Israel Academy of Sciences’ president: Gov't must sign EU’s scientific cooperation accord

Ruth Arnon calls on PM to sign Horizon 2020 accord despite limitations in territories; warns country’s "backslide" in scientific R&D must be halted.

October 20, 2013 18:51
4 minute read.
Prof. Ruth Arnon.

Prof Ruth Arnon 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Academy of Sciences.)

Israel Academy of Sciences’ president Prof. Ruth Arnon warned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday that if Israel did not sign the Horizon 202 agreement on scientific cooperation with the European Union immediately, the result would be “irreversible damage to Israeli science in particular and the state in general.”

At the same time, Arnon -- an outstanding immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot -- has prepared a first-ever report on the decline on Israeli science and academic research that she will present on Wednesday morning to Science Minister Yaakov Peri and the Knesset Science, Technology and Space Committee headed by MK Moshe Gafni.

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The EU has made cooperation condition 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 issue became a public dispute this past summer. The government has opposed EU efforts to force Israeli companies to halt their operations in the eastern Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or 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.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s program is aimed at promoting economic growth and creating jobs; Israel is the sole non-EU country that has been asked to join the program because it is still recognized as being the home of cutting-edge science and innovation. Horizon 2020 is expected to invest some 600 million euros in it over the next seven years, with the prospect of getting back 900 million euros 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 Nineties, to join this system, but today, the country 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 now cancelled.

Israeli participation in the program is not cheap, said Arnon, but previous data show that income payments from it equal about half of the payment the country makes. “It is not just a financial benefit. 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,” the academy president stressed.

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, said Arnon.

Of 289 prestigious research projects approved by the European Research Council this year, 32 (or and astounding 12 percent) were proposed by young Israeli scientists; each receives 1.5 million euro over a period of five years and makes it possible for them to build an independent scientific career.

Israel must sign the Horizon 2020 agreement, Arnon concluded in her message to Netanyahu, “must sign the agreement to remain in the game. In the name of the Israeli scientific community, I appeal to you and the government to do so.”

Despite this show of excellence, there is much room for concern, Arnon has written in her first report on “The Condition of Israel Science 2013” that she will present in the Knesset. “Israel is not meeting its full potential. An immediate, responsible for long-term turnabout in the national science policy in needed,” she wrote.

The country has in the past gone through a “wasted decade,” she said, and the country is living off its achievements in the past. 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 in gas and petroleum research; much of the geological knowhow in the country is in the hands of commercial interests and now available to university researchers. Only 17% of national research and development (R&D) expenditures go to the universities today, compared to 60% in the recent past -- putting Israel at the bottom of OECD countries.

Arnon continued that Israel has lost its number-one spot when judged in the Eigties according to its per-capita publication of scientific journal articles, and it has dropped to only 13th place. As for the quality of research articles -- from 10th in the world in 1984 to 1988 to 13th in 2008.

The academy president recommended increasing public investment in scientific research to the level in OECD countries to 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’ staff.

Herb Keinon contributed to this story.

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