Senior UK academic: Boycott activists minority of extremists

Sir John Bell lauds Israeli researchers, discounts boycott efforts.

June 2, 2010 14:37
3 minute read.
Senior UK academic: Boycott activists minority of extremists

oxford u 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Although campaigns in British academia to boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning have been well-publicized, the president of the UK’s National Academy of Medical Sciences at the University of Oxford told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Monday that “only a very small minority of extremists” have that view, and most have a positive view of Israel.

Sir John Bell, a senior professor of genetics at Oxford, said during his current visit that nobody had tried to dissuade him from coming here.

“Some actually encouraged me, but I didn’t need any encouragement to make my first visit to Israel,” he said.

The trip was made possible by a visiting professorship group in the UK that sponsors visits by British scientists to Israel. The group is supported by the British Friends of the Hebrew University, Hadassah UK and a group called JMED-UK. When he returns, Bell is due to give the Henry Cohen Visiting Professorship lecture in London on his scientific work and his trip.

“I will present photos from my tour,” Bell said.

He has already visited Ben-Gurion University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Hadassah-University Medical Center, Sheba Medical Center and Shaare Zedek Medical Center and will see the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and others before his departure on Saturday.

Bell has not only been academy president since 2006, but is also regius professor of medicine at Oxford, where he studied medicine as a Rhodes scholar, followed by postgraduate training in London and at Stanford University in California. At Stanford, he developed research interests in the area of immunology and genetics, with a particular focus on characterizing the molecular events associated with susceptibility to autoimmune diseases.

He returned to Oxford as a Wellcome Trust senior clinical fellow in 1987. In 2008 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society and a Knight Bachelor for his services to medical science.

Bell has been very involved in the development of research programs in genetics and genomics and in the development of a clinical research program across the UK. He also founded the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics and has led the significant expansion in biomedical research activities at Oxford in since 1992. He is a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scientific advisory committee and founded three biotech startup companies.

From his tours of Israeli hospitals and universities, Bell was doubly impressed by “the outstanding quality of Israeli science, despite the fact that there is not much research funding available here, and staff have to do reserve duty. And it is hard to get postdoctoral students to come here. That is all the more reason to be impressed.”

Although there are some Israeli post-docs at Oxford, he has not yet collaborated with any Israeli geneticists. However, he has already met several leading ones and said he hoped to initiate collaborations with them in the future.

“I’ve greatly enjoyed the visit so far and have been very impressed by the quality of Israeli scientists. My only word of caution is that it is clear that for Israel’s future, the country will have to continue to build and invest in a knowledge-based economy,” he said.

Israel is a perfect laboratory for genetics studies, Bell said, “because of the wide variety of populations, the universal healthcare system, inbreeding of some sectors, and the very high-quality cell biologists and immunologists.”

His Academy of Medical Sciences at Oxford comprises 1,000 fellows from the best of British academic medicine, he said. They are involved in basic research, policy work and the promotion of work by young scientists.

Britain has “no brain drain now,” he said, as young researchers remain or arrive from Western Europe because English is the native tongue, the level is high and it’s a shorter distance away than America. Research is “very well funded, and our universities are good, with four of the top-rated in the world.”

Commenting on Monday’s Gaza flotilla incident, Bell said, “It will unfortunately take a long time to unpick this.”

He hoped it would not lead to renewed calls for academic boycotts of Israel, which are supported by “a loud but very vocal minority. I don’t know any of them at Oxford. The so-called humanitarian boats were obviously an attempt to gain publicity. They’ve managed to achieve what they set out to do. There is hostility to Israel, but the reality is that there are a lot of people who don’t understand how complicated the problems are in this region. They know little of the background.”

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