After 15 years of planning and construction, a visionary intergovernmental scientific research center is about to open its doors on May 16 in Jordan.
The official opening of SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) moves scientific research forward significantly in the region.
This is also a giant step forward for science diplomacy, and the fulfillment of many hopes and dreams shared on a day in June 1999 when a few pioneers met at UNESCO to launch the first world-class research laboratory for the Middle East.
Over the last two decades, SESAME brought together neighbors that have their share of political and cultural differences – Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, and a number of observers, all working together, leaving their divergences aside for the advancement of science. SESAME is succeeding thanks to the enthusiasm of its staff and members, and support from the Royal Court of Jordan, the governments of Jordan, Israel and Turkey, which provided much needed additional funding, Germany which donated the Berlin Synchrotron BESSY I, the IAEA, the European Union, CERN, Italy and many more.
SESAME is not only an encouraging demonstration of the will to collaborate across divides – it is an advanced scientific project whose construction and operation is building technical and scientific capacity in the region, and is already helping to stem and reverse the brain drain. After scientists were invited to submit proposals to use SESAME, 55 were received within a few weeks, showing that a new generation of researchers is ready to grasp the opportunities that the facility offers.
For those who are curious, SESAME is a third-generation light source. Light sources are giant flash lamps coupled to powerful microscopes. They are used to study the properties of materials from the scale of human cells down to atoms, and have become important tools for research in subjects ranging from medicine and biology, through materials science, physics and chemistry to healthcare, the environment and archaeology.
SESAME is often compared to CERN, its elder European sister, also created after a UNESCO decision, in 1954. CERN was created, after the devastation of World War II, to make European particle physics competitive again and unite European countries around a common European institution. The story of SESAME shows that with the political backing of UNESCO, patience and hard work, a group of initially inexperienced young people from the region could build a world-class research facility. It is also the world’s first accelerator that will be powered solely by solar energy – times are changing indeed.
The story of SESAME is important to share with the world. At a time of turbulence and division, it is a stark reminder of the power of science and knowledge to bring people together. This has never been more relevant.
As more and more people question the relevance of multilateralism, SESAME illustrates how decisive it is to protect the green shoots of such projects under an international umbrella against turbulences and skepticism. When SESAME was conceived, it was realized that it was only with UNESCO’s help that it had any chance of becoming a reality. UNESCO nurtured the project and played a vital role in bringing it to the light of day
Today, SESAME has grown up as an independent organization. SESAME still needs greater support and more funding. But we need also to start thinking about the next scientific centers, the CERNs and SESAMEs of tomorrow.
Irina Bokova is director-general of UNESCO. Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith is president of the SESAME Council.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2017, on page 7.