A promising future for Israeli science

Israel will undoubtedly succeed in securing a leadership role on the global R&D stage if the goverment commits to increasing the R&D budget by a factor of 10 over the next 10 years.

EU building 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)
EU building 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)
The strings that the European Union leadership has attached to Israeli participation in EU-funded activities have created quite an uproar.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Israeli government is now considering whether to scrap its participation in the Horizon 2020 scientific research program, yet neither is it surprising that the voices of scholars and researchers throughout Israel’s university system have been some of the loudest to call out in support of doing everything possible to continue enabling EU-Israel scientific collaboration.
The country’s academic leadership rightly points out that belonging to Horizon 2020 is a multi-million euro mainstay for the scientific and scholarly progress of Israeli universities. Thus, it is important to consider the full impact of losing such support.
As an Israeli academic I can attest to the fact that the loss of EU scientific cooperation, and especially Europe’s well-known large-sum basic research grant, the ERC, is not something to be taken lightly. No question about it: the ERC has become the standard of excellence in Europe and Israel, and a fast track to international acclaim and recognition for any Israeli who earns one. Moreover, Israel wins more of these awards than any other country.
When I visit European universities, the first compliment I get is that the institution where I head a biomedical research lab leads the pack in the number of ERC awards its faculty have received.
Suffice it to say, the EU-Israel joint research program has contributed to the flourishing of basic research in Israeli academia. Hence I am as interested in continued EU cooperation as anyone in Israel. (Full disclosure: Collaboration with outstanding EU scientists is a driving force behind my lab’s research; I have an ERC grant myself, and in general Israel-European granting agencies have been good to my lab, for which we are deeply grateful).
That said, regardless of whether Israel joins the Horizon 2020 program or not, I believe it is important to keep a few things in perspective.
First of all, the recent hue and cry notwithstanding, the sky is not actually falling. It’s true that these days cutting-edge research requires a huge financial investment (which in turn yields astronomical dividends in scientific and technological progress). Yet, even in the face of such an awesome price tag, we must not forget that Israeli academia is strong because of Israeli investment and Israeli scientists, not because of a few million euros here and there.
The case in point is the very fact of Israel’s participation in the previous EU basic research program: Israel was the only non-EU country invited to participate. On the heels of years of talk about increasing Israeli isolation, our invite came not as a favor but rather out of ambition on the part of EU scientists.
Quite contrary to prophecies of escalating isolation, the stronger we are on the global economic and scientific stage, the more others come knocking. If my own scientific career has taught me one thing, it’s that the scientific community is rather bad at boycotts and ostracism, and very good at rewarding innovation and excellence.
This happens because of meritocracy and self-interest in a relatively free market, not by virtue of diplomatic winks and nods. Put another way, boycotting the Israeli scientific community would be a little like boycotting Nature, the premier scientific journal in the world: you lose in practice much more than you gain symbolically.
Hence, our mindset should be one of investing in ourselves and insisting on reciprocity from others.
Although the seven years from now to 2020 are very important, the recent fiscal tumult within the Eurozone ought to remind us how easily priorities in the EU could shift from funding research to dealing with bankruptcy, bailouts, and austerity measures down the road.
Thus, if we consider a 20-year horizon, there is no guarantee that EU money (or the EU itself, for that matter) will still be with us, so we had best have a good plan for the day after, whether that moment arrives in 2014 or 2034.
My recommendation, therefore, is to view this latest EU bureaucratic perfidy as an opportunity to plan ahead – hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.
The first thing we need is a serious commitment, reflected by the national budget, to fund basic research in Israel. This should be at least 10-fold more than the 600 million euro we currently invest in the EU framework, increasing to that point over the next 10 years.
Second, and along the same lines, we ought to explore additional partnerships. Private individuals should step in to fund basic research and to establish independently funded basic research institutes like the Broad Institute at MIT, which will be free of governments, the EU and its guidelines.
