By Geoff Brumfiel

When members of international scientific projects meet, it's typically a mild affair. But at the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) there is a sense that the stakes are considerably higher. At a gathering last year, project members held a minute of silence in remembrance of Masoud Alimohammadi, the Iranian physicist and fellow participant who was killed by a car bomb in Tehran. In November, a second member of the Iranian delegation was assassinated.

As pro- and anti-government protesters continue to clash in Cairo, the SESAME project is reaching a crucial phase of its own. To reach completion, it needs an extra US$35 million. Israel has committed $5 million, provided that other countries in the region step in with similarly sized contributions. Egypt was expected to match the Israeli pledge at a meeting this March. Hany Helal, the nation's minister of scientific research under President Hosni Mubarak, has been a staunch supporter of SESAME. Yet no one can guess how long Helal will remain in his post, or what a new government's attitude towards the project might be.

"It's obviously a bit worrying," says Chris Llewellyn Smith, a British physicist and president of SESAME's council. "But I think we'll come through it." Indeed, scientists across the Middle East remain adamant that SESAME will go forward, despite the cash shortages, protests in Egypt and continued unrest in Jordan, where the project is based. "It's very important that we keep it going, especially at times like this," says Zehra Sayers, a biophysicist at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, and chair of SESAME's scientific advisory committee.

Peace through science

SESAME began in the late 1990s as a way to build scientific ties in the troubled region. Originally, the plan was to move a decommissioned German synchrotron to Jordan, where it could be used for materials and biological imaging along with studies in agriculture, archaeology and engineering.

In recent years, researchers decided it would be better to upgrade the older machine to a more sophisticated "third-generation" light source capable of delivering energies of 2.5 gigaelectronvolts. Llewellyn Smith, who took a leading role in the project in 2008, has supported the upgrade. "If it's good for doing science, the political aim of getting people together will follow," he says.

But building a world-class machine, even with recycled parts, costs money. A new estimate led by Llewellyn Smith, who has overseen projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, shows a $35 million gap in the construction budget. Foreign donors such as the European Union and the United States have been reluctant to get involved without a clear commitment from regional governments.

Jordan, Iran and Turkey had all indicated they might match the Israeli offer, and at a meeting on 11 March, Llewellyn Smith says he hopes to get firm commitments from many of the countries involved. Even if the contributions are short of the $35-million goal, he says, the money will make it possible to obtain additional contributions from Western governments and major foundations.

Uncertain future

Whether Egypt will be in a position to contribute next month remains unclear. The crisis is still unfolding in Egypt. Tarek Hussein, a physicist at Cairo University who spent most of last week encouraging his students to protest peacefully, says he is optimistic that any new government will remain committed to SESAME. There is reason for hope: Mohammed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure, was supportive of SESAME when he was director of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

If Egypt is not able to pay, it will put more pressure on other partners during difficult times. Already, the financial crisis resulting from last year's flooding has forced Pakistan to suspend its payments to the project. But Sayers says that she is optimistic Turkey can contribute. Llewellyn Smith says he has received positive signals from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Iran.

"What's astounding about the project is how robust it is," says Eliezer Rabinovici, a string theorist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and one of the scientists who helped to found the collaboration. Rabinovici says that no matter what happens politically, SESAME meetings are always filled with scientists eager to discuss their latest research. "It's definitely a parallel universe," he says.