Israel should invest more in its collaboration with US institutions in order to remain a leader in research and academia, Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla, executive director of the United States-Israel Educational Foundation, recently told The Jerusalem Post.
She made these remarks ahead of the first-ever Fulbright alumni conference, which took place on Wednesday in Jerusalem.
The USIEF was established in 1956 by the governments of the US and Israel to administer the prestigious Fulbright program in Israel with the aim to promote academic exchange and advance knowledge by contributing to both the Israeli and American higher education systems.
Of all the Fulbright alumni throughout the world, 53 have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, including two Israelis. Among the Israeli alumni, nine have gone on to become heads of universities, three have won the Wolfe Prize, and 34 have gone on to win the nation’s highest honor, the Israel Prize.
“We live in a global world, and you really must invest in global education, and so you need to send people abroad at different levels, and you must try to bring to Israel people of different perspectives to higher education,” she said.
The USIEF head said that there is currently a trend in Israel and around the world to bring students and postdocs from Asia, most notably China and India.
“Chinese knowledge is growing tremendously, and they are investing in education. However, at the moment and probably in the near future, there is no replacement for the US as a center of knowledge,” she said.
“If you are looking at the top international university rankings, eight out of 10 are in the US,” she added. “You need to diversify, but if you are looking for future collaborations, you must invest in the US.”
AS SUCH, every year Fulbright sends Americans to Israel to participate in 12 Fulbright programs and sends 40 Israelis to the US for study and research.
The flagship program, according to Lapidot-Firilla, is the postdoctoral program, which sends 16 Israelis to the US and eight Americans to Israel every year.
“You can look at the Fulbright as a reflection, or as a mirror, to what is going on in academia, in a certain sense,” she said.
“We are a link in the process of higher education. The young and most successful and most excellent people in academia will apply for a postdoc after finishing their PhD,” she added.
The USIEF receives some 140 applications a year for this program, which it significantly narrows down to 16 – half in the exact and life sciences and half in the social sciences and humanities.
As such, Lapidot-Firilla said that the most important criteria is that of “excellence.”
“We also look at the research plan and to what extent the candidate has an intellectual horizon, feasibility of the research, and the reason and motivation to do so.”
Additionally, she said that the Fulbright has a “cultural mission” so that scholars have to show an interest in exploring another society and an ability to thrive in a different culture or environment.
“We also take into account the probability of a person to return to Israel” she said.
Unlike other foundations that invest in higher education, Fulbright postdoc scholars must return to Israel for at least two years following their stay in the US.
“If you have to return to Israel, then most likely you will look for a job in Israel,” Lapidot-Firilla said.
In fact, most of the Fulbright scholars received an academic position in Israel upon their return.
“Out of the 1,800 scholars that went to the US since 1956, we know of only 89 people who went abroad, but even then, most after a long career in Israel,” she said, adding that 87% of Fulbright scholars received a highly coveted tenure track position in Israel within five years of their return.
“The most important thing is that we answer what we consider at a national level an important task,” she added. “We send young researchers to the US, and we also accept and receive young researchers from the US to higher education in Israel.
“We help to establish cooperation at a young stage that will develop into long-term collaboration. Israeli academia has many achievements; but without the international collaboration, it is not enough,” she said.