Global academic community snubbbing Israeli researchers

Researchers survey  credit: Gil Gibli
Researchers survey credit: Gil Gibli

A survey finds young Israeli researchers struggling to secure vital international collaboration, and that more wish to leave the country.

International cooperation is part and parcel of science. Researchers depend for their advancement on peer reviews by their colleagues around the world. But when there are those in the academic world who perceive it as correct and moral to punish researchers for the policies of their countries, we are probably facing trouble in one of the most important areas for Israel’s economic strength.

A survey carried out in December last year by The Israel Young Academy (founded by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities) and the Afik in Academia Israeli Women Professors Association, the findings of which have now been released, shows that this negative trend is being strongly felt. The survey, in which 1,015 senior faculty members from all the universities in Israel participated, reveals that many young researchers are already experiencing damage to international ties: to mutual visits, to join research work, and to the ability to recruit and keep international students. The researchers are not optimistic about the future. They expect substantial damage in many other areas, such as the ability to win research grants, to publish in professional journals around the world, and to collaborate with non-Israeli researchers.

"As soon as the events occurred, it was clear to us that Israel’s academic ties had been damaged and would be damaged," says Prof. Miri Yemini, a member of The Israel Young Academy and Professor of Education at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, who led the survey. "Within the first few weeks, I heard about someone who sent an article on medicine for publication, and was told ‘The article is about the Israeli population, and this is not the time to publish such an article.’ The editor of the journal wrote this to her explicitly.

"I have also experienced several instances. I invited experts from all over the world to an international course that I run, and when the war started I asked them to appear at the course online. One of them, and it’s important to stress that it was only one, said that she could not participate in a course held under the logo of the Technion. ‘I like you, but I’m receiving threats from my colleagues in Britain,’ she said."

Yemini makes clear that the explicit instances are few, and most of the damage is behind the scenes. "If, in a few years’ time, we measure a 5-10% decline in academic activity, it will be hard to know to what to attribute it, particularly when it occurs in a period in which there are budget cuts, or threats of budget cuts, at academic institutions, when in any case all researchers are experiencing difficult emotional and logistical challenges."

According to the survey, the damage is not the same across all disciplines. "We are seeing worse damage in the humanities and social sciences than in the exact sciences, engineering, and medicine," says Yemini. "From the outset we got into this situation with inequality between the disciplines. In natural sciences, many of our researchers are at the top of their fields. In the social sciences and humanities this is less the case. These are disciplines that are more language-dependent, and when research is done on an Israeli population, it is anyway seen as a more niche study.

"That doesn’t mean that we can give up on these disciplines. The damage is liable to be manifest later on, in education, in social work, in psychological health, and in all the areas that are so important to the country’s resilience and its recovery."

And if the feeling was that as time goes by since October 7 there is a trend of improvement vis-à-vis the international research community, Yemini makes clear that that is not the situation.

Female researchers worse affected

In addition to the damage to international ties, predictably, the researchers report economic and emotional damage and disruption to daily life. The greatest impact is of course the direct effect of the war, which is not unique to academic institutions. 11% reported that members of their research groups had been directly affected by the murder, injury, or abduction of people close to them.

A far as the emotional, financial, and day-to-day harm is concerned, the impact is most felt by young researchers, especially those without tenure. That is not surprising, but this is the generation of researchers that is supposed to carry the universities and research institutes into the coming decades.

For researchers at the early stages of their careers, not only are the professional requirements tougher and the uncertainty great, they often have to look after small children and elderly parents at the same time. There is also gender inequality: young female researchers are more affected than men. The differences are marked in the three areas that were investigated: financial, emotional, and daily life. "Good science needs emotional and psychological space," says Yemini. "You can’t do good science in quarter of an hour between things, or even in two hours."

Against this background, what happens to the desire to leave Israel? The survey presents an interesting finding. At the end of 2022, on a scale of zero to ten, the desire of researchers to leave was at 0.9. In March 2023 (after the announcement by Minister of Justice Yariv Levin of his judicial overhaul plan and the beginning of the protest movement against it) it rose to 3.4. It currently stands at 3.3. The researchers were asked what the level of their desire to leave was before October 7, and the average score was 2.92. That is, the desire to leave rose because of the judicial overhaul, faded slightly, and then rose again, but not to a level higher than after the judicial reform plan.

All the same, when respondents were asked whether they would accept a post at an elite university if it were offered to them, the score was higher, at around 4. This is interesting, since it was the elite universities that received the most publicity for allowing anti-Israel, and sometimes antisemitic, calls on their campuses. In seems that when the advantages of such a post - prestige, resources, connections, and the ability to do science at the highest level and receive recognition for it more easily - are weighed up, it seems a worthwhile proposition. Some of the researchers say they would want to bring these assets back to Israel later on.

Those who carried out the survey did not suffice with mapping the situation. They also suggested possible ways of improving it, and asked the respondents to rank them. The help most in demand was funding for taking on students for higher degrees (including incentives for international students). The survey participants also sought funding for inviting overseas visitors, funding for publishing articles in journals so that they would be available for everyone to read (journals charge high fees for reading an article), funding of research using unique Israeli know-how, and training on how to deal with hostile responses and advocacy internationally. Proposals such as joint degrees with overseas institutions and training in social networks were ranked lowest.

"Good science also requires money"

"There is also an optimistic angle," says Yemini. "I grew up in Ukraine, and there it was clear that the Jews had to be the best. My generation had to be the best pupil in town, because there was only room for one Jew in medical studies. I believe that at least some of the researchers will take up the challenge to be even better, so good that no excuse will be sufficient to reject us. For me, as someone who has been exposed to antisemitism in the past, it’s clear that that’s how the world works, and now we are all becoming aware of it. But we need backing from the government and from regulators, because good science also requires money."

Could it be that we will be strengthened by Jewish students fleeing from antisemitism on some campuses?

"We can’t count on that. You can’t do ethnic science, and in any case their parents won’t necessarily rejoice at the idea of sending them to study in a country where an active war is taking place."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on February 11, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Researchers survey  credit: Gil Gibli
Researchers survey credit: Gil Gibli
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