A time for scientific diplomacy

    Both India and Pakistan have much to gain from closer collaboration between their scientific communities. Such collaboration must not be allowed to remain a casualty of tensions between the two.

    The decisions by India and Pakistan to detonate nuclear devices will have few — if any — direct consequences for the relations between ordinary citizens of both countries. They won't, for example, diminish the passion Pakistanis have for Indian cinema, nor the fondness that Indians hold for Pakistani television soap operas. India won't stop Muslims from Pakistan flocking to the shrines of revered Sufi saints. And Pakistan won't stop Sikhs from India crossing the border to visit their second-holiest temple.

    But the tests will almost certainly hamper communication between one group of Indians and Pakistanis who would like the chance to talk more: the scientists of both countries. The irony for those who gave their countries nuclear weapons status is that they face increased isolation, not only from the West, but also from each other. Science is perhaps one of the few vehicles that could help raise both the quality of life and levels of trust between these two quarrelsome neighbours. But at present, official, bilateral scientific cooperation does not exist.

    Scientists from both countries are not totally isolated from one another. They meet at international venues, such as the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and at United Nations environment conventions, where both countries form part of the Group of 77 developing states. Pakistan's scientists can, in theory, travel to New Delhi to visit the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Indian scientists, similarly, can travel to Islamabad to visit the headquarters of the intergovernmental Commission on Science for Sustainable Development for the South. Some maintain good personal relations with cross-border colleagues.

    But in practice, contact is rare. Scientific collaboration may have helped thaw the Cold War in the West, but it has become one of the casualties of the continued tense relations between India and Pakistan. Politicians from both sides view science as a key element of each country's defence and security, and consider scientific cooperation — no matter how innocuous — as close to giving away state secrets. If pressed, they tend to take the view that enhanced scientific collaboration will follow progress on outstanding political issues, not vice versa.

    This is unfortunate, as scientific collaboration can — as the West has shown — help to ease political tensions. It is also wrong, as such collaboration could bring urgent, practical benefits to both countries. Indeed, science could be harnessed to help India and Pakistan tackle a range of common problems. These include diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis; agricultural issues such as developing salt tolerance in crops; and environmental issues such as air pollution, as India and Pakistan have similar types of road transport.

    There is, in fact, much evidence that scientists from both countries would like to collaborate. But they need both permission and support from their politicians, which has so far been lacking. This support in turn needs courage, diplomacy, an element of ‘lateral thinking’, and an enlightened view of India-Pakistan relations.

    Such thinking is not unknown and once came from an unlikely source. In 1987, Pakistan's military president General Zia ul Haq tried to defuse rising tensions by travelling across the border to make an unscheduled appearance at an India-Pakistan cricket match. The incident was coined ‘cricket diplomacy’. And it worked. Pakistan's present prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, a Zia protégé, could take a cue from his mentor, and engage in a bit of ‘scientific diplomacy’. What does he have to lose?

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    A time for scientific diplomacy. Nature 393, 499 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31043

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