Bringing academia down from its ivory tower

The new president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities has an agenda for promoting women, bringing back emigrant researchers and engaging the general public.

Nili Cohen (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)
Nili Cohen
A major aim of Prof. Nili Cohen, the new president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities, is to make science more accessible to the general public. She is determined to achieve this, especially regarding young people and to attract women, who are still underrepresented in these fields.
But even if she were to try, she couldn’t move American Jewish artist Robert Berks’s bronze statue of an avuncular Albert Einstein – sitting casually on steps in the academy’s inner courtyard – to the front of the building for the general public to enjoy.
Almost two decades ago, ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem city council members insisted that it can’t be installed outside because of the biblical commandment prohibiting graven images. The same statue, three times the size, stands next to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., which has no such limitations.
This is a great loss, as children would surely flock to the sculpture, want to sit in Einstein’s bronze lap, put their arm around the sweater he’s wearing to pose for a photograph and ask their parents about the great physicist and what he accomplished.
A prominent jurist and former rector of Tel Aviv University, Cohen was thrilled to be elected the 10th president of the academy and take office in September 2015. She became only the second woman to reach that post when she succeeded Prof. Ruth Arnon, the energetic Weizmann Institute of Science biochemist, immunologist and co-discoverer of the multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone.
“Ruthie is my role model,” said Cohen in an interview in her office with The Jerusalem Post. “Brilliant but modest, she paved the way for me,” said the new academy president.
WHAT DOES the academy do? Many Israelis who pass by the building adjacent to the Council for Higher Education, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the President’s Residence haven’t a clue it’s there or what it does. When they do hear, they would naturally regard it as an ivory-tower institution.
It was established in 1961 by the State of Israel to advance science, foster contact among Israeli scholars in the sciences and humanities and with their counterparts abroad. Essentially, the academy is a think tank for advising the government on research projects of national importance.
“We are in contact with the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, the Education Ministry and other government bodies,” noted Cohen. “We also get strong support from the Knesset Science and Technology Committee chaired by MK Uri Maklev,” a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.
The academy also cultivates and promotes scholarly and scientific endeavor; maintains contact with parallel bodies abroad; ensures the representation of Israeli scholarship and science at international institutions and conferences; and publishes writings calculated to promote scholarship and science.
Its unpaid 120 members include many of the country’s most distinguished scholars.
A total of 15 are women. This, said Cohen, “does not represent their numbers in the population but approximates their gender’s share among professors in the universities.”
The offices of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities are located next door to the Council for Higher Education in Israel in Albert Einstein Square in Jerusalem. Each president is officially appointed by the president of Israel for three years, and the term can be extended once.
The first to head the academy was the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, followed by the pioneer in the field of the electrochemistry of biopolymers Prof. Aharon Katzir, philosopher and historian Prof. Gershom Scholem and other prominent thinkers.
“I am the first president to come from the field of law, but there were three other jurist members before my election to the academy,” said Cohen. When a member reaches the age of 75, he or she remains a full member but evacuates the position so a new member can be added to rejuvenate the academy. The academy is divided into two sections – the natural and exact sciences, and the humanities and the social sciences – and is administered by a council consisting of the academy’s president, the vice president, the heads of the two sections, the director-general and the former president.
The current vice president is Prof. David Harel of Weizmann’s computer science and applied mathematics department.
Three plenary sessions are held annually, while the sections meet up to three times a year.
The academy was established according to the tradition of foreign science academies but with a somewhat different structure, as it is a comprehensive academy, Cohen said. All Israelis who have won the Nobel Prize in the sciences had already been members of the academy before winning the prizes. Cohen has been a member since 2004 on the basis of her accomplishments in law.
In the sciences, the academy funds special projects on the geology, flora and fauna of Israel, and facilitates the participation of Israeli scientists in research at international projects, such as high-energy physics at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and synchrotron radiation at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility Facility in which academy member and Nobel laureate Prof. Ada Yonath has carried out most of her research. Israel has the highest concentration of scientists and engineers in the world. The academy administers a number of prestigious awards in the sciences such as the Adams scholarship for doctoral studies. In the humanities, research is funded into all disciplines, such as the study of the scriptures, history and literature.
The academy’s publishing house has published hundreds of scholarly books. The academy also initiated the Israel Science Fund, with an annual budget of about $150 million, and the Foulkes Fund for Medical Research. The academy also runs the Israel Academic Center in Cairo, which assists Egyptian scholars with interest in Israeli culture. The academy runs exchange programs with some 40 academies including the British Royal Society, the Canadian Royal Society, the Leopoldina (German Academy of Sciences), the Brandenburg Academy (German Academy of Humanities), the American National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council of Singapore, Cohen said.
“It was Ruth Arnon’s idea to establish a Young Academy whose members excel in science and are committed to social goals. It was the Young Academy’s idea to set up an exhibition at Ben-Gurion Airport on Israeli scientific discoveries and developments so that all comers and goers could learn something about the country’s contributions in the field.”
