Prof. Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, warned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday that if Israel did not sign the Horizon 2020 agreement on scientific cooperation with the European Union immediately, the result would be “irreversible damage to Israeli science in particular and to the state in general.”
Arnon – an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot – has prepared a first-ever report on the decline in Israeli scientific and academic research, which she will present on Wednesday morning to Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri and the Knesset Science and Technology Committee headed by MK Moshe Gafni.
The EU has made cooperation conditional on Israel agreeing that European research funds not be spent beyond the Green Line, something that the Netanyahu government has not agreed to since the dispute became public this past summer. The government has opposed EU efforts to force Israeli companies to halt their operations in east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. The government has had informal talks with the EU about reaching an understanding that would allow Israel to participate in the program and has tried to persuade various political leaders in Europe to get the EU to soften its policy.
The EU’s Horizon 2020 program is aimed at promoting economic growth and creating jobs; Israel is the sole non- EU country that has been asked to join, as it is still recognized as the home of cutting- edge science and innovation.
Israel is expected to invest some 600 million euro in the program during the next seven years, with the prospect of getting back 900 million euro in research funds and other investments.
Arnon wrote to Netanyahu that since the academy is responsible for advising the government and the Knesset on all matters connected to science and technology, she felt an “obligation to turn to you to prevent steps that are liable to cause fatal, irreversible damage to Israel’s scientific cooperation with the EU,” which has been carried out for more than 15 years.
It was very difficult for Israel, at the end of the ’90s, to join [the EU Research and Technological Development Framework Program], and today it is a full and equal partner in it, Arnon said, adding that she fears Israel will “not get a second chance” if its participation is canceled.
Israeli participation in the program is not cheap, said Arnon, but previous data show that income payments from the investment equal about half of the payment the country makes.
“It is not just a financial benefit,” she stressed. “For money, a replacement can always been found. But there is no substitute for the benefit coming from scientific cooperation with the EU – of its research institutes and of our knowledge-intensive industry.
Mutual exposure of the scientific and industrial system here to the European system brings about precious added value.”
New consortia are set up among four to 10 countries for each project. Israeli scientists and industries are thus exposed to innovations in Europe, and personal ties among scientists are very beneficial and irreplaceable, Arnon said.
Among 289 prestigious research projects approved by the European Research Council this year, 32 – an astounding 11 percent – were proposed by young Israeli scientists; each receives 1.5 million euro over a period of five years, which makes it possible for them to build an independent scientific career.
Israel “must sign the agreement to remain in the game,” Arnon said. “In the name of the Israeli scientific community, I appeal to you and the government to do so.”
Despite Israeli excellence in the scientific community, Arnon said, there is much room for concern.
In her first report, titled “The Condition of Israel Science 2013,” which she will present in the Knesset, Arnon said: “Israel is not meeting its full potential. An immediate, responsible and long-term turnabout in the national science policy is needed.”
The country has gone through a “wasted decade,” and is living off its past achievements, she said. The university’s senior teaching and research staff was 7.6% smaller in 2010 than it was 10 years before, while that of lower-level academic staffers declined by 15% during that period – at the same time when the number of students rose.
The average OECD rate of students to senior lecturers is one per 16, compared to one per 26 in Israeli universities, Arnon said. There are almost no leading Israelis in the field of gas and petroleum research; much of the geological knowhow in the country is in the hands of commercial interests and not available to university researchers, she pointed out, adding that only 17% of national research and development (R&D) expenditures go to the universities today, compared with 60% in the recent past – putting Israel at the bottom of OECD countries.
Israel was judged to be No. 1 in the ’80s according to its per-capita publication of scientific journal articles, and it has since dropped to 13th place, Arnon continued; as for the quality of research articles, it went from 10th in the world from 1984 to 1988 to 13th in 2008.
The academy president recommended an increase in public investment in scientific research to the level in OECD countries, which is 23% of its entire R&D budget; preserving budgets for higher education; boosting science teaching in high schools; increasing significantly the number of intermediate and high school pupils who study math, physics and chemistry at a five-unit level; preventing the brain drain abroad; increasing Israeli contacts with international research bodies; protecting fields of study, including the humanities and social sciences that are disappearing; and adding young lecturers to the universities’ staffs.
Herb Keinon contributed to this story.