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[NEW DELHI] India and the United States have pledged to increase scientific cooperation in a wide range of fields including energy, agriculture, health, and space, nanotechnology and information technology.

The discussions were held during a visit by the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to the United States last week. The most senior officials of three of India's five key scientific departments — science and technology, atomic energy and space — accompanied Singh.

The two countries have agreed to launch a "second generation" of cooperation in agricultural sciences. The first major agriculture collaboration was in the 1960s, when the United States helped India set up agricultural universities and research institutions.

The new initiative will focus on research to meet the challenge of raising agricultural productivity under drought conditions, Singh told a joint session of the US Congress on 19 July. Researchers will also study crop pests and diseases and try to develop technologies to improve food storage to reduce post-harvest waste. The aim is to ensure that research findings reach farmers directly.

The talks on cooperation in diverse fields of science were overshadowed by concerns from some security experts in both India and the United States about one aspect — the US decision to provide India with nuclear reactors and materials.

The decision to support India's nuclear energy ambitions reversed a 30-year-old US stand brought about by India's first underground nuclear weapons test in 1974.

Cooperation in nuclear energy was just part of the two countries' discussions on energy. They launched a joint 'Energy Dialogue' to explore future cooperation in the sector. They plan to promote the development of affordable and environmentally friendly energy supplies in India.

Singh said India would need to increase its reliance on coal and hydro-electric power. India must also develop new energy sources, invest in oil and gas exploration and improved fuel recovery from available fields, as well as tap the full potential of nuclear energy to meet its energy requirements, he said.

Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington the following day, Singh added: "Access to energy resources is an issue of particular importance to [the Indian-US] relationship and our newly constituted Energy Dialogue is focused on it. Our current dependence on hydrocarbons will have to be diversified in favour of a broader energy mix."

The two countries have several ongoing bilateral agreements in science. The last was an Indo-US Science and Technology Forum launched in July 2000 following US president Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March that year.

Other previous agreements between India and the United States include pacts between India's Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the US National Science Foundation on atmospheric sciences, research between India's DST and Department of Space and US-based NASA, the Indo-US Vaccine Action Programme and the Contraceptive and Health Research Programme.

An umbrella agreement on Indian-US cooperation in science and technology was expected to be signed during Singh’s visit, but a senior DST official in Delhi said that has been deferred as more details needed to be worked out.