COHEN WAS raised and educated in Tel Aviv and earned all her degrees at Tel Aviv University. “My father was an outstanding teacher in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I decided to study law. It turns out that I taught law and did research. I worked intensively and was advanced at a relatively young age.”
Cohen’s research interests are contracts, torts, restitution, comparative law, and law and literature. She is the author of Interference with Contractual Relations, edited Comparative Remedies for Breach of Contract and contributed a chapter to the book. She is the recipient of the Sussman Prize (twice), Zeltner Prize, the Rector Prize for Excellence in Teaching (three times), the Minkoff Prize for Excellence in Law. She was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Buenos Aires in 1998.
"Suddenly,” she recalled, “I was asked to be deputy rector by mathematics Prof. Dan Amir. My mother advised me to give it a try.”
She found that the administrative academic work enabled her to meet interesting people and deal with challenging issues. When Amir left, she was made rector in 1997 and served for four years. No one ran against her.
Much of her inspiration comes from her grandmother, Batsheva (Bertha) Friedberg Grabelsky, who lived in Manhattan. Her grandmother married Belarus immigrant Boris Grabelsky in 1914 and was a secular, liberated and highly educated editor, translator, Hebraist, Zionist and publisher who in the 1920s produced from their apartment on West End Avenue a Hebrew-language newspaper for Jewish teens called Eden.
[When out of curiosity I asked Cohen what her grandparents’ address was, she said they lived on West End Avenue. When I asked the exact address – as my grandfather Abraham H. Horowitz, for decades president of New York’s Horowitz-Margareten matza company, and my grandmother Miriam had lived at 498 West End Avenue for decades at the same time, she enlarged a photo of a copy of Eden and checked their address. Out of the tens of thousands of buildings in Manhattan, it turned out to be the same large building where my grandparents lived. Thus she and I were astounded to learn that both her grandparents and mine were neighbors and undoubtedly knew each other well. In addition, Cohen’s aunt was the personal secretary to Ted Lurie, the second editorin- chief of the Post when I was hired to be a reporter; she was the first person at the paper I ever spoke to. Although I had never met Cohen before, we hugged as we ended the two-hour interview.] Her late husband Amiram Cohen was a senior lawyer who was her “biggest supporter.
He would have been so happy to see me become academy president. He didn’t feel threatened by my accomplishments, and three times he accompanied me abroad for research work,” she recalled. They had three children – a son in the software industry and two daughters, a lawyer and one working in the art business and three (soon to be four) grandchildren.
COHEN SAID she was always interested in the progress of women in academia. “The process has been very gradual, but there is a big improvement today in the number of women students and faculty. The percentage of women on university academic staffs is still not large, but the quality is high.”
Aware of the fact that the academy is not very well known to the general public, Cohen and the public relations staff have devoted much effort to making the institution known and to get the public involved.
“Our website has been renewed in Hebrew and English ( We hold lectures on a variety of subjects, from migrations to revolutions, that are open to the public.”
Eager to reach out to the periphery, the academy organized lectures on the humanities in the North and South and lectures in Jerusalem for high school teachers and pupils. It is also involved in the annual Intel-Israel Young Scientists’ Competition at the Bloomfield Science Museum.
The academy president is concerned about a seeming decline in the amount of Israeli medical research in hospitals and academia.
“Government investment in science and research has to be higher. Our researchers are getting Nobel Prizes for work they did 30 or 40 years ago, but we have to make sure that young Israeli scientists will get them in the future.”
Since the National Health Insurance reform required public hospitals to avoid deficits, the administration has less incentive to encourage doctors to do research during working time.
“There is so much to do in the hospitals and the clinics that doctors don’t have much time to do research unless they are very motivated and given time off for it,” she said. The academy allocated money to set up a scholarship fund for physician researchers, but the amount is still too small, Cohen added.
“The government must think about longterm priorities. They need to promote a cadre of young doctor researchers.”
The academy has for several years been active in the effort to bring back Israeli emigrant researchers and scientists who work abroad and encourage others to come on aliya. A record number of 3,240 young Israeli researchers n scientific fields have registered with the academy’s center for help in returning home. It recently held a special fair in Jerusalem for those who were visiting and wanted to explore possibilities for their return. Hundreds of them met with representatives of the universities, colleges and private companies, said Cohen, who hosted the participants.
The center was founded in 2007 to fight the “brain drain” of Israeli scientists and other academics abroad. Since then, more than 700 returnees – most from the US, Canada and Europe – have been hired by Israeli universities and colleges. A total of 505 have become tenured faculty members, 76 of them in the last year. Others returned as post-doctoral students and lab managers.
This field is sure to get a boost during Cohen’s presidency, as Israeli researchers abroad and new immigrants in scientific fields are a bonanza for science here.