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Five nations bid to host Middle East synchrotron

24 June 1999

[PARIS] A proposal for an international research centre in the Middle East, built around a synchrotron to be donated by Germany, was officially launched at a meeting in Paris last week. Bids to host the centre were submitted by Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.

A final decision on the location will be taken by an interim governing council, including two representatives from each of the candidate countries (previous report).

Delegates have promised to support the project even if the site does not fall in their home country. In a bid to accelerate the approval process, the meeting called on states in the Middle East to confirm their approval by 31 July. There was considerable praise for Israel's commitment to the project without bidding to host the facility, out of recognition that a centre in Israel would attract little participation from many of its neighbours.

"The project would not work without Israel," says Siegbert Raither of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which hosted last week's meeting. "Israel is a very important ingredient to the scientific success of this institution," he says.

Participants at the meeting acknowledged that funding is now their biggest priority. But raising the required amount - at least US$30 million - will not be easy. Funds for the project are unlikely to emerge until a decision has been made on the centre's location. This is partly because Western governments may be reluctant to commit money to a centre in any country where diplomatic ties are weak.

The proposal is based around an offer from Germany to donate BESSY-1, a 14-year-old, fully functioning, 0.8 GeV synchrotron in Berlin. But Germany may not be prepared to commit the extra costs of dismantling the machine for later use without a firm indication that the centre will be funded.

"The BESSY directorate is looking for a quick decision, as there is a [financial] difference between the machine being scrapped or being dismantled for further use," says Herwig Schopper, a former director-general of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN). Schopper, who was elected president of the project's interim council last week, emphasizes that the timetable is tight. BESSY-1 is due to be taken out of service at the end of the year.

Potential sources of funding include the European Union and the Middle East finance package tied to the Wye Agreement, which is working its way through the US Congress. President Bill Clinton is understood to have requested $1.2 billion for Israel, $400 million for the Palestinian Authority and $300 million for Jordan.

Observers believe that the costs of the war in Kosovo could mean that Congress is unlikely to agree to the sum requested by Clinton. And most of the Wye package is understood to be earmarked for roads, hospitals and schools. William McIlhenny, the US government's permanent observer to Unesco, says a key question is whether governments are prepared to allocate large sums for a synchrotron facility instead of more pressing problems such as clean water and sewage disposal.

A centre based in the Palestinian Authority is likely to be convenient for Israel. But the Palestinian bid, along with those from other candidate hosts - except Egypt, and possibly Iran - will need significant external financing.

But, despite the difficulties, participants left Paris in optimistic mood. "With the response we've gotten, and Unesco's strong support, I am convinced that we will get the money," says Herman Winick of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre in California, one of the project's co-founders.


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