A ministry comes into its own

The new science, technology and spaceminister, MK Ofir Akunis has plans to be more effective in promoting the country’s development.

MK Ophir Akunis  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Ophir Akunis
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Born “in sin” 34 years ago just to give a portfolio to esteemed theoretical physicist Prof. Yuval Ne’eman – chairman of the right-wing Tehiya Party that broke off from Likud – the Science Ministry has been headed by 23 ministers and two deputy ministers. But the photos of some of them are missing from the wall leading to the Jerusalem office of the current holder, Likud MK Ofir Akunis, because they filled the position for just two or three months.
Among the others were Amnon Rubinstein, Shulamit Aloni, Bennie Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Geula Cohen, Michael Eitan, Ehud Barak, Matan Vilnai, Yuli Tamir, Raleb Majadle, Daniel Hershkowitz and Yaacov Peri. Akunis himself transferred from the position of deputy environmental quality minister when the science minister in the new government – MK Danny Danon – was appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to be ambassador to the UN, cutting short his time in the post to only three-and-a-half months. Ne’eman, whose party was created in opposition to Menachem Begin’s support for the Camp David talks, led to peace with Egypt and the evacuation of Yamit, in fact was science minister three different times within a decade.
Even the name has undergone changes – from Science and Development to Science and Technology to Science, Technology and Space. And now the 42-year-old Akunis – whose first real job was as a youth correspondent for the weekly Ma’ariv La’noar magazine – is considering the possibility of changing it to the Science and Innovation Ministry.
Still one of the two smallest (with the Communications Ministry) portfolios in the government, it received little attention at first as the government and the public wondered what its purpose was. But as Israel has since then become the Start-up Nation, inventing everything from disk-on-keys and cherry tomatoes to the Iron Dome mobile air defense system, the world has been beating a path to Israel’s door. Countries from China to Canada eagerly seek out scientific cooperation agreements with Israel, making the Science, Technology and Space Ministry the address.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post from his office next to National Police Headquarters, Akunis was enthusiastic in shirtsleeves, sitting in front of photos of President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu. A copy of Begin’s book The Revolt on the pre-state Irgun Zva’i Leumi underground organization that he commanded stands half open on the minister’s desk, as if he had just finished reading it. Akunis is a great fan of Begin (although he did not recommend to Netanyahu that Begin’s geologist son and Likud MK Benny become science minister instead of him).
“I am sure that the prime minister will still find a suitable position for his [Benny Begin’s] abilities,” Akunis said.
UNAWARE THAT that 22 ministers and two deputy ministers had preceded him, Akunis was surprised by the unprecedented changeover (the Health Ministry, for example, has had “only” 21 ministers since 1982), and declared: “I hope that by the end of this government’s legal [term] limit at the close of 2019, there will not be a 24th science minister.
True, I was deputy environment minister and wanted to be the full-fledged environment minister when the new government was being formed.”
Although he studied physics, chemistry and biology in the historic Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium (high school in Tel Aviv), Akunis was attracted more to the liberal arts and social sciences. “You don’t have to be a scientist to be science minister,” he asserted.
He served in the IDF as a military correspondent for the chief education officer of the education and youth corps. After his army service he served as music editor of the radio program Youth Club on Kol Yisrael Radio’s Reshet Gimmel.
He then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations.
At the age of 23, he joined the Likud and began working in the information department at the party’s Tel Aviv headquarters, Metzudat Ze’ev in Tel Aviv. When Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, Akunis worked as his deputy media adviser and then became the Likud spokesman, a spokesman for the justice minister and media adviser for Netanyahu when he was finance minister.
He has been a Likud MK in three different Knessets.
“I FELL in love with this ministry when I took over from Danny Danon. I discovered a diamond in the crown that leads the huge and impressive field of scientific research, hi-tech and space science. In the job since last December, I have already been to South Korea, China and the US,” and he is going this week to the US again, and in September to India with a delegation of some two dozen scientists and business people – all at the invitation of foreign governments that want scientific ties with Israel.
“I signed a scientific cooperation agreement with Chinese officials,” he said, “as well as with heads of the State of California, where I signed an accord worth millions of dollars on joint medical research.”
As for the space aspect of his ministry, under whose aegis the Israel Space Agency functions – Akunis said the satellite and space communications industry here is one of the most advanced in the world.
Asked about the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement advocating economic attacks on Israel, Akunis called it anti-Semitic.
