Saturday, March 13, 2004

India and Pakistan cement scientific ties

T V Padma
30 January 2004
Source: SciDev.Net

[NEW DELHI] The science ministers of India and Pakistan have agreed on a number of key areas of scientific collaboration through which they hope to strengthen ties between the two countries.

Meeting in New Delhi this week, Pakistan's minister for research and higher education Atta-ur-Rahman and Indian science minister Murli Manohar Joshi selected information technology; engineering sciences; pharmaceuticals; bioinformatics; and biotechnology for industrial, agricultural and health applications as areas in which researchers from the two countries will work together.

As a first step, the two countries will set up expert groups in these disciplines to initiate talks, according to an official spokesperson in New Delhi.

The meeting between the two ministers follows a landmark agreement reached earlier this month between the leaders of their respective nations to encourage greater cooperation in science and technology (see India and Pakistan pledge scientific cooperation).

Both countries face similar problems in areas such as health, agricultural and economic development. But a longstanding dispute over Kashmir has so far limited scientific cooperation between them.

However, with an overall improvement in relations in recent months between the two countries, many hope that scientific collaboration will develop.

"I have come to build bridges between the two countries," Rahman told an international conference on biodiversity and chemistry of natural products in New Delhi this week. "Scientists are joining hands to work for peace."

"Now that a composite dialogue [between the two countries] is in process, it should not be confined to trade and commerce and other issues," Rahman told SciDev.Net. "The two [nations] should collaborate in science and technology and education, in which they have a lot to share."

The two countries are also exploring ways to strengthen ties in higher education, such as by organising exchange visits of scientists and teachers. Of special interest are centres for excellence in various disciplines in both countries, which could be jointly tapped for mutual benefit.

But many fear that this is easier said than done, given the ongoing political tensions between the two nations.

Hurdles to scientific cooperation in the past — such as restrictions on visas and cancellation of flights — have not completely disappeared. And although air links have now been restored between the two countries, many argue that much needs to be done to ease delays and difficulties in granting visas.

"It will take a while," says P Balaram, professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and member of the Indian Academy of Sciences. "There has not been much contact [in the past], so … the familiarity [between scientists between the two countries] will have to increase," he says.

"The key is the visas," says Virender Singh Chauhan, director of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi. Even an international institute such as the ICGEB finds it difficult to obtain visas for visiting scientists from Pakistan, he says.

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