Gears lying down with Pakistan and U.S. flags.
Pakistan-U.S. research funding collaborations are deepening scientific ties while also reaping the economic benefits of locally produced knowledge. Original photo credit:

Toward a Knowledge-Based Society

The Legacy of Science and Technology Cooperation Between Pakistan and the United States

United States Pakistan grants partnerships funding Americas South and Central Asia

More than ten years ago, the governments of Pakistan and the United States laid the foundation for bilateral cooperation in science, technology, and engineering (STE) and related education fields through the establishment of the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology (S&T) Cooperation Program. The program jointly awards grants directly to Pakistani and U.S. scientists and engineers engaged in partner research programs through their in-country affiliate research institutions. Pakistani researchers have an impressive record of scholarship, ranging from Mohammad Abdus Salam’s 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics to establishing an Antarctic research station in 1991. Despite these and other highlights, much of Pakistan’s potential to solve its development challenges remains underutilized, and the country continues to suffer from major technical gaps related to water, sanitation, energy, agriculture, response to natural disasters, and health, resulting in high poverty rates, poor health outcomes, and missed economic opportunities. Here, we discuss how the Pakistan-U.S. S&T Cooperation Program leveraged science diplomacy to forge linkages between Pakistani and U.S. scientists and engineers from 2010 to 2014. Our efforts allowed Pakistan to capitalize on its strengths1 and address these challenges, while also benefiting U.S. partners in terms of new research opportunities and collaborations that continue to reap benefits today.

Science Diplomacy: A Tool to Address Developmental Challenges

Pakistan is a large and diverse country, with more than 190 million citizens in-country and an estimated 8.8 million living overseas. The population is projected to double in the next forty years. Seventy percent of Pakistanis (120 million people) live on less than $2 a day. The literacy rate is 58 percent, with 25 million children not enrolled in school and 65 percent of the population below the age of thirty. Only 7.8 percent of seventeen- to twenty-three-year-olds study in one of the 134 universities in Pakistan. However, both female and male higher education enrollment is growing rapidly. In Pakistan, 2 percent of GDP is spent on education, one of the lowest rates in the world. Further investment in existing in-country resources, both natural and human, could bolster significantly the country’s potential, increasing capacity (e.g., institutional, research infrastructure, technical, human, financial, environmental, energy, and social) at various scales (e.g., local, regional, and national). Achieving such a vision requires a plan of action to translate Pakistan’s potential into a knowledge-based economy that empowers citizens to solve their most pressing development challenges.

The United States has provided significant development aid to Pakistan; the country historically has been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign assistance. Between 2009 and 2014, the United States obligated nearly $4.5 billion to Pakistan, and in fiscal year 2015, the country was expected to receive $881 million in military and economic assistance.2 Despite this, opinion polls3 indicate that Pakistanis rank the United States among the least favorable countries globally, routinely scoring low (12% in 2012 and 22% in 2015). In contrast, Pakistan’s opinion of U.S. S&T scores significantly higher (47% in 2012). Scientific cooperation between the two countries provides an opportunity to improve bilateral relations, build human capital, and foster sustained economic growth.4

Further investment in existing in-country resources, both natural and human, could bolster significantly [Pakistan]’s potential, increasing capacity (e.g., institutional, research infrastructure, technical, human, financial, environmental, energy, and social) at various scales.

In 2003, the Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) signed a comprehensive S&T Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. Department of State, establishing the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program to develop an enhanced bilateral scientific relationship. In 2005, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) joined MoST and the Pakistan Higher Education Commission (HEC) to provide monetary support for the program, and in 2008, the U.S. Department of State became a cosponsor of the program. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and HEC serve as implementing partners.

The program awards grants to Pakistani and U.S. scientists and engineers engaged in collaborative research efforts via their respective host institutions. Pakistani and U.S. foreign assistance contributions flow back to the Pakistani and U.S. higher education institutions, respectively. This collaborative arrangement creates new people-to-people exchanges to solve pressing development issues, often in areas where research collaboration likely would not occur otherwise. Research grants are cooperative, with countries sharing resources invested, outcomes achieved, and intellectual power required to conduct merit-review and award management. This shared administration process is a key component of the program’s unique structure, serving to facilitate trust among all parties involved—government sponsors, administrative bodies, research institutions, faculty, and students. The breadth and shared responsibility maintain open channels of cooperation and dialogue. However, the program relies on continued financial contributions from ministries of both countries, leaving the program vulnerable to political events that may interrupt funding.

