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Israeli strength has deep roots

Israel is an outstanding research nation, whichever metric you use, but can it ever become more than an occasional partner for European scientists? Laura Hood went to Tel Aviv to find out what lies behind the tiny country’s impressive scorecard.

In 2011, Israel topped the OECD R&D intensity rankings, investing more than 4 per cent of its GDP in R&D, while most European countries struggled to reach 3 per cent. It is home to fewer than 10 universities but seven feature in the latest top 500 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (the Shanghai ranking). What’s more, Israel has secured 50 European Research Council advanced grants since 2008 and even more starting grants.

As an associate member of the EU’s Framework programme, Israel is taking home more grants than ever. In the past, collaboration took place mainly with the US. Now Europe is emerging as by far the most important source of research funding, outside Israel’s own national agencies.

Lack of mobility into Israel, however, presents an obstacle to the country’s emergence as a fully-fledged partner in international science. Every one of Israel’s 2011 ERC starting grants, for example, went to Israeli nationals, whereas other leading recipient nations each had a share secured by both national scientists and incomers.

Mordehai Heiblum, an ERC grant winner and director of the Weizmann Institute’s Braun Center for Submicron Research, says there are always several hundred scientists coming from abroad to spend weeks or months at the institute. However, he and others admit it is exceptionally rare for visitors to want to stay longer. I’m told by everyone I meet that only Israelis and Jewish people are at all interested in settling in Israel permanently. “It’s politics, there’s no way you can do it,” says Heiblum. “If you want to bring in someone who is different, you have to go through government offices and fight to have them…this country is different, good or bad, whatever it is. I’d definitely like to bring in great guys from overseas but they might not come and I might not be able to bring them in.”

In 2011, the Weizmann Institute—a graduate-only research centre—was voted the best place to work in academia outside the US by readers of The Scientist magazine and it is easy to see why. Visiting the impressive campus in Rehevot, just outside Tel Aviv, I was struck by the mix of ultra hi-tech facilities and relaxed atmosphere. Staff and students appear to have acres of space in which to work and all greet visitors with great enthusiasm. Several women members of staff tell me that the measures put in place to help them juggle work and family life have been vital as they build their scientific careers—something many European institutions could undoubtedly learn from.

Peculiarities of history, such as adopting a US style university system and the informal environment in universities, also help to produce high achievers, I was told.

“I worked at Berkeley and Harvard and it’s different here, probably because of the Israeli character of being very informal, very forthright sometimes on the verge of being impolite, sometimes way beyond the verge of being impolite,” says Yehiam Prior, dean of chemistry at Weizmann. “Therefore the attitude and the relationships between people are very informal and that reflects in the way people do their science.”

Many may disagree with the Israeli government’s insistence that all citizens undertake two to three years in military service—but it is repeatedly cited as another, surprise ingredient in the recipe for scientific success. As a result of national service, higher education starts late, at around the age of 20 to 24. By this time, young people have already taken on more responsibilities than people in other countries see before middle age.

“They are much more mature,” says Prior. “It’s not that I would suggest any country start a military operation to get their kids to be mature but once you have it it’s good. By the time they become young independent investigators, they have quite a record of action, not just studies behind them. That probably gives them more ability to manage a project. If you get a grant of €2 million, you need some managerial skills, not just grey cells.”

I ask one civil servant about the secret to Israel’s success. “Secret? There is no secret,” I’m hastily told. While it may not be a secret, it’s certainly strategic and goes back a long way. Israel was a smart country even before it became a country—the Technion Institute in Haifa and the Weizmann were both founded before the state and various seeds were planted at an early stage of the country’s existence that have contributed to its successes. “It was a long term goal that a country that is poor in resources has only its brain or the brain of its people and therefore you have to push it,” says Prior. “That was a far-sighted action that is probably responsible for a lot.”