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Middle East synchrotron facility could bring regional research cooperation

10 June 1999 (see Nature Vol 399, page 507)

[LONDON] Scientists and science administrators from the Middle East, Europe, the United States and the Far East are due to meet in Paris next week to discuss plans to set up a joint synchrotron radiation facility, which would be the first regional centre for cooperation in basic research in the Middle East.

The meeting will be attended by scientists from the region, including Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Turkey. Two officials from the US administration are also expected to attend, along with officials from the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

Plans for the new centre revolve around the strong probability that Germany will be prepared to present scientists in the Middle East with BESSY-1, a 0.8 GeV synchrotron radiation source as a gift. BESSY-1, currently based in Berlin, is still active after 14 years, but is due to be shut down at the end of the year. No country in the Middle East has such a facility.

The synchrotron, which is worth $60 million, will be replaced by BESSY-2. An upgraded 1 GeV BESSY-1 would form the core of a planned international centre of excellence providing training and research for the Middle East's scientists in structural biology, environmental and materials science.

A key aim will also be to attract scientists from Europe and the United States to the region. The facility may in addition tempt back some of the Middle East's many scientists who have left to work abroad. The facility will also have an important diplomatic role: helping to improve relations within one of the world's more troubled regions.

The project's founders are Herman Winick of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre in California, a member of the Machine Advisory Committee of BESSY-2, and fellow committee member Gustav-Adolf Voss, a former director at the DESY laboratory in Hamburg.

Winick is credited with coming up with the idea of moving BESSY-1 to the Middle East during discussions about the future of the machine. The idea was taken further through the Middle East Scientific Collaboration network (MESC), a network of scientists promoting research cooperation between Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

Participants at next week's meeting in Paris will discuss the facility's governing apparatus and a timetable for action.

Herwig Schopper, former director-general of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) and an active member of MESC, will chair the meeting. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) is expected to be confirmed as the facility's umbrella body, mainly because of its long experience and perceived neutrality in the region.

Participants at the meeting will also be urged to lobby their governments to support the facility at the World Conference on Science in Budapest later this month. They will aim to have the project included in the conference's Framework for Action document.

Funding for the project will be high on the agenda. Despite not having to pay for BESSY-1 itself, around $10 million will be needed for the upgrade, $10 million for construction and infrastructure, and about $10 million a year will go on running costs.

There are no obvious sources for the money. Cash-constrained Unesco is expected to provide little more than important diplomatic support, and the Middle East's richer countries, such as the oil-producing states of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have so far chosen not to participate.

The project's founders are not expecting Germany to fill the shortfall, partly out of a feeling that it has already done enough. But Germany will be lobbied to help obtain European Union funds before its presidency of the body ends this month.

The influential US physical-science community will be urged to investigate potential sources in the United States. One such source could be the estimated $2 billion Middle East aid package currently being negotiated in the US Congress. In addition, the US Department of Energy is understood to be receptive to the idea of training scientists from the Middle East in accelerator technology and the uses of synchrotron radiation sources at its labs.

But the Paris meeting will not take a decision on the most sensitive issue: the synchrotron's location. Instead, governments who want to host the facility will be invited to submit bids to its governing body. Cyprus, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have indicated that they will do so, and their bids are being taken seriously. Other potential hosts, such as Turkey, may emerge after the meeting.

Despite being the Middle East's most developed country scientifically, Israel appears to have decided not to bid. This is largely because an Israel-based facility would end any hope of participation from scientists from most of the region's other countries.

"The advantages of having it in an Arab country are greater than having it in Israel," says Eliezer Rabinovici, professor of physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Scientists from Iran, Lebanon and Syria would not have been allowed by their governments to participate if there had been a chance that the facility would find a home in Israel.

But Israel's active participation is considered to be important for the project's success, says Voss.

The Palestinian Authority is a strong contender to host the synchrotron. The project's founders, together with Ernst Weihreter, a senior scientist at BESSY, have made visits to Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. The West Bank's chief advantages include its accessibility to scientists from both Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and a centre of scientific excellence would give a much-needed boost to Palestinian scientists, if not the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Our scientific growth has been stunted for many years, and we need opportunities to help build our infrastructure so that we can join the modern world," says Hanna Hallak, dean of science and chairman of the physics department at Bethlehem University.

But a Palestinian bid has two prerequisites, which may not be easy to obtain. The first is continued peace between the government of Israel and its Palestinian population - renewed unrest will make it difficult for scientists from other countries to work at the centre. A second prerequisite is that most of the funding will need to be found overseas, as the Palestinian Authority is unlikely to contribute substantially to the facility.

This is where the supporters of Egypt's bid believe that they could have an edge. Egypt remains more stable politically than its neighbour. The government is also prepared to invest considerable sums towards the facility's construction and running costs, says Hamid Roushdy El-Kady, emeritus professor of radiation biology at the National Centre for Radiation Research and former chairman of Egypt's Atomic Energy Authority.

Egypt has been developing accelerator technology since 1961, says El-Kady, adding that most of the region's non-Israeli scientists go to Egypt for training in radiation biology and high-energy physics.


See also editorial comment 'A cause worth funding'

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