Yonath honored in Knesset

Meanwhile, Sheetrit calls for more money for science and education.

yonath with hannukia 311 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
yonath with hannukia 311
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
As leading scientists and politicians bemoaned that funding for scientific research and education lagged far behind needs, Knesset Science and Technology Committee chairman Meir Sheetrit called for raising taxes on the very rich and funneling the additional revenue toward such purposes.
He was speaking at a special joint session of his committee with that of the Knesset Education Committee on Monday to honor Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Ada Yonath, who less than two months ago won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Sheetrit described in detail ribosomes, the target of Yonath’s research that manufactures proteins in all living cells; he noted there are 50,000 of them in each cell. The Nobel laureate spent decades studying her then-esoteric subject, which turned out to be a practical key to understanding how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and how to develop new anti-bacterial drugs.
Yonath said she was overwhelmed by the new public awareness of ribosomes, among both adults and children; when her prize was first announced, the vast majority of people hadn’t a clue what a ribosome is.
“I think it has helped promote the understanding of the public, the government and the Knesset of the need to promote scientific research,” said Yonath. “I get letters even from second- and third-graders.”
She called for higher allocations for scientific research so that young scientists can make a living without being tempted by overseas offers and contributing to Israel’s brain drain. “And the country must help youngsters, especially girls, who have what it takes to become excellent scientists. Women generally still advance slower and earn lower salaries than their male counterparts,” she said.
Yonath added that she strongly opposed a proposal that will be discussed soon to tax research scholarships; Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said he would fight it.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who also called for an increase in money for research, presented Yonath with a unique gift representing both Jewish tradition and science – a hanukkia designed by Hada Kruck and Anat Stein from silver and test tubes in which the oil floats on water and a colorful drawing of the candelabrum.
Sa’ar said he was determined to increase education and science funding in the 2011 state budget and to push to change national priorities, cutting back on defense spending to benefit these targets, which offer security for the future no less than weapons.
Yonath was warmly praised by all present, including Science and Technology Minister Prof. Daniel Herschkowitz, Knesset Education Committee chairman Zevulun Orlev, Israel Science Academy president Prof. Menachem Ya’ari, academy vice president Prof. Ruth Arnon, and Israel Prize laureate, education promoter and retired textile tycoon Dov Lautman.
Ya’ari said that due to lack of funding, Yonath has had to go “door todoor” among decision makers to get funding for Israel’s participationin the the regional project SESAME (Synchrotron-light for ExperimentalScience and Applications in the Middle East), based in Jordan andestablished in 2008. The project brings together unusual partners suchas Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Cyprus, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority,Jordan and Israel.
The project includes the construction of the Middle East’s first majorcooperative international research center, 30 km. from Amman, employinga broad spectral range of light from infrared to X-rays that could beused for the study of structural molecular biology, molecularenvironmental science, surface and interface science,microelectromechanical devices, X-ray imaging, archeologicalmicroanalysis, materials characterization and clinical medicalapplications.”
Ya’ari said that Yonath herself could advance her ongoing ribosomeresearch using such a facility close to Israel instead of traveling toa synchrotron in France.