April 15, 2015


Iran Nuclear Deal Raises Hopes for Science : Iranian physicists are excited at the prospects for a new physics lab and greater collaboration with the rest of the world (Declan Butler, 4/15/15,  Nature)

According to the proposed deal, some of the uranium-enrichment centrifuges at the Fordow site would be repurposed to produce isotopes such as molybdenum-99, which is widely required for medical imaging (see go.nature.com/jafnpt). Rüdiger Voss, head of inter­national relations at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, says that such a capability could help to stem a global shortage of these isotopes.

Other parts of the underground site would house experimental physics facilities; the usefulness of this would depend heavily on the nature of the facilities, which are vague right now, says Voss. Physicist Ernest Moniz, the US energy secretary who is the nation's lead scientific negotiator on the agreement, has mentioned the possibility of installing a particle accelerator there. Iranian physicists are already on the case too, says Reza Mansouri, an astronomer at the IPM and a former deputy science minister. The Physics Society of Iran intends to write to politicians to ask to be involved in the choice of any future projects, he says, and Rouhani plans for the society to set up a working group to examine the possibilities for exploiting Fordow. He cites the construction of a neutrino detector as a possibility; Mansouri suggests research on cosmic rays.

Iran has a vibrant physics community and is already home to facilities such as the Iranian Light Source Facility in Qazvin, northwest of Tehran, which provides intense beams of X-rays for research in many fields. Iranian physicists also have many international collaborators, for example through the country's membership of CERN, and so are well poised to discuss any plans with colleagues abroad. "I can only be open to the initiative," says Patrick Fassnacht, who is in charge of international relations with Iran at CERN.

The negotiations also include easing nuclear-related sanctions, which have affected Iran's ability to do research and to collaborate with foreign scientists, says Hamid Javadi. He is a member of the council of the Iranian-American Physicists group, a body set up in 2007 to represent Iranian members of the American Physical Society. Foreign scientists often avoid contact with their Iranian peers for fear of falling foul of the tough sanction laws, he says. Iranian scientists wishing to travel abroad have also had difficulty obtaining visas.

Furthermore, the sanctions have made experimental equipment and journal subscriptions expensive for Iranian researchers, says Warren Pickett, a physicist at the University of California, Davis, who has promoted science diplomacy with Iran through visits (W. E. Pickett et al. Nature Phys. 10, 465-467; 2014), and whose university last year agreed to collaborate with Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. More perniciously, international tensions have often driven a wedge between foreign and Iranian researchers, he says: "When I described my visit to Iran, some colleagues would seem to roll their eyes in a 'why would you go there?' fashion."

He adds: "Introducing a large country of 75 million people back into the international community would be a great breakthrough."

Posted by at April 15, 2015 3:32 PM

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