Getting R&D together

Israeli R&D lacks coordination and long-term planning for decades, but Prof. Oded Abramsky of the National Council for Research and Development is trying to fix that.

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August 15, 2009 20:33
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hi tech 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Israeli decision makers are usually skilled at coping with emergencies, but often fail when it comes to long-term planning. This is a very serious problem for those charged with overseeing scientific research and development, which is vital for expanding the economy and updating medical care. Too often, R&D has been regarded by the government as a luxury that can be "imported" from abroad more cheaply than doing original research. As a result, researchers in state institutes, the military, the universities and industry often work on their own, without knowing what others are doing in the same field, wasting precious resources and time as Israel struggles with inadequate research money, while many scientists and physicians build their lives and careers outside Israel. Prof. Oded Abramsky, for the past two years chairman of the Israel National Council for Research and Development (INCRD), notes in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that Israeli researchers often have better contacts with foreign colleagues in their fields than with counterparts in other Israeli frameworks. Abramsky - a former Health Ministry chief scientist and still a senior researcher in neuroimmunology at the Hadassah University Medical Center who has authored four books and 320 published articles - says R&D has been treated rather like an stepchild. The INCRD was established in 1959, when David Ben-Gurion was prime minister, but despite his appreciation for science, it received little money or power for two or three decades - leading to its falling into disuse. The Israel Academy of Sciences and the Arts - a "house of lords" of the country's leading natural, social, physical and life scientists, of which Abramsky was recently voted a member and only its sixth physician - is the government's official science adviser. But the government has almost completely ignored the academy, which has not been aggressive enough in getting prime ministers and cabinets to seek its advice. FORMER SCIENCE minister and now Minister without Portfolio Michael Eitan gave the INCRD a boost a few years ago by initiating a private member's bill that made it a statutory body under the aegis of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The law now requires the government to seek the INCRD's advice before making decisions on scientific matters. However, Abramsky says the national council remains dependent on the government's smallest and least powerful ministry, Science and Technology, now headed by mathematician Prof. Daniel Herschkowitz. In a growing number of countries including Japan and Finland, says Abramsky in the INCRD's small Jerusalem office in the Tabiyeh quarter, the national council for R&D is formally chaired by the prime minister, thus giving it substantial clout. Abramsky pulls out a full-color chart of Japan's R&D funding agencies with the words "Prime Minister" floating on top in a pink box, and the country's Council for Science and Technology Policy (the counterpart of Israel's INCRD) directly below. Abramsky is clearly jealous. Although the national council chairman is sure Herschkowitz, as a scientist, wants the best for the INCRD and understands its importance, the neurologist has asked that the council be put under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office and become an autonomous body with a separate legal adviser, accountant and the ability to control its own budget. At present, the council utilizes a panel of very distinguished scientists - including Israel Prize winners - as external advisers. The council chairman also bemoans the fact that the INCRD lacks its own Internet site and instead has to share that of the ministry. Abramsky asked former science and health minister and Labor MK Ghaleb Majadleh to support the idea of moving the INCRD to the Prime Minister's Office, but his own Labor Party opposed it. Abramsky met recently with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who he says is "very sympathetic to and interested in promoting R&D" - to adopt the INCRD and ensure that Israel's scientific research and development becomes "part of a strategic plan and a long-term systemic approach." But even now, with the national council's more-elevated status, Abramsky has not gotten his chairman's salary but only "advance payments" even though he was officially appointed by President Shimon Peres in 2007, and INCRD director-general Dr. Rony Dayan is paid as an external adviser rather than as administrative head. A few months ago, the INCRD was not permitted by the Science and Technology Ministry to publish a paid condolence message in the papers for the late fourth president of Israel Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who was once its chairman, because the ministry had already published such a notice. For the first time, a meeting of heads of private industry was initiated by Abramsky to compare notes on R&D. The INCRD has no facilities suitable for large meetings, so it intentionally wanders from one place to the other, reaching out to people with influence. Since occupying his four-year post two years ago, Abramsky has made impressive efforts to create order out of the R&D chaos. He has initiated and coordinated a variety of projects, including the establishment of a first-ever database of R&D projects around the country. Such a facility exists in every developed country, but has been lacking here. To establish the database, Abramsky and former Treasury director-general David Brodet launched surveys among all 49 major bodies that conduct R&D - from the Israel Defense Forces to the universities and companies. This precious information helps reduce duplication and wasted funds, Abramsky and Dayan assert. ALL THE ministries have chief scientists, and with Abramsky's encouragement, they now meet regularly. However, the chief scientists do not have the power to set priorities for R&D, only to allocate the money. One of the few ministries that has taken initiatives to improve coordination, set national priorities for R&D and minimize duplication and waste is the Health Ministry under outgoing director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli. With Yisraeli's approval, Abramsky appointed a committee headed by Prof. Ehud Razin (former dean of the Hebrew University Medical Faculty) to study the problems in medical research and make recommendations. The senior experts on the committee met once a month for a year. A copy of their report was presented to Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman, who will hopefully read it and bring proposals to cabinet or institute changes on his own. One recommendation was to coordinate among the 15 different research units inside and outside the Health Ministry that it funds. These range from the National Center for Disease Control and the Central Virology Lab to the Survey and Assessment Unit in the Health Economics Branch and Public Health Labs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Each one has been working in isolation. Yisraeli, who has asked to step down after nearly six years in the exhausting job, managed during his service to persuade the Treasury to increase its funding of medical R&D and to find spare cash in the ministry's budget. Now, the Health Ministry's chief scientist, Prof. Benjamin Sredne, has twice the amount of money for funding medical research - NIS 8 million a year. This is far from enough, says Abramsky, as it should reach tens of millions to have enough clout. "I wanted to strengthen medical research and set up a way to better set priorities and make decisions directly connected to the health system," Yisraeli comments to The Post. "I aimed at repairing things that have gone wrong. I wanted a study on the current situation in medical research, its impact and suggestions to improve and better coordinate. All our chief scientists have been excellent, but they were not given the power to set policy." Together with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the INCRD initiated at the beginning of this year an inter-ministry committee to recommend ways to bring back Israeli emigrant scientists. The result was a 50-page report with detailed proposals for expanding research and academic teaching to absorb them, with special incentives for working in the country's periphery. Abramsky said the committee report suggests ways to bring back 5,500 young scientists and physicians within five years. Another important new body is a committee for coordinating between military and civilian R&D that Abramsky and Prof. Uzi Eilam, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, jointly head. These two sectors have been almost out of contact in recent years. To reduce unnecessary duplication by Israeli scientists, Abramsky recommends that fields in which Israel lacks superiority or the potential to excel be minimized or abandoned. Instead, Israeli researchers should focus on "niches" in which they have know-how that doesn't exist in many places abroad, such as stem cell research, computers and nanotechnology. "By the end of my term, I hope that the government and politicians will realize the importance of the INCRD in promoting the status of Israel and its economy and national strength," concludes Abramsky. "We want to reach a situation in which the level of science here stop declining. We want our young scientists to be world leaders. In some fields, we cannot compete because of our small size and lack of budget. We have to identify what we realistically can do and what we can't. And then we should really invest in what has potential."

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