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  • A.Q. Khan: nuclear outcast, but scientific benefactor

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Ehsan Masood describes the varied contributions of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to his country's research efforts.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's former chief nuclear weapons scientist who was last week pardoned for leaking nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, has been a major force in Pakistani science for more than a quarter of a century.

The government of President Pervez Musharraf said on Thursday (5 February) that the army’s audit department is to investigate the finances of all those connected with the current proliferation scandal.

In Khan's case, the army's enquiry is likely to place at least three institutions in the spotlight. For, in addition to his role in the nuclear weapons programme, Khan was well known as a donor to research causes.

A former president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, 69-year-old Khan has given time and money to several prestige research institutions over the past decades – whose future is now looking less certain following his admission that he masterminded the spread of uranium enrichment technology.

Institutions to benefit from his active involvement include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (where he was president between 1997 and 2002); the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute for Engineering Sciences and Technology near the northwest frontier town of Peshawar, which Khan helped to establish; and the one-year-old Khan Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (KIBGE), based at the University of Karachi.

Of these three, the future of the fledgling KIBGE hangs most clearly in the balance. The institute was Khan’s idea. He raised the funds and appointed senior staff. "Karachi is his home town," says one scientist who knows him well. "He felt he should do something about the fact that there is no major biotech research facility in a city of 10 million people."

The institute's director, Mujtaba Naqvi, has said that there is nothing secret or illegal in his labs. But observers believe that without Khan’s patronage, the institution is unlikely to continue in its present form, as construction remains unfinished, and Khan was one of its biggest donors.

Another institution that has benefited from Khan's support is the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute for Engineering Sciences and Technology, which is situated next to one of the country's largest dams, the Tarbela Dam near Peshawar.

Khan was one of the founders of the institute, which was set up partly to address the lack of high-quality engineering universities in Pakistan, as well as to encourage more women into engineering. He acted as its project director until the institute opened in 1993, and remains a member of its board of governors.

The institute's website describes Khan's efforts in glowing terms, and illustrates the reverence with which he is held in parts of the scientific community: "In spite of heavy preoccupations, he spared no pains to give his best to the creation of this institute. A touch of his vision and constructive genius can be discerned in all [the institute's] aspects, its curricula, its buildings and equipment and in the ethos of intellectual enterprise that permeates its atmosphere."

Khan is also understood to have helped out several other science organisations in need of money. A senior scientist who once struggled to fund a new research laboratory told SciDev.Net that his now-thriving lab owes its existence to Khan. "He came to me one day and asked how things were. I told him we didn't have enough money for construction of our new building. He said: 'don't worry. It will be done'. And that is exactly what happened."

Despite his transgressions, Khan is likely to remain popular with the public. This is partly because of his aggressively anti-Western views, which strike a chord with broad public opinion, and partly because of his popular image as the 'father' of the Islamic nuclear bomb.

Most of Pakistan's public, for example, does not agree with the way in which Musharraf has aligned Pakistan with the United States in the latter's 'war on terror'. Khan has never made any secret of his belief that Muslim countries should not rely on Europe and the United States for their national security.

In an essay entitled 'Restricted areas of science and technology and ways to develop them in the Muslim world', published in 2002, Khan calls on all Muslim countries to set up a joint atomic energy commission and to establish closer links between national defence research organisations.

"The survival of the Muslim world lies in joining hands for acquiring [nuclear] energy, which would also have its political and military advantages," he writes. "The only way to neutralise or withstand the pressure exerted by the West is to make ourselves self-sufficient in technologies which are either totally restricted or rationed to us."

The Khan affair is also prompting the army to review its procedures when appointing scientists to the nuclear programme. Previous Pakistani governments preferred to hire two kinds of scientists: those with a noticeable religious outlook on life, and those who had not lived or studied abroad; or had few overseas links.

The thinking behind this, according to one researcher with the Atomic Energy Commission, was that "a scientist with international connections might one day be tempted to leak information overseas; and a scientist who possessed the fear of God would never betray his country".

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