A view of the Annapurna Mountain Range in the Himalayas in Nepal. The headquarters of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are located in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: Ali Sabbagh via Flickr.

An Overview of Science Diplomacy in South Asia

COVID-19 International collaborations South and Central Asia

South Asia is a highly diverse region of eight countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These countries vary enormously in terms of their geographic features, natural capital, population size, healthcare systems, economic output, cultural characteristics, and development priorities. Despite these differences, they share a long history of collaboration: science diplomacy in South Asia goes back to 1801 A.D., when the Peace and Friendship Treaty between Nepal and the East-India Company allowed Scottish explorer Francis Buchanan-Hamilton to collect 2,500 plant and animal species from Nepal, out of which 1,100 were new to western science. Based on Buchanan-Hamilton’s collection, David Don published the first book on the flora of Nepal, Prodromus Florae Nepalensis, in 1825.1 This was the first systematic scientific work in Nepal to be supported by a treaty, a pillar of science diplomacy.

However, today, geopolitical tension among these countries, alongside multifaceted social and cultural complexities and a lack of incentive mechanisms have created barriers to collaboration at national, institutional, and individual levels. Indeed, despite the long history of science diplomacy in this region, the present state is not very promising, as neither scientists nor policy makers are much aware of and active in advancing science diplomacy. South Asian countries have not only failed to learn from their own history, but also the successes of science diplomacy in other countries. For instance, a regional intergovernmental organization called the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formed in 1985. However, SAARC is neither an active nor effective organization. The latest (19th) SAARC summit, which should have been held in 2016, has been indefinitely delayed.2

Further, there is a lack of scientific collaboration in the region, across countries and disciplines. South Asian countries rely on international collaboration for about 50% of their scientific publications, but mostly with institutions outside of the region.3 Out of the more than one million research papers published between 1964 and 2013 by South Asian scientists, approximately 16.5% involved research collaboration with scientists in at least two countries, but of those, only 3,872 (~2% of the collaborative papers) resulted from collaboration among scientists in two or more South Asian countries (see Figure 1).4

At the same time, there is an urgent need for regional research collaboration, in order to meet the many common challenges facing the region. These include:

  • Global warming and climate change
  • Atmospheric pollution
  • Water scarcity and degradation
  • Natural disasters, especially floods
  • Public health and infectious disease control
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Food insecurity
  • Depletion of energy resources and renewable energy
  • The creation and spread of misinformation
  • Gender inequity, including in the scientific community

Figure 1: Country collaboration network (2007-2017)5

Figure 1

Figure 1. Country collaboration network (2007-2017). Massimo Aria and Corrado Cuccurullo, “Science Mapping Analysis with Bibliometrix R-package: An Example,” Bibliometrix.org, accessed September 15, 2020, https://bibliometrix.org/documents/bibliometrix_Report.html. Figure appears in an earlier version of the article and is reprinted here with permission.

Comprehensive and vigorous science diplomacy among south Asian countries requires effective engagement and partnerships among scientists, scholars, policy makers, and diplomats from all eight countries. Foreign policy needs to integrate science diplomacy for improving relationships and collaboration within the region. Science diplomacy can also improve transnational relationships; indeed, it is considered an effective tool for regional diplomacy, one that can succeed even when other modes of diplomacy fail.6

In this article, the past and present status of science diplomacy are discussed, with particular reference to existing science and technology agreements, COVID-19 diplomacy, and nationalism. We then identify specific areas that need improvement for the advancement of science diplomacy in South Asia.

International Science and Technology Cooperation among South Asian Countries

Science and technology agreements are crucial tools for science diplomacy, as significant scientific collaborations can only happen through bilateral, regional, and multilateral agreements. Globally, regional scientific collaborations have been fostered through various United Nations agencies, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the World Bank.7

After World War II, regional organizations began to form worldwide. For example, the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 led to the formation of SAARC, while the Hague Congress in 1948 led over time to the creation of the European Union. Historical milestones of these two regional organizations are comparable, however, while the European Union announced a research budget of 1.8 trillion euros for the next ten years, SAARC has no funding mechanism for research.8 SAARC has failed to achieve its tremendous potential and is considered defunct, with the heads of member countries not joining the yearly summits since 2014.9

