'Gov't must set national R&D strategy to save resources'

A test being conducted at a laboratory  (photo credit: Courtesy )
A test being conducted at a laboratory
(photo credit: Courtesy )
The lack of coordination among government agencies,the military, the universities and industry doing scientific researchand development has wasted precious resources and time, as Israelstruggles with inadequate funds in the race against scientists aroundthe world, says Prof. Oded Abramsky, chairman of the Israel NationalCouncil for Research and Development (INCRD).
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post lastweek, Abramsky - a leading neurologist at the Hadassah UniversityMedical Center and a former chief scientist of the Health Ministry -urged that the government give much higher priority to scientificR&D to promote economic growth and improve medical care, plannational science infrastructures, bring back outstanding young Israeliscientists who have left the country due to the lack of researchpositions and funding, and offer opportunities so that valuable localscientists do not leave.
Abramsky said that many local scientists had more contact withcolleagues in their field abroad than with fellow Israeli scientists inother institutions. In addition, there is a dearth of statistics andother data on R&D that slows progress and coordination and leads toduplication of efforts.
The INCRD chairman, whose job is to make recommendations to thegovernment and the prime minister on scientific R&D, said thatlong-term policies - rather than "just putting out fires" - must beadopted.
Abramsky, who has appointed and received reportsfrom expert committees aimed at repairing the R&D system andimproving the tools for scientific advancement, recommends that fieldsin which Israel lacks superiority or the potential to excel beminimized or abandoned. Instead, Israeli researchers strained byinadequate funds should focus on niches in which they have talents andknow-how.
The INCRD became a statutory body under the aegis of theScience and Technology Ministry, thanks to a private member's billinitiated by now-minister Michael Eitan; until then, the INCRD was weakand the government was not required to ask for or listen to any of itsadvice, Abramsky said.
In a growing number of countries, including Japanand Finland, the national council for R&D is formally chaired bythe prime minister, thus giving it the highest of priorities.
The INCRD would prefer to be put under the aegis of the PrimeMinister's Office, he said, but even if not, it should become anautonomous body with a separate legal adviser, accountant and funding.
He related that a few months ago, the INCRD had not beenpermitted by the Science and Technology Ministry to publish a paidcondolence message in the newspapers for the country's late fourthpresident, Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who was a previous chairman, becausethe ministry had already published such a notice.
Abramsky has asked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who is"very sympathetic to and interested in promoting R&D" - to ensurethat Israel's scientific research and development becomes "part of astrategic plan and a long-term systemic approach," and has voiced theINCRD's views in cabinet meetings.
One of the few ministries that has taken initiatives to improvecoordination, set national priorities for R&D and minimizeduplication and waste is the Health Ministry under outgoingdirector-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli, said Abramsky, who appointed acommittee headed by Prof. Ehud Razin, the former dean of the HebrewUniversity Medical Faculty, to study the problems in medical researchand make recommendations.
Yisraeli managed to persuade the Treasury to increase itsfunding of medical R&D and to find spare cash in the ministry'sbudget that doubled the ministry's funding of medical research from NIS4 million a year to the current NIS 8m. But Abramsky said that thefigure must be multiplied several times more for it to have an effect.
As a former ministry chief scientist, Abramsky said that thepeople in those ministry positions had the power only to allocateavailable R&D budgets, and not to set priorities or coordinate withtheir peers.
A Science/Health Page feature on science R&D will appear on Sunday, August 16.