Issue Date: March 5, 2007
Shekels For Science In Israel
LIKE ITS LAND MASS and population, Israel's pool of funds for scientific research is small. At the heart of the country's funding mechanism is the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), which, in its support of basic science research, serves a function similar to the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and government-run agencies in other countries. In addition to ISF, a number of other funding sources including multinational programs, private donations, and endowments fuel the engine of research in Israel's scientific centers.
Sitting in a sunny cafeteria on the campus of Tel Aviv University (TAU), chemistry professor Joseph (Yossi) Klafter explains that ISF grew out of a program initiated in 1972 at the Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities in which the Israeli government allocated $300,000 for basic research. Over the next two decades, the program grew modestly. Then, in 1995, ISF was established as an independent agency dedicated to supporting fundamental scientific research via competitive grants awarded for excellence and scientific merit. Klafter, a theoretician who studies diffusion phenomena and related processes, currently serves as chairman of ISF's academic board.
"Our total budget is $60 million per year," Klafter says. "It really is a very small amount." In contrast, NSF doled out $5.6 billion in 2006, while the corresponding German agency awarded $1.6 billion. For comparison, Klafter adds that the Swiss and Austrian government organizations that fund basic science research awarded $350 million and $120 million, ??respectively.
"Sixty million dollars is only half of what we need," Klafter asserts, because not only does ISF function as Israel's NSF, it also functions like the U.S.'s National Institutes of Health. Some 45% of ISF grants are awarded for research in the life sciences and medicine. Grants in what ISF terms the exact sciences—including mathematics and computer and physical sciences—and engineering account for roughly 38% of allocations. The remainder, 17%, is awarded to researchers working in the humanities and social sciences.
Since the organization was founded, ISF's budget has grown steadily, if slowly. For now, however, growth is on hold, according to an article on ISF's website, due to "a broader budgetary crisis in Israeli higher education." Just the same, ISF representatives expect the agency's budget to reach approximately $100 million in the next few years.
With a note of optimism in his voice, Klafter says he'd like to see the per capita level of research funding at ISF eventually reach that of NSF, which would mean a doubling of the money available for basic research in Israel. He notes that a government committee is examining the feasibility of such an increase in science funding. Also under discussion in government circles is the possibility of Israel forming an NIH-type organization.
Similar to its American counterpart, ISF awards a variety of grants, among them funds for individual principal investigators, major equipment purchases, centers of excellence, and research workshops. The agency receives about 1,300 grant proposals annually and funds 36% of the ones that are ranked highest by four or five reviewers primarily outside of Israel. As Klafter explains, foreign reviewers are an important part of the process for maintaining scientific integrity. "Israel is a tiny country," he says. "Everyone knows everyone else."
Nearly all of the funds distributed by ISF, roughly 98%, stem from budgetary allocations of the Israeli government. But funding programs based on private donations also are administered by ISF in support of basic research. One such program, which happens to be one of the newest at ISF, was established to combat "brain drain."
Known as the Morasha, or Legacy Program, these packages, which consist of one-time start-up grants and continuing research grants, are awarded to outstanding Israeli scientists who are completing postdoctoral research appointments abroad and have applied and been accepted to new academic positions in Israel. Due to the country's size, Israeli scientists traditionally go abroad for postdoctoral research. The purpose of the new funding program is to encourage them to return to Israel instead of seeking academic appointments elsewhere.
"It changes the atmosphere," Klafter says of the new program. By making major start-up funds available, he continues, Israeli scientists who are in the program now recognize that they can return to Israel and work in a place that may be not quite the same academically as the place they're working currently, but at least it's not that much different.
One of TAU's newest Legacy grantees in chemistry is Fernando Patolsky, a brand-new faculty member who recently worked as a postdoc with Harvard University chemistry professor Charles M. Leiber. Through a combination of ISF Legacy funds and TAU money, Patolsky has been awarded a start-up package of more than $1 million for equipment purchases, laboratory renovations, and other uses. He is getting ready to launch a research program that focuses on advanced materials and nanobiotechnology.
Private donations also are bringing about significant changes in chemistry to other Israeli research institutions. Consider Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. Its chemistry faculty ("department" as it is called in the U.S.) has just been officially named the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry in recognition of a landmark $20 million gift to the chemistry faculty from Seymour Schulich, a Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist.
THE GIFT, which, according to the university, is one of the largest in the history of Technion and Israeli higher education, was provided to train scientists and scholars in chemistry. According to Technion chemistry professor Ilan Marek, a portion of those funds—$8.5 million over 10 years—has been earmarked for several academic programs designed to propel Technion to the forefront of chemistry teaching and research. Normally, Marek works on efficient strategies to create multiple stereocenters in a single-pot reaction. Now, he additionally is responsible for overseeing this new funding pot of $8.5??million.
According to Marek, the Schulich chemistry faculty has devised a five-point plan that includes attracting several prestigious visiting professors, encouraging excellence in teaching with awards and prizes, and attracting top-notch postdocs to the university. The gift will also be used to draw outstanding graduate students by awarding $20,000 annual master's and Ph.D. fellowships and by providing scholarships for promising undergraduate students.
Despite the modest level of funding for basic science research in Israel, the country's scientists are highly productive. And, on a per capita basis, Israel ranks near the top in terms of numbers of publications and citations. With continued growth in government allocations and other sources for science funding, Israel can be expected to strengthen its position as a global leader in science.
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