Israeli scientists: Cutting ties with EU would seriously damage research

Academics concerned that Naftali Bennett’s proposal to end cooperation with the EU over its new settlement guidelines would render Israeli research regional and less relevant.

Jonathan Lis, Yarden Skop et Eli Ashkenazi | Haaretz | 7 août 2013 |

Israeli scientists warn that cutting ties with the European Union could cause irreparable harm to Israeli research. The researchers were reacting to Economy Ministry Naftali Bennett’s call for the Israeli government to end all cooperation with the EU in response to new guidelines banning funding to Israeli entities with ties to West Bank settlements, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

On Monday, National Security Council chairman Yaakov Amidror convened a meeting to discuss the implications of the new EU rules. The discussion, which took place at the level of ministry directors-general, was in preparation for a similar meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to hold in the coming days.

One of the topics discussed was whether Israel should join the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and development program, in which the economy, education and science ministries are all slated to participate beginning next year.

Bennett’s associates said that the opinion he expressed was his personal position, and that at the meeting with Netanyahu, the ministry’s professional opinion will be presented.

“It’s not clear that Israeli countermeasures would have any effect,” one Economy Ministry official explained. “We’re talking about a fly that wouldn’t really bother the European elephant. But if we find something that could have an impact, we’ll consider it.”

Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry wants Israel to join Horizon 2020, as planned. In a recent letter to his cabinet colleagues, Perry urged them not to make any hasty decisions. The Council for Higher Education in Israel, which is subordinate to the Education Ministry, has not yet finalized its opinion on the matter.

If Israel joins Horizon 2020, it will pay the European Union some 600 million euros over the next seven years. In exchange, Israeli universities, researchers and companies will be eligible for EU grants and other funding in a wide variety of technological fields. As a result, for every euro Israel puts in, it is expected to get back 1.5 euros, or about 900 million euros in total. This means its net gain from participating in the program would be about 300 million euros, or a little over NIS 1.4 billion. Israel is the only country outside the European Union that has been invited to join Horizon 2020 as a full member.

The Vice President for Research and Development of Hebrew University, Prof. Shai Arkin, believes withdrawing from the program would cause major damage to Israeli research. « The most critical aspect isn’t the money, but the cooperation, » says Arkin. « Particularly in the sciences, we must work in the global arena. The problems we are working on are relevant for the entire world. So is our industry, it’s international, and it is the engine of our economy.

« The moment we are cut off from one of the world’s two important centers of research – Europe – our science will become regional and less relevant. » The Hebrew University is one of the six leading institutions in Europe in the number of European Research Council grants. « That’s a measure of our excellence, » said Arkin. « The moment we are cut off from cooperation with the European Union, we will no longer have access to scientific infrastructure that is outside of Israel. »

In anticipation of the discussion to be held by Netanyahu on this issue, Prof. Uri Marchaim of Migal – Galilee Technology Center, has sent a letter to the prime minister urging him not to make any hasty decisions and to take all the relevant considerations into account. Migal, which is located in Kiryat Shmona, is an applied research center in the disciplines of agriculture, life sciences and environmental sciences.

« Scientific cooperation between research centers in Israel and in Europe provides Migal not only with high-quality funding, but also brings our area, on Israel’s far periphery, to the forefront of contemporary and future science and technology, » Marchaim wrote. Last year Migal received a 4.4 million euro grant from the EU to establish a center for research on the environment, health and aging.