Israeli scientific research is eroding due to lack of funding

The State of Science in Israel report was submitted to President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday.

 Illustrative image of scientific research. (photo credit: FLICKR)
Illustrative image of scientific research.
(photo credit: FLICKR)

Israeli leaders boast about the country’s great scientific research and achievements, but we are largely living on the glory of what was done decades ago – because while the state of science here is “good,” its excellence and investment in it are eroding.

This is the verdict of the 185-page, Hebrew-language report on the State of Science in Israel from the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities submitted to President Isaac Herzog, covering the years 2018-2022. The report is prepared every three years.

Academy president Prof. David Harel; his deputy Margalit Finkelberg, an emerita professor of classics, linguist and historian at Tel Aviv University; and Prof. Reshef Tenne, the chairman of the committee that was entrusted with the report’s preparation, made the presentation at the President’s Residence.

In the past decade, Israel dropped from second place to 21st place among OECD countries in national spending on academic research and development as a percentage of GDP. In the last 15 years, Israel dropped to the 39th place in the growth rate of the national expenditure for academic R&D – one of the lowest in the OECD countries. Institutions of higher education are in increasing competition with the hi-tech industry for researchers and research students.

In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of faculty members in the exact sciences and life sciences and medicine, but not in the humanities and social sciences like anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, linguistics, politics, psychology and sociology.

 From left: Prof. Margalit Finkelberg, Prof. David Harel, President Isaac Herzog and Prof. Reshef Tenne, submitting the Science in Israel 2018/2022 to the President in his office. (credit: GPO) From left: Prof. Margalit Finkelberg, Prof. David Harel, President Isaac Herzog and Prof. Reshef Tenne, submitting the Science in Israel 2018/2022 to the President in his office. (credit: GPO)

And in the last decade, the number of students in humanities such as languages, philosophy, religion, international relations, gender and women’s studies, multicultural and regional studies, art and music decreased by dozens of percents. Only about half of the doctoral students in the social sciences receive a scholarship, and the average amount of the scholarship is just NIS 4,000 per month.

The report thus stresses the need for a considerable increase of national investment in basic research to allow Israel to maintain a leading and competitive position in world science and even improve it. Such an investment should focus on increasing the budgets directed to research grants and expanding the advanced research infrastructures available to Israeli researchers, the authors wrote.

A delicate balance is needed

A DELICATE balance is needed, they emphasized, which will strengthen the academic faculty in the fields of exact sciences and life sciences and medicine to promote Israel’s scientific excellence in these fields – along with the training of quality personnel required for the economy – and will also preserve and foster research in the humanities and social sciences.

Science will be bolstered here not only through increasing the budgets of the higher education and research system but also through strengthening the collaborations between researchers from Israel and those from abroad. The report clarifies that Israel’s participation in the global scientific effort is a key element in its belonging to the community of nations and its position within it. Despite the fact that the scope of international cooperation in which Israeli researchers participate is large, it is smaller than that of countries with outstanding scientific excellence.

Israel also lags in the OECD regarding the proportion of foreign doctoral students, just ranking in 32nd place. The academy report emphasizes that a high proportion of faculty and foreign students has a huge positive impact on the quality of academic research and teaching. It warns that despite this, the proportion of senior faculty members and foreign students here is tiny compared to that of scientific powerhouses and that the academic world is having difficulty recruiting outstanding foreign postdoctoral fellows. The proportion of foreigners, faculty members and students in Israel is less than 3% of senior faculty members in universities, about 50% of postdoctoral fellows, only about 3% of undergraduate students, about 5% of graduate students and about 8% of doctoral students.

The report explains that bringing students and faculty from abroad to Israel involves many difficulties, including administrative, cultural, financial and marketing ones. It calls for action in an integrated and national manner to promote the issue and harness all the relevant bodies in the higher education system and government ministries for this.

It also points to the lack of a regular trust mechanism for examining the need for national research infrastructures and formulating a comprehensive and long-term strategy on the subject. The report also underlines the importance of research infrastructures abroad, some of which are particularly advanced and large, and therefore Israel is unable to establish or operate them alone. It says that it is necessary for Israel to strive to become a member of such infrastructures, such as the European Astronomical Observatory in Chile (ESO).

The humanities are facing crisis

AS FOR the humanities, both here and around the world, this field has been subject to a continuous crisis manifested in the decline of their importance among the general public as well as in the reduction of activity in these fields in academic institutions by merging departments and cutting the number of students.

“This trend is a threat to the continuation of the field and outstanding scientific research in the humanities here,” the report reads.

Budgeting for the humanities ignores the differences between their research methods and those used in the natural sciences, it says, leading to the creation of incentives that encourage development that is not always appropriate for research in the field.

The report calls for adjusting the way humanities are budgeted, and in particular to formulate a budgeting policy that will ensure a critical mass of outstanding researchers in its various fields regardless of the number of students.

How can languages help future researchers?

TO PRODUCE a next generation of outstanding researchers, students must master diverse languages, especially ancient languages, which are particularly challenging, as well as acquire a mastery of technological tools that characterize developing research in the digital humanities, the report suggested.

Since social science doctoral students in most faculties and departments lack regular training tracks, the report calls for strengthening the training system they receive by establishing collaborations among Israeli universities and expanding scholarships.

Administrative databases of government ministries and other state institutions are vital, as well as those found in businesses and technology giants for research in the social sciences that include broad information across countries or periods on various social phenomena and human behavior. But Israeli researchers have only very limited access to them so are far from exhausting the potential that lies in them for the advancement of scientific knowledge and the common good.

Activity in academic colleges around the country has greatly expanded, especially applied research, but they are now also doing basic research, with an increasing number of their graduates being integrated into advanced studies at the universities.

The proportion of academic college graduates among bachelor’s degree graduates in most fields is more than 40%, and about 20% of doctoral students in universities are bachelor’s degree graduates from academic colleges.

The report concludes that there is an urgent need to deal with the challenges that make it difficult for research activity in colleges to thrive because they have few resources.