Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched a new academic exchange program on Sunday night during Brown's visit to Israel, signing a joint declaration establishing BIRAX - The Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership.
BIRAX was developed by the British Council in collaboration with The Pears Foundation following a statement of intent from British Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammell to strengthen academic collaboration between Britain and Israel during an official visit to Israel exactly a year ago.
The new program will target junior academics by awarding those studying the exact sciences and social sciences with grants for research and exchange opportunities.
Olmert and Brown said the program would "contribute [to] the wider goal of supporting the development of Britain and Israel's knowledge economies" during the signing ceremony at the Prime Minister's Residence.
According to a statement by the British Council, "BIRAX has been designed by the British Council in collaboration with The Pears Foundation and in consultation with academic, business and philanthropic leaders in both countries, including the two umbrella bodies representing the UK and Israel's universities (Universities UK and Israel's Committee of University Presidents).
The program will initially run for five years and will be administered by the British Council. A high-level steering committee, including representatives from the British and Israeli governments, non-governmental partners in the scheme and the wider academic community, will ensure strategic direction and high academic standards."
Julia Smith, deputy director of the British Council, told The Jerusalem Post
Sunday, "This program is not something related to the boycott. The British Council and British government are opposed to an academic boycott of Israel. Boycott calls have come from a small minority of the academic community in Britain.
"BIRAX will hopefully be a long-running program to strengthen the existing ties between Britain and Israel," she said.
However, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Prof. David Newman, who has been active in fighting boycott efforts during his sabbatical in England this year, told the Post
that the program "has a great deal to do with the boycott."
"Because of the ongoing discussion of boycotts, the British government decided that the most appropriate response was to strengthen research ties," he said. Newman added that he had been involved in planning the program since its beginning.
Newman said the program was adding onto other programs such as the ASG program, which brought together five senior scholars from Israel and England every year.
While the British and Israeli governments will contribute Â£20,000 and NIS 120,000, respectively, in the first year, the vast majority of the funding will come from non-governmental sources. The Pears Foundation decided to contribute Â£500,000 over five years and the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) has stepped up to contribute Â£200,000 over the same time period.
A source close to the boycott issue told the Post
that the choice of targeting junior academics was not coincidental.
"By choosing starting academics, when the unions start discussing a boycott there will be more people who have had some contact with Israel and will have some knowledge. We've discovered that 80 percent of those who attend the union meetings don't know anything about Israel or the issue. So it's sort of a value added element to the program," he said.
The British Council noted that the partnership should be beneficial for both countries since it capitalizes on a common strength. Israel is among the world's best in biotechnology innovation and life sciences. It now has the highest per-capita concentration of start-ups in the world. Since 2003, Israel's technology sector has expanded 10-20% annually. Meanwhile, the UK is a world leader in science, research and development and is ranked No. 1 in Europe for research in the fields of bioscience, business, clinical sciences, environmental science, humanities and pre-clinical social sciences. The UK is also ranked third in the G8 for early stage entrepreneurship.
The British Council also hoped that the program would engage minority groups on both sides, such as Israel's Arab population.
The British Council is the UK's international body for cultural relations, with offices in 110 countries and territories worldwide. Its mission is to build trust and understanding between the UK and other countries through the arts, education and training, science and technology, sport, good governance and human rights.