Building Trust, One Research Grant at a Time

The Pakistan-U.S. S&T Program supports cooperative research predicated on three important stages of review (Figure 1). First, both sponsoring governments provide input to identify mutual STE priorities, initially outlined in the S&T agreement. These areas are discussed at least quarterly; past funded subject areas have included education, health, nutrition, water, sanitation, agriculture, food security, the environment, and energy. Focus areas may also be updated to include new topics of shared interest, allowing the program to be responsive to unique opportunities and challenges. For instance, a request for proposals (RFP) was issued in 2006 for earthquake-related research after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.5 The quarterly video-based meetings include both Pakistan and U.S. program leaders, and demonstrate the high level of coordination among stakeholders. When research grant funds become available, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issues a new RFP after consultations with program sponsors from both countries.

Once the bilateral research teams submit jointly authored proposals, the second stage entails compliance checks to ensure appropriate human subject protections and environmental impact assessments are conducted. Complete proposals are evaluated through rigorous scientific peer review occurring in each country concurrently. Each country’s technical review panel, composed of subject matter experts, assesses the quality and impact of the proposed work according to the criteria in the RFP. Proposals are judged on scientific and technical merit, cost-effectiveness, and the capabilities of participating institutions and researchers to successfully complete the project. In addition, the nature and quality of the collaboration, including demonstrated commitment to women and minority participation, are considered during the evaluation process.

In the third stage, a bilateral committee formed by members of the sponsoring organizations convenes in person to make final funding decisions. Results from the peer-review process provide this committee with an impartial and independent assessment of each proposal’s scientific merit and potential to support U.S. and Pakistan international development and scientific goals. The joint committee meeting ensures that awards address additional bilateral criteria, such as geographical distribution, institution representation, investigator career stage, and student involvement, among other factors. While the program design may be labor-intensive, its success lies precisely in the highly collaborative and rigorous multistage review system. This transparency enhances bilateral trust and confidence at all levels, from the scientific community to government stakeholders. These critical elements ensure successful and sustained government and academic research cooperation, and have contributed to the continuing success of the program even in the face of diplomatic challenges.

Advancing STE in the Context of Difficult Diplomatic Relations

In September 2008, a truck filled with explosives detonated at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, leaving 54 people dead and 266 injured. Only three weeks before the bombing, in August, the Pakistan-U.S. S&T Cooperation Program had held its first annual participants’ meeting at the Marriott, a favorite for foreign visitors in the capital. After the bombing, which affected the perceived safety of foreign visitors to Pakistan, U.S. program administrators ceased travel to Pakistan. Visits by American researchers also decreased but did not halt completely, as many remained committed to continuing their research projects and visiting their Pakistani partners. For Pakistani researchers, the lengthy and time-consuming U.S. visa process sometimes prevented travel for training and research consultations. Despite these challenges, neither side was easily deterred, and their collaborations continued. Members of the Pakistani diaspora in the United States were particularly helpful in maintaining and reinforcing professional ties to Pakistan; such relationships underscore the role of diaspora members as de facto science diplomats.6

Transparency enhances bilateral trust and confidence at all levels, from the scientific community to government stakeholders.

The second program participants’ conference, in March 2011, was held in Dubai, a convenient third-party site for researchers from both countries. However, a string of incidents in 2011 increased bilateral tensions and questions by the public in both countries regarding future diplomatic relations. A string of incidents left little space to highlight the successes of a scientific cooperation program. For example, the Pakistani investigation of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound cast doubts on the sincerity of science diplomacy when the involvement of a hepatitis vaccination scheme emerged.7

During these difficult years, U.S. funds for new program cycles were not available on schedule, even as demand from interested research teams continued to increase. Another problem was that Pakistan’s HEC—the main partner in the program—faced severe budget cuts8 and repeated calls for dissolution.9 Bilateral efforts behind the scenes by government administrators intensified to secure renewed funding commitments and keep the program going by raising the visibility of early successes to senior policy makers and officials. Over a series of small counterpart meetings in Istanbul (2012 and 2013) and Washington, D.C. (2015), program administrators and other partners met to renew their desire for continued cooperation and chart a way forward to maintain the program’s role as an important source of bilateral scientific and engineering cooperation. These face-to-face meetings proved to be essential for maintaining each country’s commitment to the program and building trust against the backdrop of tumultuous and uncertain geopolitical events. In the end, although scientific cooperation was temporarily marginalized, the research successes and value of cooperation were difficult to ignore, and government sponsors understood that many years of scientific exchange were of great benefit to both countries.

