Israel Delegation Days 4 to 7: A Different Approach to Research?

I’ve been back for a couple of days from my expedition, with executive heads of five other Canadian universities, to Israel and the West Bank. The extremely packed schedule of meetings allowed very little time for blogging while on the trip so I am writing this continuation of my previous post after having been back for a couple of Haifa overlooking the Bahai Gardens

After 3 days visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank (see previous post re Birzeit University) the group relocated to Haifa overnight and then took a visit to the Technion, which might best be described as Israel’s counterpart to MIT or CalTech, a university focused entirely on science, engineering and medicine. It’s set up on a mountain and we had a series of presentations by the president and members of his team. Our last visit there was with a faculty member in Engineering who by coincidence is originally from Kingston (he was an LCVI grad) and who maintains a research relationship with our own Prof Ian Moore of Civil Engineering.

Following the trip to Haifa we made our way to Tel Aviv for the rest of the trip. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is an entirely modern city, which did not exist a century ago. It is right by the sea, which adds a bit to the humidity which was absent in Jerusalem.

Our visits during the final 3 days of the trip included Tel Aviv University, where on behalf of AUCC I cosigned (with University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon) an MOU with AUCC’s counterpart body in Israel. We were hosted for the meeting by President Joseph (Yossi) Klafter, whom I previously met on my 2010 visit with then-premier Dalton McGuinty. The signing was attended by staff from the Canadian embassy, who also provided us with a briefing the following day. That was on Monday the 8th. Two days later, on the 10th, I departed from our group to make my own trip back to TAU. In the morning I met with TAU history students and faculty members (including my Oxford grad school friend and fellow 17th century British historian Prof David Katz). In the afternoon I paid another visit to President Klafter, this time with the vice-dean of TAU’s Law School, to review the exchange arrangement between our two Faculties of Law (see . MOUs can be rather empty affairs unless there is funding to make them work. Both Queen’s and TAU are highly optimistic about this one, thanks to generous funding from Queen’s alumnus (and former Rector) Jeremy Freedman and his family. There are other research relationships between Queen’s and TAU, in astrophysics, history, and biology, with the potential for others given common areas of interest.

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

The trip to Tel Aviv also included an afternoon at the Weizmann Institute. Named for its founder, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, this is a remarkable institution which is not really a university but a centre for advanced research. If the Technion is Israel’s MIT, the closest analogy here would be with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (though unlike the IAS, the Weizmann has no non-science schools, and, unlike IAS, does have a graduate program).

Lessons of the Visit

Some common themes kept cropping up in our visits. First, given the the focus on science and technology, one might think that Israeli universities and funding bodies have given over the humanities and social sciences. One would be very wrong in making that assumption. We found robust departments and programs in those areas, and no particular bias among funding bodies. Among the most telling quotations of the trip was one we heard while visiting the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), which is a kind of omnibus combination of our SSHRCC, NSERC and CIHR, the Canadian “Tricouncil”. “We evaluate projects on their merits, not their areas. A project on Greek mythology is as likely to receive funding as one on nanotechnology”.

Secondly: Israel has famously become termed the “startup nation” thanks to a popular book by that title. So, one wonders, is there any appetite for basic, curiosity driven research? Or is all funding, within and outside universities, driven by the imperative of immediate commercialization potential?

The answer is surprising. The support for basic research is enormous. Indeed, speakers at the ISF and elsewhere scoffed at the idea that they would somehow steer research in the direction of short-term economic goals. They reminded us that none of the IT, engineering, and life sciences/biotech industry in Israel came about as a result of government policy (except a very favourable tax regime) or through steering research funding. Indeed, they could not understand why one would think differently. The ISF–and this was true at other places, even the Technion–regarded basic research as the seedbed from which commercializable products would spring naturally, and asserted that, vice versa, steering research toward short-term, applied goals would be bad policy in the long run.

Thirdly: how has the “startup” nation economic miracle occurred? Because the focus has been on “demand-pull” research and development from industry (including many global companies who have set up shop in Israel, Intel among them) rather than the “patent-push” approach we often take in Canada. Most (but not all) of the universities and institutions we visited had tech-transfer shops like Queen’s Parteq, to establish patents and build bridges to industry. The key difference is that there has also been attention to getting products across the infamous “Valley of Death” that lies between an invention and a scalable, marketable product (this is a problem that besets Canadian tech-transfer, and one which most countries have wrestled with–Germany has a slightly different approach, with its Fraunhofer Institutes, but has also largely solved the problem). The approach varied a bit from institution to institution–the Weizmann Institute for instance took the view that its faculty could not be involved in running their own spinoff companies because that would be a distraction from basic research: nevertheless they did license discoveries to companies and the revenues flowed back to the researcher and the institution. (Faculty benefit from their discoveries through revenues; IP however appears in nearly all places to belong to the institution, not the faculty member).

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

It’s not all perfect, of course. There are some gaps in the system. We consistently heard that government funding for major infrastructure in Israel was inadequate–there is no counterpart to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. And at least one person we visited with complained that the whole system could sometimes be a bit insular and immune to cross-fertilization from abroad (despite the large number of international research collaborations), and that pedagogy was too often stuck in a “sage-0n-the-stage” model of information-imparting rather than cultivation of a “discovery” model of teaching. And, finally, there is lingering concern about “runaway” industries–where the invention and startup business occur in Israel but then go offshore to other countries (that, however, was mitigated by the number of examples of major global companies that have, in fact, set up plants in Israel and by its hugely successful record in attracting foreign venture capital).

On the whole however, members of our group were deeply impressed by what has been accomplished economically and scientifically. Canada could profit by the example.

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