Insights | 15 October 2018

Costas N. Papanicolas , President, Cyprus Institute

Pioneering work in the relatively new field of heritage sciences is just one of several coups by the Cyprus Institute, the island’s leading science and technology institution, which has been in operation for just over a decade, says CyI President Costas Papanicolas.

Art lovers and historians would be wonderstruck by the mysteries it can unlock, while collectors and investors would appreciate the security and commercial potential it provides. The ‘it’ in question is an innovative combination of cross-disciplinary technologies that can peer under the surface of a Titian, an El Greco or any old masterpiece and promptly reveal how and when it was created. Or to identify if it indeed is a fake, all without endangering the painting, because the process – involving x-rays and infrared and other high-tech tools – is non-invasive. It is like being able to tell how old a tree is from its rings, but without having to chop it down.

The research on the Titians and El Grecos was conducted by the Cyprus Institute’s Science and Technology for Archaeology and Culture Research Centre (STARC), which brings together researchers from art history and archaeology, computer science, chemistry and physics, to understand and preserve cultural heritage. STARC has also led the way in the 3D documentation of heritage assets and the development of digital libraries.

The Cyprus Institute’s (CyI) president is Professor Costas Papanicolas who, at 67, has more energy than many people half his age. He has a PhD in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and served on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 15 years. Later, he was teaching at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens when he was recruited by his native Cyprus to create the CyI. Passionate about the institute he now heads, Papanicolas notes wryly that it is better known abroad than it is at home.

Operating from a modest complex of buildings on the outskirts of Nicosia, the CyI runs a graduate school and three research centres – developed in partnership with leading overseas institutions – each addressing challenging problems in the eastern Mediterranean region, but which also have relevance internationally. The CyI operates several facilities across the island, including an atmospheric laboratory for regional air pollution and climate change observations at Ayia Marina Xyliatou, a village 40 km from Nicosia, and the PROTEAS Solar Research Facility near Limassol, which researches and develops solar technologies – a major European infrastructure.

A second CyI research centre on Energy, the Environment and Water (EEWRC) founded in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is carrying out work in on the development of solar power and solar desalination, and on forecasting and monitoring climate change. The recently held Conference on Climate Change Impacts in the eastern Mediterranean, attended by the likes of former prime minister of France Laurent Fabious and the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs, led to the launching of a regional climate initiative by Cyprus President Anastasiades is indicative of the international influence of EEWRC.

The third centre is the Computation-based Science and Technology Research Centre (CaSToRC), which has a founding partnership with the University of Illinois. It deals with the cutting-edge technologies of cyber-infrastructure, big data and deep learning as enabling technologies for research and innovation in the area. It runs the biggest academic supercomputer in the region, which is open to all scientists with access granted solely on merit basis.

With its impressive international collaborations and ground-breaking research strengthening its global reputation, CyI is coming of age.  CountryProfiler spoke to the man at the helm, Professor Papanicolas, about the institute’s work and plans.

How and why was the CyI established?

The whole concept of the institute was developed in the early 2000s in view of Cyprus’ EU entry. The mission was to develop technologies that are relevant for Cyprus and the region and render Cyprus as an EU portal or gateway to and from the region for science and technology. An amazing team was assembled to design the institution, and it brought together a who’s who in the world of science and research, such as former CERN Director Herwig Schopper, the founder of the European Space Agency Hubert Curien, the distinguished nuclear physicistProfessor Ernest Moniz,whoalso served as Secretary of Energy under President Obama and played a vital role in negotiating the historic 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.

The CyI now has more than 120 research staff, with just under 50% of them Cypriots and the rest international. Which countries do your foreign staff primarily come from?

Our staff and students come from over 20 countries. For example, we have Egyptian and Jordanian graduates and expected to have more students from the neighbouring Middle East region, but instead we’re getting more top students from Europe. We have French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards as well as Scandinavians. We’re very attractive to European students, which is wonderful. Unlike undergraduate recruitment, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers often follow their advisors’ recommendation where to apply. It’s more personalised and it serves us well due to our strong links with top European and American institutions.

As well as the three research centres, CyI has a college for postgraduate students. How is the CyI different to a public university like the University of Cyprus or the Cyprus University of Technology?

The mission of our state universities is principally to educate Cypriot youth. Our mission is regional. We want to train tomorrow’s leaders in the region and internationally. It’s a very niche market. We’re gearing ourselves to target the very top students, that means small numbers and we have a superb ratio of teachers to students. Right now, we have about 40 PhD students from many countries, most of them supported by EU fellowships and grants, and in September 2018 we are starting Masters’ courses that are very focused and of top quality.