There is also a relative absence of functional science diplomacy forums in the region. Hardly any mention of science diplomacy can be found on the websites of national science academies, Science and Technology Ministries, or Foreign Ministries. Only India, among the eight countries, has a forum for science diplomacy.10 Recently, Pakistan initiated the Science Diplomacy Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Pakistan Academy of Sciences.11 In Nepal, the importance of science diplomacy has been recognized more recently, and the National Academy of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology have begun programs.12 Bilateral collaborations mostly focus on training S&T personnel, exchange of scientists, and joint research and development projects. Within the region, there are some bilateral Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) cooperation agreements, including Nepal-India (1950), Sri Lanka-India (1975), Bangladesh-India (1982), and Pakistan-India (1983).13

COVID-19 and Health Diplomacy in South Asia

South Asian countries have, however, shown a new spirit of collaboration in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, restarting relationships through SAARC. A video conference among heads of state of SAARC member countries held on March 15, 2020 was a positive move, sending a signal across the highly disintegrated region that the organization was active again.14 The conference initiated a COVID-19 Emergency Fund of US$21.8 million, with proportionate contributions from every member state. Though there was difference of opinion regarding the fund’s operating mechanisms, India announced a “neighbours first” strategy for vaccine distribution and joined hands with neighboring countries for the production and distribution of those vaccines.15

National leaders have since proposed several collaborative strategies to tackle the pandemic. These include: (a) adopting shared telemedicine technology to provide healthcare in remote areas, (b) creating synergy among national health emergency agencies, (c) developing a long-term economic revival plan for the region, (d) setting up a Health Ministers’ video conference to increase cooperation, as well as a working group of national authorities to exchange information in real time, (e) collectively creating social awareness, and (f) creating a central depository to gather and disseminate information.

In another conference of senior health professionals from the region, specific protocols were agreed upon, including screening people crossing national borders, arranging online training for emergency response teams, fostering technical cooperation through a shared electronic platform, and exchanging information among health professionals through a new Information Exchange Platform (IPE). The SAARC Disaster Management Centre created a dedicated website to spread information, including daily coronavirus updates from the member countries. These short-term collaborations should be used for longer-term benefits by strengthening regional institutions, improving regional infrastructure and connectivity, advancing trade policy, and developing cross-boundary solutions to shared issues such as cross-border tensions, misinformation, and poverty.

Science advisors and diplomats are skilled people in pursuit of scientific and political solutions to health problems, which they find by liaising with people all over the world. For example, proper screening of people at the entry points of each country and sharing epidemiological data greatly contributes to the timely prevention and control of infectious diseases. The joining together of countries of the region in diplomatic forums that advocate for and initiate diplomacy and develop human capital for diplomacy to tackle public health problems is a core principle of global health diplomacy.16 Skills in diplomacy and negotiation, an understanding of applied science, and cross-cultural competency are essential for the statecraft of health attachés in global health diplomacy.17 Furthermore, an approach that effectively links health and foreign policy requires that both diplomatic and regional health professionals develop skills and resources in service of their mutual goals.18 Today, in the wake of emerging and re-emerging health problems in South Asia, we suggest that health diplomacy be prioritized over foreign policy.

COVID-19 will not be the world’s last pandemic, and infectious disease experts and the WHO are already calling for preparations for the next. South Asian countries must jointly devise policy and improve collaboration to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the future.

Diplomacy for Fighting the COVID-19 “Infodemic”

The spread of COVID-19 in South Asia has also given rise to a vast amount of dis- and misinformation, or an “infodemic.” This misinformation includes conspiracy theories, stories playing down the severity of the disease, and other false claims, for instance, that drinking hot water keeps COVID-19 at bay.19 The spread of these stories has worsened the public health situation.

While this infodemic is global, there are region-specific challenges in South Asia. First, the majority of South Asians are low literate and lack the skills to critically evaluate information. Millions of people have propagated the infodemic, sharing misinformation with friends and family members over Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, and other social media platforms.20 Second, most South Asian governments do not have a clear, strong policy against the propagation of such misinformation. Existing tools to reduce the spread of malicious content online, such as Bangladesh’s ICT Acts, have a limited scope and are inadequate to address the massive threat of health-related misinformation.21 Third, technical expertise in this part of the world is also often limited, making it difficult to take measures to contain misinformation online. Finally, the vast majority of people in South Asia are religious. Much misinformation takes advantage of people’s religiosity, by appealing to their strongly held beliefs or community identity, making it even more difficult to contain. Only a few religious scholars in South Asia are active in the digital sphere and can help stem the tide of misinformation.22

It is the responsibility of scientists, governments, and technology platforms to take measures to reduce the spread of misinformation.23 Countries of the region should engage in diplomacy for combined and effective policy interventions by (a) passing laws against knowingly spreading misinformation, (b) developing software to detect misinformation, (c) making people aware of misinformation and discouraging them from spreading it, and (d) making necessary preparations for misinformation up front.

