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Physicists Lead the Establishment of a Novel Research Institution in Cyprus for the Middle East

By Constantia Alexandrou

Cyprus appears on most global maps, if at all, as a small dot off the cost of Lebanon. Can Cyprus nevertheless offer a fertile environment for the development of a word-class educational and research institution serving the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, one that would educate future regional leaders to more eagerly use science, technology and management instead of the threat of war to respond to scarcity, tap diversity, and resolve conflict? This aspiration is being put to test, largely through the involvement of the international scientific community, via the recent establishment of the Cyprus Institute.

The initial spark came in 1992 with the establishment in of the University of Cyprus. The academics that came to work there had pursued careers mostly in the US or Western Europe, with the Physics Department, established in 1999, being no exception. Difficulties were associated with the lack of academic and research tradition, and with the inhomogeneity of the faculty coming from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, fifteen years after the admittance of its first students, the University of Cyprus has established itself as the highest center for learning serving local educational needs. Whether it can become a regional, or even a world-class, institution is problematic for a number of reasons, ranging from governance structures that do not reward excellence to the lack of innovation culture in the surrounding society. These are features common in this geographical area of the world that hinder the emergence of world-class institutions. According to the Times magazine list (November 5, 2004 issue) of the top 200 universities worldwide none are from this area, with two from Israel being the only exceptions.

When Cyprus entered the European Union (EU) in 2004, it held the embarrassingly last position in funds spent on research per capita. The government reacted with increasing spending on research thereby becoming the fastest growing in the EU for the last four years. The impact is becoming visible: two additional public universities and three private ones have been established and funding for research is rising steadily. Cyprus is doing very well in claiming competitive research funds from EU and, in the recent highly competitive European Research Council call, Cyprus emerged as a champion. Education, research, and innovation have become top priorities for all political parties. This is fortunate since political and social unity on such issues can drive R&D, as was seen in the case of Finland and Ireland, a decade ago.

The proposal that articulated the vision for the Cyprus Institute was developed by a five-member committee that included three physicists: E. J. Moniz of MIT, C. N. Papanicolas of the University of Athens and H. Schopper of CERN. The other two were F. Rhodes and G. Ourisson former Presidents of Cornell and Louis Pasteur Universities respectively. The proposal was debated and enthusiastically endorsed in 2002 by a convocation of international scholars that included many prominent academics, among them scientists of the stature of the late H. Curien, H. Varmus, P. Crutzen and J. Sachs. These scholars came with the belief that Cyprus, at the cross-roads of Western and Eastern civilizations, in an area of long political strife, and with good relations with both Israel and the Arab world, holds the promise to become Europe’s gateway to the East, playing a catalytic role for new understanding and reconciliation among the nations of the region. They endorsed the creation of a novel, technologically oriented world-class Institute based in Cyprus but serving the entire region. The Cyprus Institute, a private non-profit organization, is to be structured ab initio to facilitate learning across disciplinary boundaries, to transcend national borders, applying the best of science, technology, and management to deal with some of the world’s most refractory problems. The first indications regarding the development of the Institute seem excellent: The first Research Center of the Institute, on Energy, Environment and Water Resources, developed with public funding in partnership with MIT, was inaugurated on the 10th of December 2007 by the President of the Republic. The second Research Center on Technology in Archeology is being developed in partnership with the Louvre and the third on Computation-based Science and Technology with the University of Illinois. The involvement of the international community in the realization of the Institute remains strong, as exemplified by the Chair of its Board of Trustees, physicist E. Brézin of École Normale Supérieure and ex-President of the French Academy of Sciences. The project also finds strong support from local academics, including the majority of the physics community because of a convergence of mutual aspirations: to transform Cyprus into a research-oriented society and help establish world-class research in this part of the world.

There are positive developments in neighboring countries. Perhaps the most notable example is SESAME, an international synchrotron light source facility being built in Jordan under the auspices of UNESCO. Cyprus, like many other countries in the region, regards SESAME as a great opportunity to accomplish in the Middle East what CERN did in postwar Europe. The last Council meeting of SESAME, held in Cyprus in December 2007, explored and endorsed close cooperation between the Cyprus Institute and SESAME, noting the common aspirations that drive the development of both institutions.

This is just the beginning of a long and difficult path. Continuous support from the international community is crucial. Working together with countries in the region to build research infrastructure of the highest caliber, establishing international norms and openness will be a key element. It is indeed a challenge for Cyprus and the other countries in the region to establish a research environment that resembles that of countries where world-class institutions can flourish with all the positive aspects that this will bring to their people.

Constantia Alexandrou is Professor of Physics at the University of Cyprus, and Ex-Vice Chair of the Interim Governing Board of the Cyprus Institute.

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