The science ambassador

At a recent dinner with the British envoy, the emphasis was on the British-Israel Research Exchange program, which came as a partial response to the boycott calls in the UK.

311_UK ambassador Gould (photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
311_UK ambassador Gould
(photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
Only two days after his arrival in Israel to take up his post as the British ambassador last week, Matthew Gould hosted a small dinner at his residence to honor the work of BIRAX, the British-Israel Research Exchange program which was set up just two years ago. In his opening remarks, Gould emphasized the importance of focusing on scientific links, especially in a period when voices are continuously heard supporting an academic boycott of Israel amongst a small, but radical and vociferous, group of British academics.
The BIRAX program, which is mostly funded by private donors in the UK has already been responsible for bringing small groups of highlevel scientists from the two countries together. The respective ambassadors, Ron Prosor in London and Tom Philips in Israel (Gould’s predecessor) were active in bringing their respective governments into the project. In terms of scientific funding, the projects are small scale, but they serve to bring scientists together to discuss ideas and share knowledge as a means of creating larger project proposals which are then submitted to the international funding agencies.
As was clear from the participants at the dinner, it also enables, as an offspin of the scientific endeavor, researchers from both countries to visit each other and get a better understanding of the complexities of the social and political situations within which each, but especially the Israeli scholars, live and work. While the projects are not intended to directly influence the political beliefs of the scholars, it is clear that the joint meetings and discussions enables a more balanced understanding of the complexities of the situation in Israel, vastly different to the one which has been disseminated by the pro-boycott faculty in the UK.
While Ambassador Gould is obviously aware of the challenges he faces as a representative of one of the major EU countries and that he will, whether he likes it or not, be drawn into the international negotiations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and will have to make clear his government positions on such issues as Palestinian statehood, the settlement freeze and Israel’s longterm security, he rightly decided that for a firsttime event at his residence, it was important to focus on the combined scientific potential of the two countries. It was clear to the dinner participants, which included leading Israeli academics, and some of the scientific awardees from the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University, that while the conflict tends to push aside all other events, Israeli and British scientists had the joint capability of solving some of the critical problems facing the world through joint endeavor and the sharing of knowledge.
BIRAX CAME about as a partial response to calls for boycott in the UK. While there have been isolated incidents of individual academics refusing to work with Israeli scientists, the boycott threats remain largely hot air and very little implementation, despite the fact that it attracts a great deal of media attention. There could be no better response to the attempt to close down on academic cooperation than to demonstrate a growth in joint scientific endeavor. No one is interested in the political views of the British or Israeli scientists involved in these projects – some of them may indeed share the criticism of the Israeli government and its policies – but they are all agreed that boycotts do not provide answers, that they are unethical and that they only serve to shut down any serious Israeli- Palestinian dialogue and discourse which may be taking place between scientists.
And in order to ensure balance and equality, the British government is now working on a similar project linking British scientists with their academic colleagues at Palestinian universities and research centers. It is perhaps a sad comment on the political situation that a single, trilateral, program could not be set up, although our British colleagues could contribute to this by hosting joint workshops of Israeli and Palestinian scientists at institutions in the UK, in “neutral” territory.
IN THIS context it is disappointing that Israel no longer has formal or professional science attachés at any of its embassies or legations throughout the world. The boycott threats have been combatted by well-meaning embassy staff, who do not really understand the structures and organizations of the university worlds, or through informal channels of peer meetings between Israeli and European academics and university heads. The Foreign Ministry decided, some years ago, to cancel the position of science attaché – in the same way that it recently decided not to renew the position of economics and business attachés at its British embassy following the completion of a highly successful four-year tour of duty by its representative, Shmuel ben- Tovim, due to lack of funds.
In the long-term, this is self defeating given the fact that the short-term financial savings are greatly outweighed by the long-term scientific or economic contacts and projects which can be created by professionals working in the field.
Britain and Israel are two of the leading scientific countries in the world. The two countries have warm and friendly relations, even if they do not always see eye to eye on issues relating to the conflict. By choosing to focus on scientific cooperation for his first official duty, the new ambassador has rightly played up the very real contributions that each of our societies can make. He, along with the supporters of BIRAX, have reminded us that the sum total of the two is far greater than the individual contribution of the separate parts. Other foreign governments should consider the creation of similar projects, or strengthen their existing bilateral scientific links, regardless of and in parallel to, the rights and wrongs of the political situation.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.