Changing the Mindsets of South Asians

To facilitate science diplomacy in the South Asian region, the mindsets of both the public and policy makers need to be changed. The region is very complex geopolitically, with a history that gave rise to conservative social, political, and cultural mindsets. Such mindsets create barriers and hostility among neighbors. Public understanding of the need for scientific collaboration among South Asian countries is therefore limited. Some scientists are progressive regarding peacebuilding and they would be honored to contribute to the betterment of overall South Asian communities. However, they are often judged as anti-nationalist by their more conservative colleagues and peers.

It is important to promote awareness that countries facing similar challenges can solve them much more quickly by working with neighbors rather than extra-regional partners, given the higher costs and longer time required for long-distance exchange. In brief, win-win thinking needs to be spread among people, policy makers, and politicians in order to move from competition to collaboration within the region.

Priority Areas for Actionable Science Diplomacy in South Asia 

  1. South Asian governments:
  • Develop regional funding bodies similar to the EU flagship Horizon program to spur joint research on regional challenges.
  • Ensure easy and quick exchange of scientific materials (including biological or non-biological samples).
  • Appoint science attachés members of diplomatic missions in both South Asia and other countries, to increase scientific collaboration.
  • Ensure simple and quick visa access for scientists in the region to allow them to travel to attend conferences or collaborate on projects.
  1. National Science Academies and National Young Academies in South Asia
  • Establish independent national science diplomacy forums in consultation with ministries such as the Ministry of Science or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • Organize regional and national science diplomacy workshops and simulation workshops (where scientists are given roles in diplomacy for training purposes) to orient early- and mid-career scientists. These can be achieved in coordination with regional/global academies and ministries.
  • Encourage young scientists who are keen to advance regional science diplomacy.
  • Play a bridging role between early-career scientists and other stakeholders.
  • Carry out awareness campaigns, using social media and other platforms to target multiple cultures in multiple languages, to change the public’s mindset and to augment science diplomacy in the region.
  1. Young scientists from South Asia:
  • Expand one’s personal and professional networks outside the field, actively and collectively engaging with governments and policy makers so that science diplomacy is embedded in national plans and policies.


Politicians in the region have so far not ensured sufficient cooperation and collaboration among their home countries. Science diplomacy can potentially play a valuable role in strengthening international relations as scientists are natural consensus builders, driven by evidence, generally respected, and seeking to serve humanity across geographical borders. South Asian scientific communities from all eight countries must engage in science diplomacy to build bridges among communities, societies, and nations and elevate the role of science in foreign policy to address national and regional challenges.


