Research partnerships on issues such as water resources and environmental management could play a key role in solidifying peaceful cross-border relations, a prominent British scientist and policy-maker told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“I’ve come away with a feeling that scientific collaboration and cooperation is a way of building bridges,” said Lord John Krebs in an interview in Jerusalem.
Krebs, who was on a scientific and academic tour of Israel this week, is the principal of Jesus College at the University of Oxford, where he has long served as a zoology professor. In addition to his academic positions, Krebs sits in the House of Lords as an independent crossbencher, where he also has chaired the science and technology select committee for the past four years.
During his visit to Israel this week, Krebs met with Knesset Science and Technology Committee members, researchers at Tel Aviv University and Negev agricultural sites, and delivered speeches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the annual conference of the Israeli Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences.
Much of the visit focused on Israeli initiatives involving water resources, particularly those technological and research collaborations that have included Palestinians and other neighbors in the region.
One of Krebs’s goals while in Israel was to study “to what extent scientific collaboration can be an instrument of bringing together Israeli and Palestinian scientists, or Arab scientists from other countries,” he explained.
Following his doctorate on bird population ecology, Krebs pursued what he described as a “normal academic career for about 25 years.” In 1994 he “switched tracks” and became the chief executive for the Natural Environment Research Council for the next five-anda- half years, after which he was recruited by the British government to found the British Food Standards Agency.
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Krebs then returned to Oxford University and assumed his role as the principal of Jesus College, an institution founded in 1571, where he still conducts some courses in addition to his administrative role. Simultaneously, Krebs maintains his government position as a life peer in the House of Lords and the head of a subcommittee that advises the British government on preparing for climate change.
Krebs is the son of Hans Adolf Krebs, who earned a Noble Prize in 1953 for discovering the Krebs Cycle – a series of chemical reactions used by all aerobic organisms to generate carbon dioxide and adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
While his father fled Nazi Germany to live in England, Krebs said that his father’s sister came to Israel, and he recalled visiting her here in the 1960s.
“I can remember stepping out of the airport in Tel Aviv and smelling orange blossom,” he said.
As far as his current visit to the country is concerned, however, Krebs praised the trans-boundary collaboration that he has witnessed while here, particularly the educational training of Palestinian students and those from neighboring countries.
“There’s a recognition on both sides that water resources and other environmental issues have to be handled trans-boundary,” Krebs said.
“Whether that can spread out of working together on a wider range of fields – that’s beyond me,” he added. “Clearly, the science involved is [of] a very high quality.”
In England’s agricultural science sector, Krebs has made waves with his controversial stance on organic foods. Such crops, he explained, are no healthier than conventionally produced foods.
“I think it’s perfectly fine for people to want to eat organic food, but if they think they’re going to get health benefits they are mistaken,” he said.
In addition to providing no additional health benefits, Krebs pointed out that organic farming is only two-thirds as productive as conventionally farmed land.
“It’s not going to feed the world,” he said. “To feed the world, which is not an insignificant problem, we need all the hi-tech we can get. The irrigation systems I saw and heard about are an important part of that.”
After visiting sites throughout the Arava and Negev deserts over the past few days, in addition to meeting with scientists at various universities, Krebs praised the country’s researchers for being at the “forefront of water efficiency,” with a longterm vision and understanding of the region’s needs.
“It’s amazing how irrigation and fertilization can transform a barren land into something that’s lush and productive,” he said.
As far as regional cooperation is concerned, Krebs acknowledged that the area’s players still face considerable obstacles and that cross-border involvement in scientific research still only occurs on a small scale.
Nonetheless, he stressed that a significant attempt is occurring to bridge innovation gaps between Israel and its neighbors.
“The development of the science and the transfer of the tech was a very positive story,” he said.
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