Science goes in the door, politics out

Despite reports of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, an EU-Israel joint project celebrates 20 years of fruitful scientific cooperation.

January 22, 2017 01:29
20th anniversary of the EU’s research and innovation program logo.

20th anniversary of the EU’s research and innovation program logo.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Behind the blaring headlines about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel – especially in Europe – good news has been in the making for two decades. The European Union and Israel have just celebrated in Jerusalem the 20th anniversary of the EU’s research and innovation program, in which 3,300 joint scientific projects have been carried out with almost 5,000 Israeli participants.

In 1996, Israel was the first non-European country to be associated to the EU’s Framework Program for Research and Technological Development (we maintained this unique status until December 2015, when Tunisia became associated to the Framework Program).

“EU-Israel scientific cooperation is the jewel in the country of our relations. It is one that we, the EU, would like to see serve as model in other areas,” according to Robert- Jan Smits, the Dutch-born director-general of the EU’s directorate for research and innovation. Smits participated during the second week of January in a festive reception at the Jerusalem Theater in the presence of Prof. Reuven Rivlin; Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis; Avi Hasson, chairman of the Israel Innovation Authority and Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research and innovation.

The event was also attended by some 400 Israelis, including entrepreneurs and recipients of the EU’s European Research Council and European guests. The program was organized by the EU delegation to Israel and ISERD, the Israel-Europe R&D Directorate, an inter-ministerial directorate established by the Finance, Foreign Affairs, Economics and Science Ministries and the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education.

The festive reception opened with a short film about the 20 years of EU- Israel scientific cooperation. Greetings from Israeli and EU officials were followed by a musical performance and the granting of awards to the 10 Israeli 2016 coordinators of Horizon 2020 projects and the seven rectors of Israel’s universities.

Smits, ironically, is not a scientist. Director- general of the program since 2010, he has three degrees in history and international law from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, The International Institute of Higher Learning in Switzerland and Boston’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. But he has more than enough enthusiasm about science to make up for it.

“I got a lot of common sense from my history and law studies. When I spent time in the US during the Reagan years, it was an eye-opener for me. Then I studied in Switzerland. All this gave me exposure to other countries.”

Smits arrived in Israel two weeks ago for his fifth visit shortly after the terrorist truck-ramming attack in the capital in which four soldiers were murdered. “As a person, I say it was very tragic, awful! And then some people celebrate! I don’t understand how some can celebrate the misery of other people. My stomach turned upside down when I saw the truck [driven by the Palestinian terrorist] gunning for the beautiful young Israelis in uniform. But I am not afraid to come here. You can’t live in fear. I was in Ankara when a bomb went off in March of last year, and dozens were killed with over 125 injured. Nothing will stop me. I will come to Israel again and again,” Smits stated. “We are starting discussion of a new framework agreement after 2020.

SMITS SPOKE with The Jerusalem Post during his visit.

“This country has been a valued and successful partner in the Framework Program. Thousands of Israeli scientists have participated in the EU Framework programs. But it is beyond an issue of numbers. The exposure for the academia and industry in both Israel and Europe to cutting-edge research, the links to leading institutions and to key actors in the private sector are invaluable contributions to both research worlds and economies,” he declared.

In the previous program, named FP7, Israeli researchers participated in 1,620 projects for which a total of €875.08 million was received. In FP7, Israel received about NIS 1.6 for every shekel it contributed to the budget.

The EU and associated countries contribute to the budget on the basis of a calculation of the gross domestic product. How much they get back is dependent on how well they do.

In Horizon 2020 – the current program – Israeli researchers are already participating in more than 430 projects for which they will get close to €350 million. “These seven-year programs have become the largest publicly funded R&D programs in the world,” Smits noted. “The three priority areas are: excellent science, industrial leadership and societal challenges.

Smits was unwilling to pick out his “favorite” EU-Israel scientific project, just as one doesn’t choose one’s favorite children, he said. But he was willing to highlight several programs, including those involving the treatment of children’s tumors, antimicrobial resistance, diagnostic tools to detect lung cancer, anti-fungal textiles in hospitals, carbon nanotubes, hydrogen fuel cells, autonomous driving systems and improved security systems for airports. He also praised a science- teaching project at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum.

Others underway are a smart, self-regulating, monitoring cardiac patch; a device that detects electronic wallet fraud; a way to look into brain cells and their ability to change throughout life; and a biophysics of reverse transcription and its inhibition project for new ways to fight HIV.

Following the festive part of the program were three panel discussions in which some recipients of Framework Program grants discussed their work, the benefits of participation in the EU programs and their plans for the future. The subjects of the three panels were excellence in science, knowledge transfer and small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The panel participants were drawn from academia and the private and public sectors.

Between the panels, short videos were screened presenting an overview of Israeli participation in the topics covered by the panels.

“The EU and Israel research and innovation cooperation represents 20 years of success, partnership and friendship. What has been achieved during these years is impressive.

