Providing hope of a new beginning for often-tense bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, top scientists from the two countries have agreed to initiate university-level cooperation through exchanges of researchers, students and academics.
The unprecedented scientists’ ‘summit’ held in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on 18 January included the heads of science academies from both countries who hammered out a plan for collaborative research projects, setting up a system for distance learning, student and academic staff exchange and joint seminars, workshops and conferences.
Alok Bhattacharya, professor of life sciences at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the “trust deficit” between India and Pakistan could be reduced by linking universities and research institutions across borders.
“If the political will is there our students will come to Pakistan and Pakistani students would be doing research in our universities,” he said.
“There is wider scope for cross-border cooperation in higher education, science and technology because both India and Pakistan share culture and language and are physically contiguous,” Krishan Lal, a physicist and president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) told University World News.
“Pakistan and India should shun their political differences and move on for higher education cooperation, which would be mutually beneficial and save resources on both ends,” Lal said.
The two countries have gone to war three times since their independence from Britain in 1947. A number of cultural and media links have been initiated, but this is the first time research collaboration has been agreed.
Although the two countries started a “composite dialogue” in 2004 that envisaged cooperation in higher education, science and technology, the talks ended in stalemate amid an air of animosity over the 2008 Mumbai bombings.
“Our future must not be hostage to our past. If we can move on cultural exchanges and trade links, why can’t we go ahead with joint efforts in education, science and technology?” Atta-ur-Rahman, former chair of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission and now president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), told University World News.
Strained relations meant “getting visas for even academic purposes was almost impossible on both sides,” according to Atta-ur-Rahman who, despite being a former education minister then science minister in Pakistan was not granted a visa to attend a science conference in Indian Hyderabad in October 2010.
Members of the Indian delegation admitted that obtaining a visa to attend the 18 January ‘summit’ was “a cumbersome process”. But that they obtained visas at all was a breakthrough.
Move towards normalisation
It is believed that the Pakistan government’s recent efforts to normalise relations, with a decision to grant most favoured nation status to India for trade links, prompted academics and scientists on both sides to move ahead more confidently this time.
Indian and Pakistani scientists signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2006 to promote an exchange of scholars to establish collaborative research, but this failed to translate into action on the ground.
“We have decided to reinvigorate the 2006 MoU, which called for the same actions that we have decided now,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.
Collaborative research will be in drug development for neglected and tropical diseases, early diagnosis of breast and lung cancer, scientific evaluation of medicinal plants used in traditional medicines common to both India and Pakistan, capacity-building in genome analysis, and cooperation in material sciences, agriculture, biotechnology and food sciences research.
“The areas prioritised for joint research, through exchange of university researchers and academics, are extremely important for the socio-economic development of India and Pakistan,” Iqbal Choudhary, director of Karachi University’s Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, told University World News.
Bijay Singh, national professor at Ludhiana’s Punjab Agricultural University in India, told University World News that “across our borders we have the same land and soil type, same [crop and livestock] diseases and almost the same research is taking place at agricultural universities in both countries".
Joint research would halve research costs, time and effort, he said.