The future of Israel-EU research

Israel must sign wholeheartedly into Horizon 2020 and accept that it will apply to institutions which located within the recognized territory of Israel.

Ariel University in Samaria 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Ariel University)
Ariel University in Samaria 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Ariel University)
The new European ambassador to Israel, Lars-Faaborg Andersen, along with ISERD, the Israel-Europe R&D Directorate, hosted its annual reception last Thursday evening to celebrate ongoing Israel- EU collaboration in research and development and to honor this year’s Israeli winners of research funding.
Overall, Israel does very well out of its participation in EU research funding, normally receiving more than it puts in. This is due to the high quality of the research proposals submitted by scientists at Israel’s universities, in collaboration with their academic partners at universities throughout Europe.
The evaluation process, which takes place in Brussels by their peers, is of the highest and most stringent standards. For every project which receives funding, there are tens of projects, many of them worthy in their own right, which just fail to make it. At the end of the day, there is only so much funding available, and not every project, even some of the good ones, will be successful.
This years reception took place against the background of Israel’s reticence to automatically sign the new multi-year framework, known as Horizon 2020, to run from 2014- 2020, during which period some 70 billion euros will be invested in the EU’s new program for research and innovation. This will replace the FP frameworks which are now coming to an end, and through which much important research at Israel’s universities has been funded.
The massive program will further develop the ever-expanding European Research Area which, according to the official blurb, is “aimed at breaking down barriers and borders in the creation of a single market for knowledge, research and innovation.”
Science does not recognize political and national boundaries, as all the failed attempts to boycott Israel’s academic community have clearly demonstrated. The leading scientists throughout Europe are interested in collaborating with the top people in their respective fields, and the fact that so many of these are to be found within Israel’s universities speaks for itself.
This comes against the background of renewed tensions between Israel and the EU concerning Israel’s continued participation.
The new EU guidelines concerning their refusal to fund grants, prizes and financial instruments which include the participation of Israeli institutes or researchers who work within the occupied territories, has led to a backlash by the present right-wing government, and a delay in Israel appending its signature to the new agreement.
This despite the fact that the heads of all of Israel’s bona fide universities, along with the Council for Higher Education, regardless of their own personal political persuasions, have made it clear to the government that the consequence of non-Israeli participation will be serious negative impact on the future of Israel’s research.
Coming as it does against the background of the recent debate concerning the massive brain drain from Israel to the western world, the Israeli Nobel prize winners who reside in North America, the alarm bells could not be clearer. Israel does have top universities and top scientists but its proportional investment in R&D, compared to the situation 20 and 30 years ago, is far worse, and it cannot afford, under any circumstances, to allow its politicians to flex their political muscles at the expense of the next generations of scientists and researchers.
Over the past three decades much of the bilateral funding between Israel and individual European countries has gradually been transferred to the EU. With the exception of the various German foundations which continue to fund Israel-German research projects, the European countries have transferred the bulk of their research funding to the central EU pot.
In turn, the EU has expanded its research frameworks by seeking to fund ever-growing research consortiums and partnerships between universities, which in some cases include more than 20 universities in a single project, thus expanding the cross-border exchange of ideas and innovations.
In this way, Europe tries to compete with the top North American research projects and, at the same time, indicates the nature of research in an era of globalization as something which benefits humanity as a whole, rather than an effort which reflects competition between states and national entities.
Israel cannot allow, under any circumstances, its internal politics to come in the way of full participation in the next generation of EU-funded research. The guidelines concerning the non-funding of projects and institutions in the occupied territories did not, contrary to the messages which came out of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, come as a surprise. While the government’s decision to go ahead with the recognition of Ariel as a fully-fledged university was not helpful in this respect, the EU discussion of the new guidelines had been on the table for a much longer period of time.
Israel cannot continue to play at double standards and in so doing weaken its own research potential. We desire European involvement in a wide range of cultural, political and scientific activities. And for some reason, which can only be put down to a large dose of chutzpah, we think that we can also dictate the conditions of such participation even when we know that the entire European Union is opposed to the government’s policies regarding the occupied territories and the future of the Palestinians.
It is time for our leaders to take on a serious dose of political realism. We cannot afford to play politics and to endanger the future of our next generations of researchers and scientists. We cannot afford to exclude young Israeli scientists from being part of the cross-border global generation of future Nobel prize winners.
Israel must sign wholeheartedly into Horizon 2020 while, at the same time, accepting that this will apply to the bona fide institutions which are located within the recognized sovereign territory of the State of Israel and will not extend to those institutions who operate beyond these territorial limits.
While the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Council for Higher Education (MALAG) have issued statements in this respect, the heads of our universities and scientific community need to be more forthright in their opposition to any attempt by government to hold up or delay Israel’s full participation in the next stages of research cooperation. The collective voice of the university deans and thousands of academic faculty, regardless of their political positions vis a vis the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, should be heard.
They should be categoric in warning the government clearly and concisely of the dangers inherent in the ongoing ambivalence towards full participation in the next six years of EU-funded research. Failure to do so will weaken Israel’s scientific standing in the world to an extent we have not yet previously experienced and will be akin to a self-imposed academic boycott.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.