The strings that the European Union leadership has attached to Israeli
participation in EU-funded activities have created quite an uproar.
the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Israeli government is now
considering whether to scrap its participation in the Horizon 2020 scientific
research program, yet neither is it surprising that the voices of scholars and
researchers throughout Israel’s university system have been some of the loudest
to call out in support of doing everything possible to continue enabling
EU-Israel scientific collaboration.
The country’s academic leadership
rightly points out that belonging to Horizon 2020 is a multi-million euro
mainstay for the scientific and scholarly progress of Israeli universities.
Thus, it is important to consider the full impact of losing such
As an Israeli academic I can attest to the fact that the loss of
EU scientific cooperation, and especially Europe’s well-known large-sum basic
research grant, the ERC, is not something to be taken lightly. No question about
it: the ERC has become the standard of excellence in Europe and Israel, and a
fast track to international acclaim and recognition for any Israeli who earns
one. Moreover, Israel wins more of these awards than any other
When I visit European universities, the first compliment I get
is that the institution where I head a biomedical research lab leads the pack in
the number of ERC awards its faculty have received.
Suffice it to say,
the EU-Israel joint research program has contributed to the flourishing of basic
research in Israeli academia. Hence I am as interested in continued EU
cooperation as anyone in Israel. (Full disclosure: Collaboration with
outstanding EU scientists is a driving force behind my lab’s research; I have an
ERC grant myself, and in general Israel-European granting agencies have been
good to my lab, for which we are deeply grateful).
That said, regardless
of whether Israel joins the Horizon 2020 program or not, I believe it is
important to keep a few things in perspective.
First of all, the recent
hue and cry notwithstanding, the sky is not actually falling. It’s true that
these days cutting-edge research requires a huge financial investment (which in
turn yields astronomical dividends in scientific and technological progress).
Yet, even in the face of such an awesome price tag, we must not forget that
Israeli academia is strong because of Israeli investment and Israeli scientists,
not because of a few million euros here and there.
The case in point is
the very fact of Israel’s participation in the previous EU basic research
program: Israel was the only non-EU country invited to participate. On the heels
of years of talk about increasing Israeli isolation, our invite came not as a
favor but rather out of ambition on the part of EU scientists.
contrary to prophecies of escalating isolation, the stronger we are on the
global economic and scientific stage, the more others come knocking. If my own
scientific career has taught me one thing, it’s that the scientific community is
rather bad at boycotts and ostracism, and very good at rewarding innovation and
This happens because of meritocracy and self-interest in a
relatively free market, not by virtue of diplomatic winks and nods. Put another
way, boycotting the Israeli scientific community would be a little like
boycotting Nature, the premier scientific journal in the world: you lose in
practice much more than you gain symbolically.
Hence, our mindset should
be one of investing in ourselves and insisting on reciprocity from
Although the seven years from now to 2020 are very important, the
recent fiscal tumult within the Eurozone ought to remind us how easily
priorities in the EU could shift from funding research to dealing with
bankruptcy, bailouts, and austerity measures down the road.
Thus, if we
consider a 20-year horizon, there is no guarantee that EU money (or the EU
itself, for that matter) will still be with us, so we had best have a good plan
for the day after, whether that moment arrives in 2014 or 2034.
recommendation, therefore, is to view this latest EU bureaucratic perfidy as an
opportunity to plan ahead – hoping for the best while preparing for the
The first thing we need is a serious commitment, reflected by the
national budget, to fund basic research in Israel. This should be at least
10-fold more than the 600 million euro we currently invest in the EU framework,
increasing to that point over the next 10 years.
Second, and along the
same lines, we ought to explore additional partnerships. Private individuals
should step in to fund basic research and to establish independently funded
basic research institutes like the Broad Institute at MIT, which will be free of
governments, the EU and its guidelines.