The irony here will be obvious to any biologist: the Broad (which is one of the most prestigious biomedical research institutions in the US) is so full of Israelis people sometimes just start talking to you in Hebrew while standing in line for coffee.
Let’s look at the numbers. Out of its own pocket, the Israeli government spends less that it should on basic scientific research. As a trivial comparison, the Israel Science Fund budget is $60m. (0.025% of GDP), whereas in the US, the National Institutes of Health has a budget of $30 billion (0.18% of GDP).
It is true enough that this comparison is between apples and oranges, but the orders of magnitude are still informative, especially when you consider that the US government also gives out billions more through DARPA , NSF, DOE etc.
The point is that scientific research is an inappropriately small part of our national budget in Israel, and we could spend much more with the right shift in priorities.
SECONDLY , THIS is a good opportunity to take a serious look at whether we, as a country, can do a better job utilizing our most precious resource: human capital.
Israel has an abundance of talented minds and provides alarmingly few opportunities for them.
The Israeli academic community is so insanely competitive that few Israelis pursuing advanced degrees even imagine that a scientific career in Israel is an option for them.
Our labs train many researchers to the PhD level, who then go on to have brilliantly successful stints as postdocs in the US and in Europe; these people are ready to endure almost anything to move back to Israel, but there are simply not enough positions available. And that’s just the top tier.
Many great scientists would love to work in the private sector, but the heavy burden of taxation and economic regulation in Israel makes it an exceptionally difficult place to hire highly skilled, highly paid workers. This means private sector jobs are not abundant either.
With no prospects for private sector jobs or academic positions, the talented students who provide the hands and minds for our laboratories and research institutions will soon stop wanting to take the risk, EU cooperation or no EU cooperation.
It is popular in Israel to complain about “brain drain.”
I personally have always felt that the “brain drain” concern is misguided: for one thing, plenty of brilliant people are moving mountains to come back to Israel, and for another, “brain drain” concerns are a luxury; there are worse problems to have than the best companies and universities in America fighting for your expats.
What worries me much more is the problem of brain death, which is what happens when we don’t utilize the brains that we possess. Unlike the question of EU cooperation, our strategy for most productively using our human capital is a matter of life or death.
We find ourselves today in the afterglow of unprecedented levels of immigration to Israel of highly trained, highly motivated individuals from all over the world whose top priority in life has been to invest in the education of their children.
If we do not provide academic and professional opportunities for this generation, we may not have the same luxury in the future.
Hence, as important as it is to get money in the short term, it is even smarter strategy to think ahead. The EU’s policy toward Israel is and always has been born of two things: political expediency and a faux-moral aesthetic that helps Europe’s power elite feel good.
Who can know what will become fashionable or repugnant in Europe tomorrow? The important thing to remember here is that cooperation will always be likely if the outstanding scientists working in EU member states feel that they have something to lose from an end to it.
Israel is one of the most successful participants in EU-run scientific research programs (not just per capita) and without Israel the entire EU basic research program will be less successful, because collaboration between the best research groups is the key to making real breakthroughs, which in turn generate more resources for research.
Europeans have not been sending us research funds out of love, but rather out of calculated self-interest: our success is a driving force behind their research and funding, and vice versa.
Israel has few peers on the world stage when it comes to scientific prowess, and the sooner it starts acting that way, the sooner EU politicians and functionaries will stop playing games and get back to business.
Acting like a world power in the global knowledge and technology economy means putting up serious money for basic scientific research. The government of Israel has the opportunity to make the entire EU cooperation story a lot less consequential by announcing that irrespective of the negotiations it is committed to increasing the Israeli R&D budget by a factor of 10, over the next 10 years.
If we do this, Israel will undoubtedly succeed in securing a leadership role on the global R&D stage, and will remind politicians in Brussels that when they allow misguided politics to blind them, they are mostly punishing European scientists, who would certainly regret losing the blessings of our collaboration and friendship.
The writer has a PhD from Stanford and is an assistant professor at Hebrew University since 2010.