Save our basic science!

Basic research, whose scope is declining in Israel, powers the economy.

April 30, 2006 02:27
Save our basic science!

leshner 298.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

"I tell my grandchildren to learn Mandarin," says Dr. Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, only half joking. "China has reached a strategic decision to make basic scientific research a top priority, and in the years ahead it will become a major world economic power, maybe even beating the US." Leshner - a Washington, DC-based neuroscientist and psychologist who heads the largest general scientific society in the world and by virtue of his position is executive publisher of Science - visited China last June with a US delegation and came back impressed. "We met not only with the scientists, but also the politicians and other decision makers. They are determined that China will do innovative scientific research. In 1992, China was 17th in the world according to funding of scientific research. Now it's third. As a percentage of its gross domestic product, it is still relatively low, but its ranking is rising all the time. And since it has a controlled, centralized government, they can do it. "China didn't decide to promote scientific research because it's cute, but because it benefits its people and mankind; it is committed to education as its future, and science is regarded by Chinese young people as a prestigious field. I can't predict whether this will turn China into a democracy, but it will change its society. America could become #2 as an economic power if it doesn't implement a more pro-science policy." LESHNER - a Fulbright fellow in Israel in 1977/8 (helping to establish the neurobiology department at the Weizmann Institute, which is now one of the leading facilities of its kind) who speaks conversational Hebrew, advises Israel to to emulate China. "Israelis have resourcefulness and imagination, and the country still enjoys a very good reputation in the sciences, but it is investing less in basic research than before. Israel must never forget the importance of basic science as a promoter of the economy." He was here for the first time in a decade to attend the 50th anniversary symposium of the US-Israel Educational Foundation (Fulbright Commission for Israel), which has brought 1,100 promising American scientists to pursue research in Israel for a year at a time and sponsored 1,400 Israelis on fellowships in the US. The two-day event, based at Kibbutz Ma'ale Hahamisha outside Jerusalem, attracted dozens of prominent Americans and Israelis, including US Ambassador Richard Jones, university administrators, scientists, government officials and industrialists. The Fulbright program was established by the late senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 to promote student and faculty exchanges at the highest levels, and in the past 60 years more than 275,000 participants from 150 countries have been Fulbright fellows. Just a few of the most prominent Israeli Fulbright scholars are Supreme Court President Prof. Aharon Barak, chemist and Nobel laureate Prof. Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion and Israel Prize laureate author A.B. Yehoshua. When told in an interview with The Jerusalem Post about Treasury budget officials' regular refrain that scientific knowledge can easily be purchased from abroad, Leshner said he has heard that claim in many other countries. "Many say you can buy science, but they are wrong. All data show that the strongest economies result from investment in basic science. You have to have indigenous scientific talent or you will lose your economic vitality. Israel has long had a world reputation for being smart in science; it would be a shame if it lost it." LESHNER AND his AAAS staff of 400 are dedicated to increasing public awareness of the importance of science and lobbying government for increased financial commitment to this purpose. Established in 1848, the AAAS ( has 130,000 members, a quarter of them outside the US, and 262 science societies, academies and other organizational affiliates. "We represent 10 million scientists around the world," Leshner says proudly. Some 1,000 science journalists attend the AAAS annual conference, where the latest developments are presented. Leshner's journal Science was founded in 1880 by none other than inventor Thomas Edison, and now claims to have six million subscribers. "For us, the core purpose of the journal as an enterprise is to advance science." He has years of success at conveying science to the public and making scientific research an essential part of policymaking. When Leshner was deputy and then acting head of the National Institute on Mental Health of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), he succeeded in getting across the message that psychiatric illnesses were "brain diseases," not something that parents' child-rearing behavior should be blamed for. And when he was director of the NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse, he stressed the idea that drug addiction is a health issue as well as a social one. He was also very active in publicizing the effects of drugs on the brain, the health consequences of drug abuse, innovative approaches to prevention and treatment and the benefits of science-based treatment. These science-based approaches became accepted by US government officials and agencies, and programs (such as addiction treatment for prison inmates) have been widely implemented. The AAAS chief says that more than 70% of Americans agree that scientific research promotes economic growth, and recognize the importance of investing in it. "We don't regard them as poor ignorant people who don't understand this message. But there are some people who don't like certain developments or are afraid of science, at least some aspects of it." There are those who oppose embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it uses tissue from aborted fetuses, he notes. There are those who oppose cloning research in general. And then there are those who advocate the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' rather than evolution. "The point is not to pit religion against science. Modern Orthodox Jews, for example, have no problem with evolution. Neither do Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama." Leshner is concerned that fewer American-born young people decide to go into scientific research, or even study it. "Being a young scientist is a very hard job. Today, the average age of recipients of NIH grants is over 40! You have to be very dedicated, and many of the best and brightest have other options. America has attracted lots of talented foreign students, but most will eventually return home. We don't feel xenophobic, but our human resources pool in science has to be sustained. If you don't tap every pool of talent - including women, the physically disabled, the dyslexic, who are paired with scientists in an industry setting - you will lose out." US AMBASSADOR Jones noted at the opening of the symposium that while knowledge discovered by scientists used to remain theoretical for years, "today, it is almost instantly turned into applications." He praised the US-Israel Fulbright program for its contributions to the scientific achievements of both countries, noting that it also promotes their "special relationship." Foreign Ministry deputy director-general Arthur Avnon discussed the "vicious circle" of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that do little to promote literacy and discourage scientific research, which means more underdevelopment, harm to their economies and instability. "The US and Israel should go ahead and hope that curiosity in science will spread and 'infect' countries around us." Ciechanover, who shared the Nobel Prize in 2004 and was a Fulbright fellow at Harvard in 1981, said his year at MIT was a formative experience that affected his way of thinking and promoted his long-term collaborations with US colleagues. "It was my first-ever fellowship; [the US-Israel Education Foundation] was the first organization that trusted me," said Ciechanover, speaking enthusiastically. "I could study what I wanted and work in collaboration with the best scientists and students." Noting that Israel is among the countries with impressive research findings in embryonic stem cells while the US lags behind because of federal budget restrictions, the Nobel laureate urged governments not to interfere with scientific research by passing laws. What would have happened, he argued, if governments had barred research into dynamite, radioactivity and molecular biology? "One doesn't have to trust scientists to decide everything," he said, "but there is a system of checks and balances in democracies that brings clergymen, philosophers and others into the discussion." Ciechanover concluded with the message that Israeli scientists have largely "failed to persuade" neighboring countries to join them in their scientific endeavors. "After Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, I deluded myself into thinking we were on the way to real peace. Today, we have a peace treaty with Egypt, but it's almost impossible to invite Egyptian scientists to a conference in Israel. I was invited as a Nobel laureate to a conference in Alexandria, but the conditions of going unofficially were impossible to meet. I support doing research with Jordanians, but one can't easily find money, and Jordanians are afraid to work with us. We don't do enough to explain to our leaders that while science won't automatically bring peace, it could be a major solution."

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