What interesting projects or developments can we expect from the CyI this year?

First, there’s going to be emphasis on innovation because we have a number of projects that are now mature to hit the marketplace. For example, we’re one of the international centres for drone development. We can fit them, for instance, with miniaturised atmospheric sensors that can provide almost instant 3D measurements of air pollutants. We have a private air space and air field for them near Orounta, which very few research centres worldwide have. As a result teams from many countries, as far away as the US are coming to Cyprus to use this facility – it is impressive, recognised and ready for innovation.

Two recent major donations allowed us to establish the ‘Andrea Pittas Art Characterization Laboratories’ and the ‘A. G. Leventis Chair for Archaeological Science’ elevating STARC to international prominence. With a stream of masterpieces coming through to us and studying them with cutting-edge technologies that you typically find in very advanced laboratories, you can discover amazing things. With a Titian we found indications of how it was painted on an existing canvas. On an El Greco we discovered his signature, overpainted by an old restoration. These investigations provide scientific guidance on how to better preserve old paintings and we’ll be initiating a new lab for this. It includes innovation, because we could provide services to museums and galleries and private collectors. On a renaissance masterpiece, we identified through micro-cracks how it was painted, how many layers there were, where at the micro level there was wear and tear. Our detailed reports were enthusiastically received by restorers. An instructor of restoration at Harvard stated that it would be hard to do any restoration without having this type of information from now on.

STARC’s reputation opens collaborative research avenues and access to places in the entire region. We’ve just signed an agreement with the Israeli authorities to research together a house in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have shared the Last Supper with his disciples. We started collaboration in Venice on St Marco, the most famous of the city’s churches and one of the best-known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. To further facilitate STARC we came up with a concept to establish a mobile laboratory, which is set up on a truck. This means we can bring the laboratory with all its testing equipment to an archaeological site, rather than bringing the finds to a bricks-and-mortar lab. Institutions in other countries are now also implementing this innovative approach.

Researching climate change is another significant area of interest and there are innovation aspects there, namely forecasting and nowcasting. We have become one of the best internationally known centres for trying to understand dust events and this has an impact on health and the economy among others, and a centre for forecasting climate changes in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. With the awareness rising as to the devastating potential climate impacts in the area, we expect that CyI’s forecasts and adaptation and mitigation proposed course of action will be receiving increasing attention.

Can the CyI make money from these innovations in art characterisation, drones and climate change?

We’re a non-profit institution. We’re not out to make money, but we’re paving the way for everybody, academic institutions, high-tech enterprises, and the real economy to do so. Our mission is to help catalyse the knowledge economy of Cyprus and of the wider region.

Is there anything else like the CyI in the region? For instance, what about Israel, which has a good reputation for R&D and innovation?

Yes, Israel is in a class of its own, a world leader in research and innovation, but unfortunately Israel doesn’t interact with its Arab neighbours in this domain. The tremendous advantage we at CyI have is the convening power of Cyprus – people can come from all nearby countries very easily, from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Qatar or Egypt. Academic excellence, combined with the robust infrastructure of the island, the use of European law and currency and the ubiquity of English language endows us with a truly unique advantage.

Do the CyI’s postgraduate students have to pay tuition or other fees?

We support most of them with scholarships and studentships and they also get support from the EU. We follow more or less the American model. At top US Universities, essentially no graduate student pays tuition. Effectively all PhD students are on scholarships, but it’s very hard to get in. It will be a little different with the Masters’ courses, which start in September 2018. Because it’s the first year for Masters’ degrees, we’re giving a discount to get going, so they’ll be paying about €6,000 a year, but eventually it will go up to €9,000. We want to entice the best students. Already we have 100 applications for the Masters’ programmes. This year the intake will be fewer than 10. It’s not a question of getting a massive number of students, it’s a question of attracting top quality students.

CyI has a very good record accessing research funds from the EU. Does the Cyprus government invest enough in R&D?

Overall, the public and private sector in Cyprus spends about 0.5% of GDP on R&D, so in terms of EU countries that is embarrassingly low. Other countries that do well on R&D spend nearly 3% and Israel in excess of 5%. At CyI we have a block grant from the government, and that is the pillar of our stability – it’s a little bit over half of our budget. We are grateful for all the funding schemes that the EU has, as we heavily rely on EU competitive funding, which means we have to perform at an international level and we do impressively on that score according to EU statistics. Such performance has the benefit that the international scientific community takes notice, it brands us as the regional research centre of excellence.

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