The irony here will be obvious to
any biologist: the Broad (which is one of the most prestigious biomedical
research institutions in the US) is so full of Israelis people sometimes just
start talking to you in Hebrew while standing in line for coffee.
look at the numbers. Out of its own pocket, the Israeli government spends less
that it should on basic scientific research. As a trivial comparison, the Israel
Science Fund budget is $60m. (0.025% of GDP), whereas in the US, the National
Institutes of Health has a budget of $30 billion (0.18% of GDP).
true enough that this comparison is between apples and oranges, but the orders
of magnitude are still informative, especially when you consider that the US
government also gives out billions more through DARPA , NSF, DOE etc.
point is that scientific research is an inappropriately small part of our
national budget in Israel, and we could spend much more with the right shift in
SECONDLY , THIS is a good opportunity to take a serious look
at whether we, as a country, can do a better job utilizing our most precious
resource: human capital.
Israel has an abundance of talented minds and
provides alarmingly few opportunities for them.
The Israeli academic
community is so insanely competitive that few Israelis pursuing advanced degrees
even imagine that a scientific career in Israel is an option for
Our labs train many researchers to the PhD level, who then go on to
have brilliantly successful stints as postdocs in the US and in Europe; these
people are ready to endure almost anything to move back to Israel, but there are
simply not enough positions available. And that’s just the top tier.
great scientists would love to work in the private sector, but the heavy burden
of taxation and economic regulation in Israel makes it an exceptionally
difficult place to hire highly skilled, highly paid workers. This means private
sector jobs are not abundant either.
With no prospects for private sector
jobs or academic positions, the talented students who provide the hands and
minds for our laboratories and research institutions will soon stop wanting to
take the risk, EU cooperation or no EU cooperation.
It is popular in
Israel to complain about “brain drain.”
I personally have always felt
that the “brain drain” concern is misguided: for one thing, plenty of brilliant
people are moving mountains to come back to Israel, and for another, “brain
drain” concerns are a luxury; there are worse problems to have than the best
companies and universities in America fighting for your expats.
worries me much more is the problem of brain death, which is what happens when
we don’t utilize the brains that we possess. Unlike the question of EU
cooperation, our strategy for most productively using our human capital is a
matter of life or death.
We find ourselves today in the afterglow of
unprecedented levels of immigration to Israel of highly trained, highly
motivated individuals from all over the world whose top priority in life has
been to invest in the education of their children.
If we do not provide
academic and professional opportunities for this generation, we may not have the
same luxury in the future.
Hence, as important as it is to get money in
the short term, it is even smarter strategy to think ahead. The EU’s policy
toward Israel is and always has been born of two things: political expediency
and a faux-moral aesthetic that helps Europe’s power elite feel good.
can know what will become fashionable or repugnant in Europe tomorrow? The
important thing to remember here is that cooperation will always be likely if
the outstanding scientists working in EU member states feel that they have
something to lose from an end to it.
Israel is one of the most successful
participants in EU-run scientific research programs (not just per capita) and
without Israel the entire EU basic research program will be less successful,
because collaboration between the best research groups is the key to making real
breakthroughs, which in turn generate more resources for
Europeans have not been sending us research funds out of love,
but rather out of calculated self-interest: our success is a driving force
behind their research and funding, and vice versa.
Israel has few peers
on the world stage when it comes to scientific prowess, and the sooner it starts
acting that way, the sooner EU politicians and functionaries will stop playing
games and get back to business.
Acting like a world power in the global
knowledge and technology economy means putting up serious money for basic
scientific research. The government of Israel has the opportunity to make the
entire EU cooperation story a lot less consequential by announcing that
irrespective of the negotiations it is committed to increasing the Israeli
R&D budget by a factor of 10, over the next 10 years.
If we do this,
Israel will undoubtedly succeed in securing a leadership role on the global
R&D stage, and will remind politicians in Brussels that when they allow
misguided politics to blind them, they are mostly punishing European scientists,
who would certainly regret losing the blessings of our collaboration and
friendship.The writer has a PhD from Stanford and is an assistant
professor at Hebrew University since 2010.