Israel has much to gain from joining the European Union's Seventh Framework Program (FP7), which will give it access to cooperation in research and development projects in European and other countries totalling some 55 billion euro.
Prof. Janez Poto nik, the EU's science and research commissioner, told The Jerusalem Post at the weekend after negotiating with officials of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and various ministry chief scientists that "both sides are keen" on Israel joining and that agreement could be completed "within weeks."
Poto nik, a Slovenian citizen who lives in Brussels and is making his first-ever visit to Israel, appeared with Vice Premier Shimon Peres at Bar-Ilan University on Thursday. He launched the FP7 in Germany on Monday.
"I am pleased that the [first] country I have visited is Israel. I hope this sends a clear message that EU-funded research is about more than just the European Union. It's about common challenges and joint opportunities - no matter where, no matter what discipline.
"I am very excited," he declared. "The FP7 means the opening of business opportunity, better understanding and cooperation."
Israel has been part of previous EU framework programs for R&D, but the commissioner noted that FP7 is "the largest single publicly funded research program in the world." Current negotiations involve plans and how much Israel will pay to join the program. But Poto nik said that Israel has seen in the past that it gains considerably more than it invests financially in such programs. Most of these funds were awarded to Israeli universities.
"The FP7, he said, "has grown not just in budget, with a 40 percent increase, but also in size, with an increasing number of would-be participant countries outside the EU, including Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Turkey, Croatia and Serbia."
Israel was so far the only country outside Europe with which serious negotiations were being conducted because, he said, it had much to offer, especially in the life sciences (including medicine) and in information technology.
Since August 1996, Israel has been the only non-European country fully associated with any EU R&D Framework Program. Associate members (who are not in the EU) will enjoy full rights. China and Russia, he said, were showing greater interest in taking full advantage of the opportunities it offers.
The EU, he added, was now the second most significant source of academic funding here, second only to the Israel Science Foundation.
"The benefits for Israeli participants have not been limited to funding. The mix of people, cultures, ideas and ways to innovate has also been important. Some partnerships built during the program have continued after them," he said.
Information/communication technology (ICT) was a clear priority for Israel in FP6, accounting for around a third of Israeli participants and received funding.
This is hardly surprising, the commissioner said, "given Israel's strength in the area. It is second only to the US in hi-tech start ups and ICT accounts for nearly half of its industrial exports."
Life sciences accounted for around a fifth of participation and received funding. "In these, and in other important areas for Israel, such as aeronautics, space and nanotechnologies and materials, there are more clear opportunities in FP7," he noted.
According to Poto nik, surveys conducted by the Israeli government show positive feedback from the Israeli university and industry research community on their FP6 experience. Fully 86% of respondents from academia and 70% from industry said their participation in a FP6 project was "very important" to their work.
The business collaboration and access to EU markets in FP6 offered "huge potential to Israel." The EU wants to "see increased innovation. We want to see ideas being brought to market."
The FP7 will include R&D in health; food, agriculture and biotechnology; information and communication technologies; nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies; energy; environment and climate change; transport (including aeronautics); socio-economic sciences and humanities; security; and space.
Although in EU countries only 1.9% of the GDP goes to R&D, in Israel the figure is 4.7%. The commissioner said he hopes to raise that number to 3% in EU countries. "You have 12 researchers per 1,000 workers in the business sector," he said. "This is more than in the US, Japan or Finland."
He noted that Brussels was recently the site of the "Science and Scientists as Bridge-Builders in the Middle East" event organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Georg-August University of Germany.