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Bugging and promoting the excellence in physics

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It calls itself “a knowledge hub”, a place where people from developing countries can share and learn at the top level. It is located in Trieste, Italy. Founded by a Nobel Laureate, it is funded (almost) by a single country, but ruled by two outstanding international organizations. It has already a great fame, due its scientific excellence and its role in promoting and educating the best young scientists from all over the world. But it is also the victim of a spy story: this year the International Centre of Theoretical Physics (Ictp) is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

A winning bet

The key protagonist in creating the Ictp is a Pakistani Nobel Laureate. Mohammad Abdus Salam was born in 1926 in a rural district of Punjab, in Pakistan, descendant of an old family devoted to education – they were also part of the Ahmaddiyyia community, a minority religious movement of Islam (this affiliation caused its voluntary exile from Pakistan in 1974). Firstly, he tried to enter the Indian Railways, but failed the medical tests. Then, he started a glorious academic career: a BA degree with Double First-class honor in Mathematics and Physics at Cambridge, the Smith's Prize from Cambridge University for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to Physics, a PhD in Theoretical Physics from the Cavendish Laboratory, the Adams Prize, and, at the incredible age of 33 years, the Fellowship of the Royal Society. He was the first Pakistani and the first Muslim scientist to win the Nobel Prize in 1979, for the electroweak theory. In the Sixties, he was deeply involved in building up the science policies in Pakistan, as he had played a major role in developing the national space program and the nuclear technology for peaceful use – but he had had also an ambiguous role in the Pakistani nuclear bomb project. In 1964, together with professor Paolo Budinich, the “father” of the Trieste System, he founded the Ictp (called Abdus Salam International Centre of Theoretical Physics after his death), with the aim of “providing scientists from developing countries with the continuing education and skills that they need to enjoy long and productive careers” in order to be “a major force in stemming the scientific brain drain from the developing world”.

One of the leading science diplomacy tool

Ictp was created with three general goals: foster the growth of advanced studies and research in physical and mathematical sciences, provide an international forum of scientific contact for scientists from all countries and conduct research at the highest international standards. This, first of all, means the need of money. The Ictp is almost entirely funded by the Italian government, but these funds are independently managed by both Unesco and Iaea: this point is important, as it can be consider one of the first pure tool of science diplomacy inspired by a global vision, rather than national interests. Only in 2013, nearly 6,000 visitors (23 percent of whom were women) from 139 countries participated to 29 training activities (18 of them in the Trieste campus, 11 in the developing countries). More than half of the postdocs students (56 percent) comes from developing countries: the Ictp activity in promoting and enriching scientific excellence in the developing world is hectic. But, in fifty years, there have been also ambiguous moments.

Bugging the Physics

In May 2014, the French newspaper Le Monde revealed that the Ictp was one of the main target of the United States National Security Agency (NSA) secret spying activities. In particular, Ictp was part of the Upstream collection project, i.e. the monitoring the optical fiber submarine cables, from where pass nearly 99 percent of the Internet data. It is suspected that Ictp can also be a target of the British Gchq's Tempora project. Why the NSA was so interested in Ictp? The institution explicitly promotes the knowledge also about nuclear physics, even the one that can be used for the atomic proliferation. Despite the fact that it is absolutely not the goal of the institution to promote the proliferation, often international research centers and institutions are the arenas where information among scientists are shared (and sometimes this helps peace); that is why the United States always feared that Ictp could be one of the channel from which Iranian scientists gained information about their nuclear program. Moreover, Ictp promotes many training program and scientific research in the Arab countries, such as the Synchrotron in Jordan. Being the funding country, why Italy did not protest, as the NSA activities was a clear violation of the Italian national information security, moreover against a research center?

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