SESAME: Opening a scientific door for co-operation in the Middle East

New scientific research centres are a fairly common event these days, but in January 2003 a facility with a difference will see the light of day in Amman, Jordan. The international backers of the new research centre, called SESAME, are determined that scientific collaboration will help open the door to greater co-operation in the Middle East.

So far, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Oman, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey have formally decided to join SESAME. Other member states of the interim council are Egypt, Greece, Israel, Morocco, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Countries with observer status are Armenia, Brazil, Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, the Russian Federation, Sudan, Sweden, the UK and the US.

SESAME was inspired by scientists working closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, whose founding in 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland also had the twin aims of advancing scientific and technological knowledge as well as fostering stability through co-operation. Since 2001 the new project has won the full backing of UNESCO, which has virtually adopted it as one of its flagship projects.

One major hope, as UNESCO’s director-general, Koichiro Matsuura, has stressed, is that SESAME “will work against the brain-drain by attracting scientists based in the Middle East and also those originally from the region who now work abroad.” Clearly, an opportunity for the young scientists of the region for whom the Middle East has always been synonymous with conflict and war. Mr Matsuura suggested: “Through their scientific rapprochement they will be in the vanguard of the political rapprochement that this region so badly needs.”

The scientific aspects of the project are promising too. SESAME – whose name stands for Synchrotron Radiation Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East – is a so-called third generation light source. There are about 45 synchrotron-light sources in use around the world today. They operate by whirling particles, generally electrons, around a ring at a tremendous speed. Light sources are used in a wide range of research, from unravelling the structure of viruses to understanding the detailed behaviour of the semiconductor materials that underlie much of modern-day life. Synchrotron light covers a broad range of the electromagnetic spectrum (infrared to hard x-rays). It is the best available source of x-rays, providing a valuable source of information for scientists working in many fields, making it a uniquely multidisciplinary facility.

Demand for these essential light sources is growing. Europe, France, Spain and the UK are currently building new facilities. Across the Atlantic, new light sources are also being made ready in Canada and the US. Some Middle East countries have jumped at the opportunity, Jordan being selected to host it. SESAME will carry on work using components of a light source in Berlin that was closed down in 1999. Scientists from Stanford, US and Hamburg, Germany had suggested that the old core German facility be recycled as a new laboratory and soon after, SESAME took shape.

Not all Middle Eastern countries have bought in, though others have expressed an interest in joining when the political situation in the region stabilises.

Still, funding has not been a major problem. Thirteen interim council member states undertook to provide US$50,000 per annum each for three years from 1 January 2000 for preparatory work, and the US State Department and Department of Energy contributed $200,000. A training programme for young scientists and engineers is an essential part of the project. Workshops and seminars have been organised and several experts have been sent to laboratories in Europe for more than a year. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and other sponsors provided funding. Brazil has offered fellowships that will allow SESAME scientists to spend time working at a light source in Sao Paolo.

The European Commission is set to provide €7 million for installation of the new facility along with extra funds for training once it is up and running. This is dependent on SESAME demonstrating that a viable scientific programme has been established. Several proposals have been put forward, and these will be formalised soon. Several laboratories have offered equipment, and financial support is being sought from the IAEA and from US agencies. Meanwhile, the Jordanian government has agreed to finance construction of the buildings that will house the centre at a campus of the Al-Balqa’ Applied University in Allan, 30 km from Amman. Running costs will be borne by SESAME’s member states, with some voluntary contributions from observers.

SESAME will formally be opened by Jordanian King, H.M. Abdullah II and UNESCO’s Mr Matsuura in a special ceremony on 6 January 2003. After that, the political support for SESAME will grow.

*The author was director-general of CERN from 1981 to 1988.

©OECD Observer No 235, December 2002

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