Turkey commited to science diplomacy in Mideast: Sayers
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
One of the founding members, Turkey is fully supporting the high technology center that also serves as a tool for science diplomacy in the Middle East, Zehra Sayers has said. Turkey was one of the first countries to run to the rescue of the center when it risked falling apart, according to Sayers, who was the chair of the scientific committee of the international synchrotron radiation facility project. Sayers became the only Turkish woman to make it to the BBC’s most inspiring women 2019 list.
Tell us about the work that brought you other international awards.
I was included in the list based on the work at the center called Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME). The laboratory in Jordan allows interdisciplinary work covering a broad range of fields from archeology to medicine, from art to environment.
Synchroton is an accelerator, a device where electrons are accelerated around the circular orbit. As a result, they emit an intense radiation. You can then use this as a big microscope to analyze materials. Suppose you have unearthed an archeological object, you can analyze the elements in that object to track more information about it. You can go to SESAME for a limited period of time to carry out experiments and take your data home and analyze.
Why is SESAME so special?
It is very expensive to set up and run the synchrotron laboratories. It requires high technology. There are 60 such laboratories in the world but there were none in the Middle East.
The idea came from some Middle Eastern scientists working at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in the 1960s. They said, “why don’t we try to set up a scientific center in the Middle East where people can only talk science; put all the cultural and political divisions aside and use the language of science.” Later scientists at CERN picked up the idea around the 1990’s. They were also motivated by the fact that CERN was established after World War II. The idea of synchrotron came when they were going to dismantle an old synchrotron in Berlin. Some said, “Why don’t we take it to the Middle East.”
So, what makes SESAME special is that it is set up in a region known to be in constant turmoil.
Yes, but science is the first mission because if the science is not good, people would not want to come and use it. You have to convince scientists that the quality offered by the SESAME is so good that they would want to come here.
Then you can help reverse the brain drain. There are many people from the Middle East working in other synchrotrons. Thirdly it helps to build a technological infrastructure around it; you need electronics, software in order to run such a place and you cannot import all of these from outside. Another point is that the kind of research that synchrotrons offer is leading-edge technology.
And then the idea was that in such a place, scientists from Pakistan, Iran, Israel or from Cyprus will be under the same roof and will have a chance to interact with each other. Synchrotrons have a special atmosphere; they run 24 hours a day. So, you do sometimes your experiments in the middle of the night, mostly young scientists. Next door, there is another group doing another experiment. And at 2 o’clock in the morning, when you are tired, you start talking to them, you ask about their research. They start to be curious of each other and start to get to know each other and trust each other. This interaction becomes an important step towards understanding each other. This is in a way science diplomacy, using the language of science independent of politics, which never enters SESAME.
Can we talk of diplomacy without politics involved?
Yes, of course. There are two levels; the first level is SESAME councils where representatives from countries are doing their best to make this lab run. The second level is the sort of hidden, subconscious diplomacy that is taking place among these young scientists talking to each other, trying to overcome their prejudices.
What were the challenges throughout the process?
The main challenge in general has been the financial dimension. First of all, there is the prejudice against the region. “This is the Middle East, nothing works there, why should this work?” they say. Even member countries are reluctant to give money.
Second, there is a lack of long-term projects in the Middle East. People are not used to thinking over for 10-20 years period. They want to see things happening tomorrow. To come against this mentality was a challenge.
So, the main bulk of your work has been one of convincing stakeholders.
Indeed. We had to remain dedicated. When we started holding users meeting in 2000 — imagine there was no building — there was nothing to use. But we told people it will be there, and we told them we have to be ready when the laboratory will be ready. We started the users’ meeting with 100 people, now it is around 300. In the first year’s call for submissions of projects, we had 55 projects from which 20 was selected. More than 100 projects were submitted in this year’s calls.
How is the position of the Turkish government?
Turkey supports SESAME wholeheartedly; it is one of the founding members. Turkish scientists are very active. The chair of the scientific committee is currently held by a Turk. The Turkish government is one of the rare countries that pay its installments in time every year and it was one of the countries that made a voluntary extra contribution.
At one point the project was coming to a dead-end due to financial problems. Israel proposed five countries to volunteer to pay an extra $1 million annually for five years in addition to their annual installment. Turkey was one of the first countries to accept that and paid it diligently; the other two to have done so are Israel and Jordan. Iran and Egypt were among the five but have not delivered.
Why do you think Turkey is so committed to SESAME?
Within the Turkish government and bureaucracy, there are people who are knowledgeable enough to know that synchrotron radiation facility is a high-level technology which can be useful for many purposes. So, there are people who are aware of its benefits. Turkey has a well-developed scientific community and it can do a lot of things at SESAME where it can lead in SESAME, whereas it is very difficult to lead in CERN.
When you look back, how would you summarize the whole journey?
Sesame was just an idea in the minds of a few scientists. Then it became an institution on paper, then it became a building, and then it became a laboratory functioning since 2017. It took almost 30 years from the conception of the idea to the actual setting up of the lab. That is a long-term project that requires discipline, dedication teamwork, training and financial support.
Is the most difficult behind?
Yes and no. The wheels have started to turn and even the scientific papers are coming out. But it is difficult to keep it going on a high level. Now we need to keep on producing good results and keep on improving the equipment and keep ourselves up to the standards.
Can you tell us an anecdote that made you felt rewarded?
We had a SESAME meeting in Egypt and there were three colleagues from Israel. The female colleague from Israel told me, “Last night I put a cupboard behind the door, because I was worried that somebody may want to come in.” She was surprised nobody came in, that nobody even tried. This was a well-known scientist travelling all over the world and you would have thought that she would not be so uncomfortable in Egypt. The other colleague from Israel was born in Iraq and spoke perfect Arabic, and when we were going in the streets, he was the one translating for us.