Graphic showing proposal workflow

Connecting People and Building Research Capacity

Since 2005, the program has advanced mutual scientific and research outcomes, established bonds between the academic communities, and built lasting STE capacity in Pakistan. The impact has been staggering. Since the program’s inception, both countries have jointly funded nearly $34 million in collaborative research, supporting ninety-six projects involving thirty-eight Pakistani higher education institutions and sixty-three U.S. universities, research and development (R&D) institutes, and government laboratories. These multiyear awards have greatly strengthened people-to-people ties, with more than ten thousand Pakistanis receiving training through workshops, seminars, courses, undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and traditional research apprenticeships in both countries. At the same time, 2010–2014 funding provided an opportunity to hundreds of U.S. students to receive training and apply their knowledge to pressing developmental problems, while contributing to the formation of a cadre of a globally engaged U.S. STEM workforce. Researchers and collaborators funded through grants during the first five phases of the program produced six patents and prototypes, 407 publications in peer-reviewed journals, and 567 presentations in relevant scientific fora.10

In a survey conducted in 2012, 77 percent of funded researchers indicated that they “would not have been able to collaborate with counterparts without funding from the Program.” Eighty-two percent said that the “Program was important in starting or continuing research activities.” Additionally, 94 percent of participants in a focus group interview reported that their skills improved as a direct result of their involvement with activities related to the grant.10 One example is an engineering project that focused on reducing pavement failure with respect to slow-moving truckloads in high-temperature environments of Pakistan (University of Engineering & Technology Lahore and Michigan State University). The results are assisting Pakistani highway authorities and relevant industries in training Pakistani personnel to optimize pavement performance in a cost-effective manner. The significance of this project lies in the fact that these trucks are essential to move large volumes of goods around the country. Proper road construction has a major impact on the country’s economy.

The program also encourages career development of young scientists and engineers. Evidence suggests that exposure to and active involvement in research activities early and often in students’ careers are important factors to encourage success in STE careers. For example, 10,457 Pakistani students have received training through program partnerships, with 30 percent female representation. These numbers strongly suggest that the program is meeting its diplomatic and development objectives.

Measurements of outcomes also do not fully capture the immense interest and demand by the researchers who seek to collaborate with one another. Figure 2 summarizes funding contributions from each government since 2005 compared to the total amount requested by the research community, and demonstrates demand for ongoing STE funding. This ongoing interest, far exceeding funding capacity, is another metric of the success of the program in the eyes of prospective researchers from both countries. Unfortunately, inconsistent funding availability, government budget cycles, and other factors mean that RFP cycles occur irregularly. Funding uncertainties remain the biggest challenge to the continuation of a successful program.

A line graph showing how the demand for program funds exceeds availability.

Overall, a relatively small fraction of U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan—$50 million since 2005—is devoted to the program, compared to the billions of dollars in total U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan over the same time period.11 Yet the impact is disproportionately large, as measured through enhanced bilateral cooperation, lasting research achievements, knowledge advancement, additional educational opportunities, and new economic growth.

S&T 2.0: From the Lab to the Market

The mutually reinforcing nature of economic growth and political stability has been at the heart of development strategies at the U.S. Department of State in South Asia.1213 Countries also have been encouraged to establish public-private partnerships to take advantage of private-sector expertise. In order to leverage STE capacity-building gains and incorporate new directions essential for economic growth, program administrators shifted focus to research proposals with market potential. To this end, the program’s 2012 RFP encouraged partnerships with private-sector companies. The program received nearly three hundred applications (a record number), and six of the ten funded groups incorporated technology transfer and commercialization aspects, with some private-sector collaboration.

The mutually reinforcing nature of economic growth and political stability has been at the heart of development strategies at the U.S. Department of State in South Asia.

