The Ministry of Science and Technology might not be the most well-financed of Israel’s governmental bodies, but it is certainly making waves far beyond Israel’s borders – and even the Earth’s atmosphere.
Israel has been well-known for its leading global role in fields under the ministry’s broad remit for some time, including science, innovation, cybersecurity and robotics.
Just recently, Israel’s Beresheet made headlines in space, also under the ministry’s oversight, and teams are already working hard to secure a significantly softer landing on the moon at the second attempt.
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, who has headed the ministry since August 2015, is quick to cite the high regard in which foreign counterparts hold Israel’s technological advances.
“During the past four years, I have held many working visits in Japan, China and India, Latin and South America and, of course, the United States and Europe,” Akunis told The Jerusalem Post ahead of his appearance at the Post’s Annual Conference in New York taking place on Sunday.
“When you travel around all these places, Israel is the object of admiration for all the fields of work entrusted to this ministry.”
Nowhere was that admiration clearer than in May 2018, as Jerusalem hosted more than 20 foreign science ministers and deputy-ministers at the first international ministerial-level conference on science policy.
Later this year, Akunis expects to put pen to paper on the first major US-Israel binational scientific collaboration agreement since 1972.
For Akunis, however, the focus of his role is less about cutting ribbons and appreciation, and more about ensuring Israel’s continued leadership for generations to come.
“We need to invest in all of these fields. First of all, by building the future of the State of Israel through huge investments in the next generation, through programs primarily targeting students in middle and high school,” Akunis said.
“Israeli research has never received support to the extent that it was backed by this ministry during the past term of government. It’s absolutely necessary for whoever heads this ministry to work on building the next generation, and the generation after it, as we approach Israel’s centenary.”
Alongside the many programs launched in recent years by the ministry to encourage school pupils to embrace science, it has also dedicated record resources to establishing scholarships and grants for students, researchers and encouraging Israeli scientists abroad to return home.
Approximately 25% of the scholarships are reserved for women, as well as additional funding for Ethiopian immigrants and Arab, Druze and Circassian students.
“My economic outlook is one of a free-market economy with low taxes, minimal intervention and minimal bureaucracy in all fields,” said Akunis, pointing to the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky on his bureau desk.
“There were, however, fields where I saw it necessary as Science and Technology Minister to intervene and make sure that all Israeli citizens – including in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors – are afforded equal opportunity to be part of Israel’s success.”
IN MAY, Akunis announced that the Israel Space Agency would contribute NIS 20 million ($5.6m.) toward Beresheet 2, a second SpaceIL-led mission to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon – double the NIS 10m. ($2.8m.) contribution made to the first, ill-fated Beresheet project.
While the project was primarily supported financially by private donors, Akunis is determined to respond to those suggesting that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only appeared at the SpaceIL control room on the night of the unsuccessful lunar landing for a political photo op.
“I very much hope that all the criticism of the ministry, the government, the prime minister and myself, was the result of lack of knowledge, and not from disrespect and disdain for our efforts toward Beresheet 1,” said Akunis.
Since entering office, Akunis says his ministry both increased governmental support from the original budget of NIS 2m., which had not yet been transferred, to NIS 10m., and organized educational programs to encourage teenagers to deepen their relationship with space, technology and science.
“Most importantly, we were able to support SpaceIL in their relationship with NASA,” Akunis said.
The July 2018 visit of NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to Israel, his first international trip since his appointment, concluded with the signing of a commercial cooperation agreement with the Israel Space Agency several months later, which saw NASA contribute tools to aid mission communication and tracking.
“In the case of Beresheet 2, we are doubling our support to NIS 20 million, and I wouldn’t underestimate that contribution, as this isn’t a ministry with a huge budget,” said Akunis, whose ministry was allocated a record, while still modest, budget NIS 559m. ($155m.) for 2019.
“Most importantly, I turned to Jim Bridenstine, who is a big friend of Israel, and I asked him to consider that NASA will carry out the next launch, which costs approximately $16 to $17 million. If we receive a positive response, SpaceIL will save a huge amount, in addition to governmental support.”
Of course, Israel’s numerous successes in the fields of space, technology and science are not just a matter of national pride. Rather, they have a significant impact on both Israel’s professional and foreign relations.
“In science, global demand enables us to connect our scientists to the international scientific community, and this can lead to joint groundbreaking research and international recognition of Israeli capabilities,” said Akunis.
“When it comes to technology, I say clearly everywhere I go in the world: come and invest in Israel. There are amazing opportunities for investment in advanced technologies here, and every deal means more employment, both for the hi-tech sector and for all the service providers, too.”
While the need for Israeli innovation and know-how, Akunis says, is unlikely to lead to automatic votes in favor of Israel at the United Nations from the likes of China, India, Brazil and former members of the Non-Aligned Movement, shared scientific and technological interests do have an impact on foreign policy.
“They want us, so it has an impact and you’ll see how it will slowly permeate. Who would have thought that when Yitzhak Shamir established relations with China in 1992, that Israel would sign seven cooperation agreements with the Chinese government in a single term?"
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