  1. David Don and Francis Hamilton, Prodromus Florae Nepalensis (London: J. Gale, 1825).
  2. Sreeradha Datta, “Can SAARC be made effective?” Vivekananda International Foundation, 2020, www.vifindia.org/article/2020/may/25/can-saarc-be-made-effective
  3. Francisco Marmolejo et al., “South Asia: Challenges and Benefits of Research Collaboration in a Diverse Region,” World Bank and Elsevier, 2019, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/735021553593295199/pdf/South-Asia-Challenges-and-Benefits-of-Research-Collaboration-in-a-Diverse-Region.pdf.
  4.  Massimo Aria and Corrado Cuccurullo, “Science Mapping Analysis with Bibliometrix R-package: An Example,” Bibliometrix.org, accessed September 15, 2020, https://bibliometrix.org/documents/bibliometrix_Report.html. Figure appears in an earlier version of the article and is reprinted here with permission.
  5. Aria and Cuccurullo, “Bibliometrix.”
  6. Paul Arthur Berkman, “Evolution of Science Diplomacy and Its Local-Global Applications,” European Foreign Affairs Review 24 (2019): 63–80.
  7. Brij Mohan Gupta, Usha Mujoo Munshi, and P. K. Mishra, “Regional Collaboration in S&T in South Asian Countries,” Annals of Library and Information Studies 51, vol. 4 (2004): 121–132.
  8. Quirin Schiermeier, “Science Money Slashed in EU’s €1.8-Trillion Budget Deal,” Nature, July 22, 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02199-3.
  9. Sankalp Gurjar, “Is SAARC Doomed?” The Diplomat, April 1, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/04/is-saarc-doomed; Siraj M. Shawa, “SAARC: A Defunct Organization,” The Nation, March 8, 2019, https://nation.com.pk/08-Mar-2019/saarc-a-defunct-organization; Suhasini Haidar, “The Immediate Neighbourhood,” The Hindu, June 5, 2019, www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-immediate-neighbourhood/article2747329....
  10. Forum for Indian Science Diplomacy, accessed October 5, 2020, http://fisd.in.
  11. Pakistan’s Science Diplomacy Initiative, Pakistan Academy of Science, accessed October 5, 2020, www.paspk.org/news/pakistans-science-diplomacy-initiative.
  12. Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA), “Preparatory Meeting on Half-Day Symposium on ‘Understanding and Promoting Nepal’s Science Diplomacy,’” accessed October 5, 2020, http://aidiaasia.org/event/preparatory-meeting-on-half-day-symposium-on-understanding-and-promoting-nepal-s-science-diplomacy.
  13. Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, “International S&T Cooperation,” accessed October 5, 2020, https://dst.gov.in/international-st-cooperation. In recent years, the country has strengthened STI cooperation significantly with countries around the world, appointing Science Consulates and technical liaison officers in Indian Missions to work on behalf of India’s national interests in S&T, and provide specialized services in the fields of space, defense, and atomic energy. India has also strengthened STI cooperation with African countries through the India Africa S&T Initiative, and leveraged the soft power of S&T to engage with several countries under India’s Act East policy, including some neighboring countries.
  14. Cecile Fruman and Mandakini Kaul, “South Asia Shows New Spirit of Collaboration to Fight COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic,” End Poverty in South Asia (World Bank blog), March 31, 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/south-asia-shows-new-spirit-collaboration-fight-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic.
  15. Huma Siddiqui, “Covid-19 Vaccine ‘Diplomacy’: India to Expand Cooperation with Neighbouring Countries for Coronavirus Vaccine Development,” Financial Express, November 1, 2020, www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/health/covid-19-vaccine-diplomacy-india-to-expand-cooperation-with-neighboring-countries-for-coronavirus-vaccine-development.
  16. Jeffrey P. Koplan et al., “Towards a Common Definition of Global Health,” The Lancet 373, vol. 9679 (2009): 1993–1995.
  17. Rebecca Katz et al., “Defining Health Diplomacy: Changing Demands in the Era of Globalization,” The Milbank Quarterly 89, vol. 3 (2011): 503–523.
  18. Matthew D. Brown et al., “Applied Global Health Diplomacy: Profile of Health Diplomats Accredited to the United States and Foreign Governments,” Globalization and Health 14, vol. 2 (2018).
  19. Matiur Rahman Minar and Jibon Naher, “Violence Originated from Facebook: A Case Study in Bangladesh,” arXiv preprint arXiv:1804.11241 (2018), https://arxiv.org/abs/1804.11241; Usha M. Rodrigues and Jian Xu, “Regulation of COVID-19 Fake News Infodemic in China and India,” Media International Australia 177, vol. 1 (2020): 125–131.
  20. Abhay B. Kadam and Sachin R. Atre, “Social Media Panic and COVID-19 in India,” Journal of Travel Medicine (2020).
  21. Samia Tasnim, Md Mahbub Hossain, and Hoimonty Mazumder, “Impact of Rumors and Misinformation on COVID-19 in Social Media,” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health 53, vol. 3 (2020): 171–174.
  22. Md Gofran Faroqi, Noore Alam Siddiquee, and Shahid Ullah, “Sustainability of Telecentres in Developing Countries: Lessons from Union Digital Centre in Bangladesh,” Telematics and Informatics 37 (2019): 113–127.
  23. World Health Organization, “Managing the COVID-19 Infodemic: Call for Action,” (An Ad Hoc WHO Technical Consultation), April 7-8, 2020, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240010314.
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