The Israeli and EU scientists have built sustainable partnerships and worked together on many challenges ranging from child tumors, smart irrigation to robotics and science education, advancing in this way the frontiers of knowledge and contributing to the well-being of our citizens,” said Smits.

“Seen as a means to drive economic growth and create jobs, Horizon 2020 has the political backing of Europe’s leaders and members of the European Parliament. They agreed that research is an investment in our future and so put it at the heart of the EU’s blueprint for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and jobs.”

By coupling research and innovation, “Horizon 2020 is helping to achieve this with its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. The goal is to ensure Europe produces world-class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.”

The program is a “showcase in relations between the EU and Israel,” said Smits, who praised Israel as being a country with a cornucopia of “amazing innovators. I seem to have a sensor in my body that makes me feel vibrations when I enter a university or research institute with eagerness and entrepreneurship, and I felt it during my whole visit to Israel. Israelis are extremely good with knowhow. Many startups were launched by people who were in the Israel Defense Forces.

They are very good at taking risks and solving problems. But you would have to leave to psychologists the explanations for why Israelis are so good at this and have turned the country into the Startup Nation.”

Smits also noted that the country has a lot of venture capital, and praised the role of ISERD, whose managing director is Nili Shalev. “There is a fantastic government setup in which ISERD provides guidance on how to get into EU programs,” he said.

“A LOT of countries in the EU, including my native country of the Netherlands, have an excellent science base, but no venture capital and no way to transfer knowledge from the public to the private sector,” Smits said. “In Israel you developed a perfect ecosystem for this. Other countries have specific pluses, but you can’t just cut and paste from one country to another. Lots of people come to Israel to see how it developed its reputation as a Startup Nation. We can learn a lot from you.”

In Europe, “we have only 7% of the world’s population, but we produce one-third of the world’s knowledge,” he continued. “We in Europe offer Israel an enormous pool of knowhow. The joint program is ideal because it creates contact for Israel with top European players. The technology that has been developed has a huge market in the world. It’s a win-win program. We learn from you, and you learn from us.”

Europe has many outstanding universities from Oxford and Cambridge in the UK to the Karolinska in Sweden, he said.

“So we have much on the continent to contribute to science. Those who initiated the program 20 years ago had very good vision. We have developed interpersonal trust. Scientists contact each other all the time. Without trust and friendship, it can’t work.”

ASKED SPECIFICALLY about the BDS movement in Europe and other continents, Smits was extremely reluctant to discuss it or the BREXIT vote in which Britain, theoretically so far, severed links to the EU.

“I say, let’s keep the political games out. Science has no borders. I am not involved in politics. I’m interested in solving the problems of mankind, and it can happen when we put the best brains together in Israel and Europe. It’s a success story. Let’s keep the dialogue going and alive. It’s so important to bring people together.”

BDS, he added, should not be allowed for ethical reasons. Each complaint should be looked into, but we’ve had only one or two problematic projects that people asked about. Of course, part of our agreement is that Israeli scientific research is not conducted on the other side of the Green Line. The sides stick to that, as it is part of the agreement.”

Smits, who works in Brussels and travels to nearby Holland to see relatives and friends, noted that “all our societies in Europe will not be the same. In Israel, I feel at home. It is a small country like mine, with similar Western culture, values and appreciation for science.”

In Europe, “we face a lot of problems, but we have come a long way, thanks to cooperation and reaching out to each other. Europe can overcome these problems. In my own country, the economy is booming, and there is no budget deficit anymore. So is the German economy flourishing.”

He noted that the SESAME Project – Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East – will begin. Based in Jordan, it is an independent laboratory formally created under the auspices of UNESCO nearly 15 years ago. The founding members of SESAME include Israel and countries that do and some that don’t have diplomatic relations with each other, including Iran, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, as well as the Palestinian Authority. “Scientists will work side by side,” said Smits. “Science is a peacemaker.”

American scientists are not involved in the program, conceded Smits, “but they are more than welcome to join. We don’t need America for everything. Our specific program involves Europe and Mediterranean countries.

The commission has agreed on a proposal for a Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area program, dubbed PR IMA , which is set to develop much-needed novel solutions for sustainable water management and food production.

The partnership is expected to boost local business and investment opportunities, thereby address unemployment and migration issues in the region. The proposal will now be passed to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU for political discussion and legislative approval.

The Commission’s proposal already includes Cyprus, Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia. As the initiative is evolving over time, more participants are expected to follow, both EU and non-EU countries.

Funding for the 400 million euro partnership will come from the participating countries, matched by a €200 million contribution from the EU through the Horizon 2020 program. The partnership, said Smits, is scheduled to run for 10 years, starting in 2018.

He is very concerned about the African continent, which “is the fastest growing. They somehow have to be able to feed people in the coming decades. Israel, with its great ideas, can help. All problems can be solved if countries let scientists get on with job.”

Asked to predict what might be in another two decades, Smits suggested that “there will be technologies we haven’t dreamt of today. I am an optimist – science can create solutions to many problems.”

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