.S. citizen at Fermilab. "And it'll strengthen the hard-liners in India."