Israeli researchers stand out in competition for European grants

"We have a culture of learning, daring and innovation," says Hebrew University vice president

scientist 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)
scientist 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)
Thirty-two of the 287 major five-year scientific grants by the European Research Council (ERC) to young scientists around the world this year were awarded to Israeli researchers, according to Prof. Shy Arkin, vice president for research and development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“This news... shows the scientific power of Israel in general and the Hebrew University in particular” Arkin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, highlighting the fact that 8 of the 32 researchers work at his institution. “Israelis are leading in Europe in such a competition. Our status is high internationally.”
The ERC grants range in size from 1.5 million to 2m. euros per scientist.
Arkin added that “Young Israeli researchers are leading in Europe when considered on a per-capita basis. The Europeans aren’t doing Israeli researchers any favor.
They judge the research proposals objectively.
They invest in the best.
We should be proud of this achievement.” He noted that England, Germany, France and Switzerland boast the largest numbers of ERC grants.
Arkin said that while the number of Hebrew University students and researchers in the humanities and social sciences is lower than a decade ago, the school excels in those fields as well.
”We are able to give our students the broadest and best training,” he said. “It must be broad, because we can’t teach only the subjects that are in fashion.
These will change. University comes from the word ‘universe,’ so we can’t teach only fields that are popular because it can lead to well-paid jobs.“ The Israeli researchers who applied for ERC funds “had to write excellent grant proposals. They had to explain not only what they did but what they were aiming for in the future.”
Arkin said that about 40 or 50 of those selected in the preliminary stage flew to Brussels for half-hour personal interviews.
“In the end,” said Arkin, “about half of them won the grants. About a third are women.” All the grantees will conduct their research in Israeli institutions of higher learning.
Asked to explain why young Israeli researchers do so well in such competitions, Arkin said “We have a culture in which learning, daring and innovation are important.
There is also military service, which encourages them. Many Israelis know how to get information and access it.”
But when asked why the level of Israeli elementary and high schools and their international test scores have dropped significantly in the past decades, the professor said that “These are averages.
When it comes to research, these are the best of the best. The grants are different measures, not averages. They are won by people with the best education and personal excellence.”
Meanwhile, the National Council for Research and Development has reported an 11 percent increase in requests for patents from Israeli university researchers in 2010-2011 compared to 2008-2009.
The survey included the seven universities (Ariel University was only recently recognized, so it was not included) and the research and development branches of major medical centers.
Every year, Israeli university researchers apply for more and more patents through their R&D companies – 430 in 2010-2011 and 395 in the previous two years. Hospital researchers applied for 200 patents in 2010-2011.
In his first visit to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology as science, technology and space minister on Wednesday, Yaakov Peri said that he will promote the government’s recent decision to expand state R&D budgets.
He heard from Technion president Prof. Peretz Lavie about the ongoing struggle to get enough donations and grants to attract new young researchers and faculty and the fight to cope with.