An essential component of any innovation ecosystem includes a well-trained cadre of engineers, scientists, and innovators capable of bringing research products to the market. With a focus on applied research projects that advance economic growth, program leaders sought to reach an audience beyond funded researchers and academics, and offered two major technology transfer symposiums in Islamabad. The first event, lasting two days, took place in 2013 and was called “First Pakistan-U.S. Science & Technology Cooperation Program Symposium: Economic Growth through Technology Transfer,” followed by a 2014 weeklong workshop entitled “Science, Technology, and Engineering for Development: From Innovation to Implementation.” Both events introduced technology transfer concepts to academic scientists and engineers through hands-on sessions focused on establishing private-sector partnerships, understanding and protecting intellectual property, and pitching business ideas to potential investors—all relatively new topics to the Pakistani research community. Engagement of the diaspora—part of the U.S. Department of State’s Networks of Diasporas in Engineering and Science (NODES) initiative7—proved to be a powerful and effective way to communicate the nuances of both the U.S. and Pakistani research and education systems. At the end of the 2014 workshop, the program announced a seed grant competition to enable teams to advance their business ideas. Winners of the seed grant competition received up to $10,000 for an initial year, and up to $40,000 for a second year. In addition to business incubation space, the program offered networking and mentoring opportunities to help these companies build their professional standing in the industry.


A bar graph showing that grant portfolio investment shows emphasis on health, IT, and other projects.

Fifteen proposals were submitted to the seed grant competition, and Kounter-Intuitive Technologies, Interactive Solutions, and LapPro Solutions were chosen to receive seed funding and incubated business concepts at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Technology Incubation Centre in Islamabad. In just over a year, grantees made exceptional progress, with two teams, Kounter-Intuitive Technologies and Interactive Solutions, exceeding sales targets. Over the two years of seed grant funding, Kounter-Intuitive Technologies, a medical device start-up, had created thirteen new jobs and generated nearly $45,000 in revenue. During the same period, Interactive Solutions, an electronic education platform, had created sixteen jobs and generated $180,000 in revenue. These encouraging business incubation results from academic scientists and engineers deserve further consideration as a model for S&T cooperation and research diplomacy. This promising avenue is deepening scientific ties while also reaping the economic benefits of locally produced knowledge.

Toward a Brighter Future

Recognizing the program’s impact, the Pakistan and U.S. governments formally renewed the Science & Technology Cooperation Agreement in October 2013, which will remain effective until 2018. The program’s sixth RFP, issued in autumn 2014, resulted in thirteen funded proposals, many of which are still in the active research-funding period.

The Pakistan-U.S. S&T Cooperation Program was highlighted as a key area of bilateral cooperation in the meeting between U.S. president Barack Obama and Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October 2015. In February 2016, the governments signed a memorandum of understanding to double program funds. The governments have committed more than $8 million for a seventh phase of research collaborations, which will continue the tradition of high-level collaborative STE research, with a new focus on health and infectious diseases, as well as other fields such as water, energy, and information technology.

The successes of the program transcend geopolitical boundaries and have made demonstrable advances to respond to long-standing development and scientific challenges. For example, to address the challenge of finding clean water, a collaboration between Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad and The George Washington University in the U.S. capital led to the creation of a small wastewater filtration machine that provides safe drinking water and creates bioproducts for use in nearby agriculture fields. This collaboration employed ten Pakistani doctoral students, who now are proud graduates. While building the bridges that foster peaceful engagement as a cornerstone of country-to-country cooperation may not always be easy, science diplomacy continues to create interactions that are essential for prosperity, economic growth, stability, peace building, and mutual understanding.


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  2. U.S. Government Foreign Assistance Portal, accessed May 6, 2016, Website is temporarily down as of February 15, 2017.
  3. Pew Research Center, “Global Indicators Database,” Global Attitudes and Trends, accessed May 6, 2016,
  4. “Science, Technology and Innovation Essential for Growth,” OnePakistan, modified 2012,
  5. “Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program” (Phase 2 projects), U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, modified 2016,
  6. William J. Burns. “The Potential of Science Diasporas,” Science & Diplomacy (December 2013), 1–5, available at
  7. Mazzetti, Mark. “Vaccination Ruse Used in Pursuit of Bin Laden,” The New York Times, July 11, 2011. Available at
  8. A. A. Khan, “Pakistan’s Science Minister Attacks Funding Cuts,”, August 31, 2010,
  9. “Dissolution of HEC Challenged in Supreme Court,” Dawn, April 9, 2011,
  10. Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation (S&T) Program: Mid-term Performance Evaluation Report, U.S. Agency for International Development (September 30, 2014),
  11. “Aid to Pakistan by the Numbers,” Center for Global Development, accessed May 6, 2016,
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  13. “Global Economic Forecast: Prospects for Growth, Innovation, and Development,” modified October 15, 2016, formerly available at At time of press, available at
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