April 14, 2005

'Bridging the Rift' Project Starts Comp. Sci Research

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The Bridging the Rift (BTR) Project, a scientific research facility bridging the Israel-Jordan border, has experienced its ups and downs since the project’s groundbreaking event, which marked approval of the project by both governments, in March 2004.

The Rift Valley, where the Dead Sea lies, in between Israel and Jordan, is an under-explored region in the scientific world. According to the May/June 2004 issue of the Cornell Alumni Magazine, the “inspiration for the center came in 2000 from an Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi, who dreamed of a scientific endeavor to bring Jews and Arabs together.” Kochavi contacted Cornell University, because of the renowned agricultural program, and Stanford for their renowned desert ecology program. Stanford ecologists would collect samples from the Rift Valley, and Cornell scientists would classify them.

The project has recently taken a turn focusing more on bioinformatics, and involving Cornell’s Computer Science Department.

“Jordan’s King Abdullah II had a different vision for the country — bioinformatics to study the Dead Sea life forms,” said Robert Constable, dean of computer science. Computer scientists would be involved in creating a database of DNA information, which will be part of the Library of Life, another component of the BTR center.

“Once there is a significant amount of data is in the Library of Life, there will be more involvement of CALS faculty in genomics,” said Jim Haldeman, director of international programs for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Another focus of the project is to enhance relationships between Israel and Jordan. Prof. Ron Elber, computer science, described it as “trying to use the bridge of science, a language universally understood, to bridge human relationships.” The idea is that working jointly to make scientific discoveries in a region that is common to both Jordan and Israel will facilitate relations between the two countries. But this is easier said than done.

“Everything takes unbelievably long, because everything runs into the Jordanian-Israeli conflict,” Constable said.

He gave the example of trying to figure out whose law would be enforced on the BTR compound, because it is a neutral area.

“The idea was proposed that Jordanians would be subject to Jordanian Law and Israelis to Israeli law,” Constable said. p>However, this wasn’t working out because the Israeli constitution had a clause that stated only Israeli law can be invoked on Israeli territory. Israel had to the amend their constitution to exclude the BTR center in that clause, which “took months and months,” Constable said.

Another issue is that “Jordan is sensitive because Israel is more advanced scientifically,” Constable said. According to Constable, this causes problems because Israel has a university in the desert, Ben-Gurion University, that has a strong program for bioresearch and has done the most research in the Dead Sea of any institution in the world. However, Ben-Gurion University felt slighted because they weren’t asked to participate in the BTR project.

However, “If Kochavi invites them, it will upset the Jordanians, but eventually he will have to talk to them because they know the most about the area,” Constable said. “What’s going on with BTR is intertwined with everything you’ve ever heard about the Middle East.”

Despite legal and political setbacks, components of the project are still moving forward.

“In July, Jordanian, Israeli, and other scientists involved in the project will come to Cornell for a computer workshop,” Elber said.

“The first group of post-docs from Israel and Jordan are coming to Cornell next school year to develop software. They will be here for 1-2 years, and then return to the BTR Center,” Haldeman said.

The workshop and the post-docs are two more steps towards getting the project well underway.

Archived article by Laura Harder
Sun Contributor