“The advocates say their problem is that Israel must return to the pre-1967 lines, but in fact, they object to Israel’s existence,” he said.
“I hear the nonsense that Israel is isolated internationally. It makes me laugh and feel pain, because it is not true. Countries are keen on being in touch with Israeli scientists and hi-tech firms.”
Although very small in manpower terms, his ministry has a budget of NIS 403 million this year.
“We are one of the most important ministries, a mini-Foreign Ministry and a mini-Education Ministry” because of international scientific cooperation and its efforts to promote science among young people, especially in the periphery, and among women, the ultra-Orthodox and minority groups.
“My team is discussing with the Treasury additional funds for the 2018 budget. What we get now is not enough because we have done so much to expand our responsibility both externally and internally. I am interested in carrying out more reforms and activities.”
He has often been asked to meet foreign government officials, including the foreign minister of Greece, to discuss science issues because of the lack of a full-fledged foreign minister (Prime Minister Netanyahu is formally the foreign minister, and the deputy minister is on pregnancy leave). At the end of May, he is scheduled to fly to Paris to defend Israel at the OECD.
In a few weeks, Akunis said, he will launch for the first time a “science basket” to give the various municipalities and local authorities the ability to run scientific activities mostly but not only for youngsters, especially in the field of computers and robotics.
“We have a NIS 15m. budget for the first year, approved by the prime minister, who is very interested in this project. I am sure he will give us his full backing.”
Akunis received Finance Ministry permission to cover the costs of travel and expenses for all science delegations, both teenagers and university or college students, that participate in international competitions abroad.
Israeli competitors almost always win medals at such contests.
The ministry has expanded the Lehava project for fostering digital competency among young people from Kiryat Malachi and Netivot to Kiryat Shmona.
“Instead of setting up science labs in schools or community centers, we will offer mobile vans to travel around and connect new populations,” he said.
The minister is also committed, with Prof.
Nili Cohen – the new head of the Israel Academy of Sciences – and her predecessor Prof. Ruth Arnon, to increasing the number of senior women scientists and providing role models to teenage girls. As it is difficult for young married women to go abroad with their families for post-doctoral studies, there are various scholarship funds to help them.
Akunis’s own wife, Adi, works in a public relations firm in Tel Aviv and is the mother of their two children.
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community – women and especially men – are underrepresented in the working population but, due to their ability to study, memorize and problem- solve, that comes with Talmud study, have great potential for working in science.
Akunis praises the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev) for its teaching of engineering, nursing and other subjects to haredi men and women, in addition to its original goal of teaching national religious IDF veterans and students due to join the academic programs in the military. He has already visited the campus and intends to return soon.
“[Yesh Atid leader and MK Yair] Lapid used legislation to force haredi yeshiva students to serve in the army,” Akunis said. “It can’t be forced by law. Young haredi men want to get a college education and a profession today.
The rabbis balk at this to keep them in their yeshivot, but it won’t last. It’s a big mistake not to allow haredi pupils to learn about and use the Internet, as it is a key to many professions.
In the future, the majority of haredim will have and use smartphones [banned by haredi rabbis and replaced by “kosher” cellphones that do not allow Internet access] for work and personal use. It will be hard for the rabbis to top this. If they do, there will be a clash between the older and younger generations,” he insists.
I point out the irony that the former and present chairmen of the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committees are United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev – whose party strongly opposes teaching haredi children science and English in their school network. Akunis commented that this will gradually change.
THE SCIENCE minister is also very eager to bring back Israeli emigrant scientists, researchers and physicians. Between 10 percent and 25% of them are living abroad.
“We have launched a NIS 1.5m. pilot program named for the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir of scholarships to bring them home,” he revealed.
Akunis goes out to tour the country, including the north and south, once a week to meet teenagers.
“I find that they are really brainy. My policy is to strengthen both the educationally strong and the weak, to reduce the digital gap. When I worked as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, I distributed 15,000 tablets and PCs to disadvantaged children and teenagers around the country.
I was laughed at [by politicians] but it had an important impact on narrowing the gaps.
Today, I go into a home of Ethiopian immigrants in a poor neighborhood. There are three girls, and they show me how at night, they sit with their father to teach him how to use a computer.”
He added that “if you give a poor person an allotment, he will continue to be poor. If you give him a computer, he will advance with it and not need financial help.”