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The lack of coordination among government agencies, the military, the universities and industry doing scientific research and development has wasted precious resources and time, as Israel struggles with inadequate funds in the race against scientists around the world, says Prof. Oded Abramsky, chairman of the Israel National Council for Research and Development (INCRD).
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Abramsky - a leading neurologist at the Hadassah University Medical Center and a former chief scientist of the Health Ministry - urged that the government give much higher priority to scientific R&D to promote economic growth and improve medical care, plan national science infrastructures, bring back outstanding young Israeli scientists who have left the country due to the lack of research positions and funding, and offer opportunities so that valuable local scientists do not leave.
Abramsky said that many local scientists had more contact with colleagues in their field abroad than with fellow Israeli scientists in other institutions. In addition, there is a dearth of statistics and other data on R&D that slows progress and coordination and leads to duplication of efforts.
The INCRD chairman, whose job is to make recommendations to the government and the prime minister on scientific R&D, said that long-term policies - rather than "just putting out fires" - must be adopted.
Abramsky, who has appointed and received reports from expert committees aimed at repairing the R&D system and improving the tools for scientific advancement, recommends that fields in which Israel lacks superiority or the potential to excel be minimized or abandoned. Instead, Israeli researchers strained by inadequate funds should focus on niches in which they have talents and know-how.
The INCRD became a statutory body under the aegis of the Science and Technology Ministry, thanks to a private member's bill initiated by now-minister Michael Eitan; until then, the INCRD was weak and the government was not required to ask for or listen to any of its advice, Abramsky said.
In a growing number of countries, including Japan and Finland, the national council for R&D is formally chaired by the prime minister, thus giving it the highest of priorities.
The INCRD would prefer to be put under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office, he said, but even if not, it should become an autonomous body with a separate legal adviser, accountant and funding.
He related that a few months ago, the INCRD had not been permitted by the Science and Technology Ministry to publish a paid condolence message in the newspapers for the country's late fourth president, Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who was a previous chairman, because the ministry had already published such a notice.
Abramsky has asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who is "very sympathetic to and interested in promoting R&D" - to ensure that Israel's scientific research and development becomes "part of a strategic plan and a long-term systemic approach," and has voiced the INCRD's views in cabinet meetings.
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, said Abramsky, who appointed a committee headed by Prof. Ehud Razin, the former dean of the Hebrew University Medical Faculty, to study the problems in medical research and make recommendations.
Yisraeli managed to persuade the Treasury to increase its funding of medical R&D and to find spare cash in the ministry's budget that doubled the ministry's funding of medical research from NIS 4 million a year to the current NIS 8m. But Abramsky said that the figure must be multiplied several times more for it to have an effect.
As a former ministry chief scientist, Abramsky said that the people in those ministry positions had the power only to allocate available R&D budgets, and not to set priorities or coordinate with their peers.
A Science/Health Page feature on science R&D will appear on Sunday, August 16.