The Council for Higher Education announced the awards for the ICORE Research
Excellence projects last week.
Out of 67 initial applications, spanning
the entire range of sciences, 27 passed the first round and were invited to
submit full applications – itself no mean feat – and finally twelve projects
were chosen for funding.
The 12 new ICORE Centers of Excellence
complement the initial four which were established in the first wave, bringing
the total number to 16.
Of the 12 new centers, five will engage in
research in the Social Sciences and Humanities and seven in Exact Sciences,
Engineering, Life Sciences and Medicine.
The ICORE program is aimed at
fundamentally strengthening the long-term positioning of Israel’s academic
research and its stature among leading researchers in Israel and abroad. ICORE
was endorsed by the government of Israel and adopted by Israel’s Council of
Higher Education in March 2010. The first four ICOREs began operating in October
2011 (first wave) in the fields of Cognitive Science, Algorithms, Solar Energy,
and the Genetic Basis of Human Disease.
The 16 Centers of Excellence
promote innovative and groundbreaking research in a range of fields, promote
national and international research collaborations, assist in the recruitment of
excellent new researchers and pave the way for nurturing the future generation
of outstanding researchers in the country by establishing inter-institutional
Joint Graduate Schools.
The 12 research fields include such diverse
topics as: Study of Modern Jewish Culture; Education and the New Information
Society; Empirical Legal Studies; Mass Trauma Research; Abrahamic Religions; The
Quantum Universe: Particles and Astroparticle; Light and Matter; Astrophysics:
from the Big Bang to the Stars; Chromatin and RNA Gene Regulation; Structural
Biology of the Cell – Biophysics and medical technology; Plant Adaptation to
Changing Environment; Physical Approaches to Dynamic Processes in Living
The first wave of the ICORE projects did not include the
humanities or the social sciences. They were only included following an outcry
by many scholars in these fields who saw this as reflecting the continued
neglect of the humanities and social sciences as part of the development of
higher education and research during the past decade.
An article by
Corydon Ireland in last week’s Harvard Gazette addressed this problem. It noted
that while in 1979, federal grants for science were worth five times those for
the humanities, the equivalent figure was 33 in 1998, and no less than 200 in
At a symposium held on the topic at Harvard, one of the world’s
leading exponents of the humanities, Professor Homi Bhabha, noted the irony of
the fact that while “the crisis of the humanities is real, they have a
greater-than-ever relevance – for habits of critical thinking, interpretation,
and analysis that are in turn gateways to ethical choice,” and that they are
necessary for training citizens who need to understand our complex world before
plunging into action.”
One only has to look at the lack of focus on the
humanities and social sciences at the many board of governors’ meetings of
Israeli universities, which start this week, to see how critical this problem
is. Plenty about nanotechnology, neuroscience and water research (all of which
is important) but hardly anything about philosophy, ethics, literature and
history. At my own university three of the four successful ICORE proposals were
all in the field of the humanities, despite the fact that they have to
continually struggle to justify their existence.
This is reflected in the
lack of resources for the most basic of infrastructures such as a decent
library, student stipends for doctoral and research students, or the need to
allocate time and space for the discussion of ideas which, to many, may seem
esoteric or “ivory tower.”
For every new Einstein that we wish to
produce, we also need a Magnes and a Buber. For every new Nobel Prize that
Israeli scientists receive, to the great credit of Israeli universities, we need
to have philosophers and political scientists who will be remembered for their
contribution to the world of ideas and innovative thought, who continually
challenge and re-examine accepted norms and behavior.
In the Harvard
discussion, Lawrence S. Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University, argued
that the world’s burning questions require a humanistic perspective. Both the
deficit debate and climate change raise ethical questions about what we owe
future generations, while current wars are largely conflicts over the direction
modernity should take.
“We lose as institutions,” said Bacow, “when we
fail to engage our colleagues in the humanities.”
Or as another
distinguished professor, Stefan Collini, a literature professor at Cambridge
University and author of What are Universities For? (2012), noted: the
traditional role of universities in general, and the humanities in particular –
creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge – is increasingly under fire in a
While the CHE has partially attempted to address this
problem, often in cooperation with the funding generosity of Yad Hanadiv, many
new scientific projects are ignoring the humanities altogether.
example the BIRAX project, initiated through the collaboration of Israeli and UK
universities and their respective governments and ably managed by the British
Council. Initiated as a partial response to the pro-boycott debate among some UK
academics, BIRAX has been taken in the exclusive direction of the life sciences,
while the second generation of projects, which were meant to focus on
collaboration within the humanities, is now being pushed towards water
No one doubts the immense importance of such projects, the
results of which have far-reaching global significance and which bring Israeli
scientific research to the attention of the international community. But without
a serious and significant re-investment in the humanities, what for many are
(mistakenly) derided as being no more than the “soft sciences,” the country’s
universities will lose their heart and their essence, the whole raison d’etre
around which universities were created in the first place.
It would be
nice to think that many of our friends and supporters from around the world who
will be attending the board of governors meetings at Israel’s universities
during the coming weeks will rise to the challenge. Philosophy, Ethics, History,
Theology, Literature, Political Science and Sociology should be on their agenda
as much as the hard sciences, even if it is not instantly recognizable in terms
of a new laboratory or building.
In a world in which universities are
increasingly bereft of public resources, where the cost of education and the
cost of research is rising, where the results of scientific endeavor are
measured in terms of managerial efficiency, economic profitability and
utilitarianism, it is incumbent upon universities in general, and Israeli
universities in particular, to re-invest in the humanities and the social
sciences. Without such investment, the centers of higher education and research
will lose their very heart, and their contribution to mankind will be
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.