Experts debate Israeli hi-tech innovation bust

Science academy president bemoans 'destruction' of research infrastructure due to gov't inaction.

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March 11, 2008 22:42
3 minute read.
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Israeli information and computer technology innovators are failing to keep up with the current Internet culture of free information sharing, said a leading Tel Aviv University futurist on Tuesday. However, the chairman of the Electronics and Software Industry Association disagreed, saying that Israel was far from being out of fresh ideas. The two were speaking at the Knesset's annual National Science Day event - held early this year because Albert Einstein's birthday falls out on this Friday. TAU's Dr. Asher Idan, who conducts research to predict future trends, said Web site forums and portals were "old hat," while blogs, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, Napster and other sites enable everyone on-line to access an unlimited amount of information and add to human knowledge as well. But he noted that Israelis were not behind these innovations, unlike their major contribution to pre-2000 innovations such as Mirabilis's ICQ, Checkpoint and others. The "new" Internet culture, initiated by young adults and teenagers who don't sit in labs, has revolutionized the world and forged major changes in society. The monopoly of information suppliers and "professors who claim they are experts" has been broken, he said, by the large number of individuals who provide transparent information on the Internet. "In Israel, we don't understand yet that the Second Internet is global and based on cooperation, multiculturalism and information consumers who also produce it," Idan said. The companies that do this "should look like esthetic and creative kindergartens," he said, and not like standard offices and labs. But Electronics and Software Industry Association head Yehuda Zisapel, founder and president of RAD-Binat, said he did not agree that Israeli innovation was "drying up." "Israelis remain very creative" in the field, and they continue to produce new things, he said. "There are more Israeli ideas, and it has not ended." Hi-tech products represent over half of all Israeli exports, to the tune of $16 billion a year, said Zisapel. Israel today has a one-percent market share of the entire worldwide technological market. There is unlimited financial capital and an unlimited world market, but the "bottleneck is the shortage of quality manpower and quality education." He urged that Israel train 1,500 engineers a year, drawing from among young people - especially in the periphery - and combat soldier veterans. He and colleagues are planning such a project, with donations and help from philanthropists, industry and other sources. He said such a program could eventually create 100,000 to 200,000 hi-tech jobs and that state investment in it could be re-earned from income tax within a year. Meanwhile, Prof. Menahem Ya'ari, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities, strongly criticized the government for "not doing anything" since the Shochat Committee report on higher education was presented to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert six months ago. "Nothing has been done within the cabinet or outside. This requires a warning, and I have to voice it. As nothing happens [to increase funding to universities], the average age of Israeli scientists continues to rise beyond the average abroad. Look at me!" said the white-haired professor. In addition, he said, due to the inaction, many more young Israeli scientists have emigrated because of the lack of positions and funding for research. "It is a dreary situation," he said. He noted that the US Congress recently decided to double the US National Institutes of Health research budget, that Germany had decided to start a €2b. new program for excellence, and that Britain had doubled the scientific research budget in the last decade. "For God's sake - what else has to happen [before progress is made]? Destruction is taking place - like in Sderot, but without holes in the roof." Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle said that "science is a guarantee for [solving] many long-term social and economic problems." "If we talk about science at home and advance it in schools, many more youths will want to get into science careers." Majadle said that UNESCO recently asked Israel to send science tutors to other countries, "and we are ready to do it." He added that he hoped the proposed Science Bill would be passed and create steady budgets for scientific work, just as the Cinema Law provided funds that led to a flowering of Israeli moviemaking in recent years.

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