"Israel is losing its status in science"

Prof. Peretz Lavie. credit:  Annie Tritt  WSJ
Prof. Peretz Lavie. credit: Annie Tritt WSJ

Incoming National Council for Civilian R&D chair Prof. Peretz Lavie warns that Israel's "startup nation" image masks severe under-investment.

Prof. Peretz Lavie, the incoming chairman of the National Council for Civilian Research and Development, warns that if the State of Israel does not act, "In 2030, a committee of inquiry will be established on 'How we lost our standing in the scientific world and why Israel's startup culture faded away.' We must come to our senses, take a good look at ourselves, and see what to do next." In his first interview on the occasion of his appointment, Lavie tells "Globes" that "Israel has the image of being innovative, but when I look into the details I'm very worried that this image may not last for long."

The National Council for Civilian R&D serves as the strategic think tank for the Ministry of Science. Its role is to examine the existing research and development bodies in Israel, and to identify their needs, strengths and weaknesses. The Council, consisting of fifteen academics, industrialists, and politicians, advises the government on national R&D policy, conducts surveys on the state of Israeli science and research as a lever for achieving national goals, and publishes an annual report on national policy proposals in the field.

According to Prof. Lavie, scratch the surface and you'll see that, running alongside the data demonstrating Israel's status as a technological powerhouse, such as the amount of investment in R&D or the number of start-ups per capita, is much data that is a cause for concern. True, investment in R&D is high in comparison with European countries but, he claims, "Since 85% of the investment in R&D in Israel has been made by multinational corporations that have opened R&D centers here, which means that the level of funding that the universities receive is perhaps among the lowest in Europe."

The danger, warns Prof. Lavie, is that "Tomorrow IBM, Intel, Apple, or Microsoft will decide that the human capital in Ireland is better, and investment in the State of Israel will suddenly evaporate. We're bask in the accolades showered on us such as, 'No other country invests like you in R&D', but the tech giants are really the ones doing the investing."

Another threat, he warns, comes from a much closer source than Ireland. "In recent years, there has been a very clear decline both in research output and the quality of research. If, in the past, Israel contributed almost half of the scientific articles published in the Middle East, today Israel's share has dropped dramatically. Today, scientific activity in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, both in absolute terms and relative to population size, is beginning to equal activity in Israel, in terms of quality and quantity. Saudi Arabia is investing huge amounts in its universities."

Focus on how Israel can maintain its advantage

The reason that he agreed to take on the role, Lavie explains, was to find a way to reverse the trend. "We used to rank above countries similar in size to us, such as Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands. Today, they're ahead of us in terms of scientific output. I would like to focus on how Israel can maintain its advantage - not only in human capital, the product of the universities - but also in the quantity and level of research."

Prof. Lavie, who until a year ago was president of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, a position he held, was appointed to his new role the other week by President Reuven Rivlin and Minister of Science Izhar Shay. The position had stood unoccupied since the previous chairman, Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz, a former minister of science, took the job of Civil Service Commissioner in September 2018, just five months after having been appointed.

Hershkowitz's predecessor, former defense minister Moshe Arens, had served only two months before retiring due to illness. In fact, the last active chairman of the Council was Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, who served from 2010 to 2017 and who, in this capacity, led Israel's cyber revolution.

The current situation concerns Prof. Lavie, looking at both the immediate future and at the long term. In the long run, he fears that, in another15-20 years, we will pay the price for having neglected academic research, just as today we are paying the price for what he calls "the lost decade" - when budgets for academic institutions were cut in the 1990s. "Before the lost decade, there were 640 faculty members at the Technion. Afterwards, there were a hundred less. The student-to-faculty member ratio, which in Europe ranges between eight and twelve, has deteriorated at the Technion to 25 students per faculty member."

"Join forces with the giants, you can't compete with them"

"This continued of lack of investment is liable to affect the willingness of companies to establish development centers here, which in turn will affect Israel's economic status, just as the lost decade continues to leave its mark to this day." One of Prof. Lavie's first goals, after appointing representatives from academic institutions, research bodies and industry to the Council he heads, is to re-establish the Industrial-Academic Relations Committee "perhaps the most important committee of all," as he puts it.

The question facing the Council, he explains, is "how do we manage to join forces with these giants, how can we set up joint research centers where industrial researchers will know they can collaborate with academic researchers for part of the time and, in this way, create a win-win situation for both parties. This is no trivial matter. Today, the Technion does not allow part-time jobs, but perhaps we need to change our way of thinking. Since it's impossible to compete with the giants, we should take advantage of the fact that our image is still one of a science-based country."

Throughout our interview, Prof. Lavie repeatedly tries to raise the alarm. He does not say so in as many words, but he implies that Israel has been resting on its laurels while the world is not, and that competition lurks around every corner. "A global revolution is going on - the fourth industrial revolution. In 2013, the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, wrote letters to 55 university presidents, myself included, inviting us to establish a university in New York. The letter was very interesting. He wrote that he was envious of Silicon Valley and Boston, because of their knowledge-based economies. 'Professions will disappear and new professions will appear," he wrote, "and I want you to come to New York and help us find direction and adapt ourselves to the fourth industrial revolution."

Now, says Prof. Lavie, "All these changes are about to happen, and it connects directly with the science, know-how and talent we have in the State of Israel. Therefore, we must sit for a moment, make plans, and see how we can advance these matters, so that we can join the revolution. I'm a consultant on behalf of the Technion to universities in South Korea and Grenoble, France. We set up branches in New York and China, and we saw how much they understood the importance of scientific research."

Prof. Lavie also remarks on the person in the office two doors down from his. "Among the duties of the minister of science is to open doors and I very much hope that this minister of science will continue in his position," he says, adding "As the minister of science heads the Ministerial Science Committee, he's the one who can convene it if there is an urgent immediate recommendation that needs to be decided upon. We'll set up specific committees to work on each and every issue, to bring solid recommendations to decision makers. One of the questions we must examine is whether the space industry is one of the industries of the future in which Israel can excel."

Despite having taken on a position that had been in abeyance for years, he believes in the central role the Council has to play in securing Israel's global leadership. "This body can make an extraordinary contribution if it functions properly," Prof. Lavie promises.

Peretz Lavie

  • Winner of the EMT Prize for Medicine, one of the most prominent sleep researchers in the world and the father of sleep therapy in Israel.
  • Married to Dr. Lena Lavie, a cell biologist, with whom he has collaborated on research in recent years. Father to Keren, Oded and Gal, and a grandfather of seven grandchildren.
  • Former president of the Technion. Previously vice president and dean of the Faculty of Medicine.
  • Research in sleep and dreaming in post-traumatic patients and Holocaust survivors.
  • Initiated and participated in public campaigns regarding more and better sleep, such as abolishing early-morning lessons at elementary schools.

The National Council for Civilian Research and Development

  • A division of the Ministry of Science and Technology which advises the government on national policy on civilian research and development
  • The council conducts surveys on the state of science and research in Israel, and publishes an annual report on national policy proposals in the field.
  • Comprises 15 academics, industrialists and politicians, with ten subcommittees
  • In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to close the Council, which was originally established in 1959. The Council was re-established in 2002.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 2, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Prof. Peretz Lavie. credit:  Annie Tritt  WSJ
Prof. Peretz Lavie. credit: Annie Tritt WSJ
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