Spurred on by the recent discovery of a vast offshore natural gas reserve that’s expected to serve Israel’s domestic needs for the next century, a consortium of Israeli academic institutions headed by the University of Haifa has won a tender to build a world-class maritime research institute.
The National Center for Mediterranean Sea Research, which reportedly will be the only one of its kind in the Middle East, will be housed at Haifa U’s Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences until it receives its own quarters.
Apart from Haifa U, the consortium consists of the Technion, Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Weizmann Institute, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Center.
Tel Aviv University is expected to join the consortium at some point in the future, Amos Gaver, Haifa U’s vice-president of external relations, said in an interview last month.
Hailing the consortium as a breakthrough in the annals of Israeli academia, Gaver said it marks the first time universities in Israel have joined forces in one grand project.
“Sea research is very expensive, and no single university alone can afford it,” he explained. “So it made sense to form a consortium.”
The initiative for establishing the National Centre for Mediterranean Sea Research – which will focus on such areas as gas extraction, marine infrastructure and desalination – was conceived by the Israel Academy of Sciences.
In a report, the academy called for upgrading marine research in Israel. Its recommendations were adopted by the planning and budgeting committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education.
Gaver said that recently discovered natural gas fields in the Mediterranean off the coast of Haifa and Hadera underscore the need for a new cadre of Israeli marine researchers and scientists.
By all accounts, these fields contain an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to meet Israel’s requirements for about 100 years. Production will start in about five years.
But in order to extract this resource cost-effectively in an environmentally responsible way, Israeli companies must master the challenge of drilling in deep waters and building pipelines to transport the gas to land facilities.
Describing the Mediterranean as “a strategic asset,” Haifa U president Aaron Ben-Ze’ev has said that Israel can achieve economic independence by developing its resources.
As he put it, “The resources hidden beneath its surface can significantly strengthen Israel’s energy economy, can contribute to closing social gaps and can ultimately increase Israel’s political strength at home and abroad.”
Until a few years ago, Gaver noted, maritime research in Israel focused mainly on the Red Sea.
But with immense fields of natural gas having been found off Israel’s coastline, the Mediterranean has assumed far greater importance, he said.
“Everyone understands that the Mediterranean needs to be further explored. And maybe, this new institute can be a pathway to peace with our Arab neighbours.”
Until now, Gaver said, basic scientific research in Israel has concentrated on agriculture and security-related high-tech disciplines, such as electronics.
“This was the bread and butter of Israeli research,” he said.
The National Center for Mediterranean Sea Research will shift some of the focus to maritime studies, which have suffered from neglect, and train a new generation of Israelis in maritime sciences.
It will be headed by Zvi Ben-Avraham, founding director of the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, the sole such institution in Israel.
Gaver, a former Jewish Agency emissary in the United States, said that $15 million will be needed to run the centre for the first three years. But additional funds will be needed to construct a separate building to house it.
Michael Meyer, director of fund-raising for Canadian Friends of Haifa University, expressed confidence that the centre will grow and prosper. “Israel has an ability to come from behind and move forward quickly.”
Gaver suggested the centre may establish links with Halifax’s Dalhousie University, which is currently in the process of forging academic relations with Haifa U.
Dalhousie has an internationally recognized Marine and Environmental Law Institute in its Schulich School of Law.
Last year, the Halifax Marine Research Institute was opened in the city’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.