Will this be Israel’s last Nobel prize?

Five Israelis have won Nobel Prizes in various fields of research over the past eight years. Only the United States, Britain and Japan have more Nobel laureates over the same period.

This statistic may make Israel appear to be an academic giant, but many leading professors are convinced that the prizes reflect efforts made many years ago and that with the current level of investment, Professor Ada Yonath’s Chemistry Prize - announced two weeks ago and widely celebrated within Israel - may be the last Nobel an Israeli will receive for many years to come.

In the past, three Israeli universities regularly made the list of the 100 best universities in the world, published in The Times Higher Education Index. In the latest rankings, published this month, not even one qualified.

Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, chairman of the powerful budget and planning committee on the national Council for Higher Learning, said that “the Nobel Prizes are the fruit of investment made in the past. Thirty years ago, Israel’s academia led the world in the number of scientific publications per capita. Today we are only fourth.”

Over the past decade, public budgets for academic research and teaching have been slashed by over a billion shekels and another billion has been cut from the overall budgets of the country’s universities and colleges. For each lecturer and researcher that retires, only one takes their place.

Only 104 new scientists were employed last year in all Israeli universities, and many of them have yet to receive research grants. They also have to contend with a much higher number of students.

A quarter of a million Israelis are studying today in institutes of higher learning, triple the number 20 years ago.

Professor Aharon Ben-Zeev, President of Haifa University and the head of the University Presidents Committee, says that “Professor Yonath’s win underlines the importance of investing in a new generation of young leading scientists in Israel, but after years of deep cuts, next year we are going to have to cut another NIS 90 million from research budgets.”

Professor Yaakov Englester, a colleague of Professor Yonath’s at the Rehovot Weizmann Institute, said: “Israel shouldn’t take all the credit for her prize, she received massive support from American and German research institutes. The funds she received from Israel were negligible.”

It is not just a matter of prizes and national prestige. Experts are warning that Israel’s technological edge over hostile neighbours in the Middle East is eroding. According to the American National Science Foundation, a decade ago, Israel produced 10 times as much scientific research as Iran, but this year, only two-and-a-half times as much.

Israel still produces the same amount of research as all the Arab states put together, but a decade ago it was twice that. It is also suffering a “brain drain”, with a quarter of its researchers leaving the country.

Israeli success in high-tech over the past two decades is misleading, insist the professors. The short-term development may deliver success in Wall Street share issues, but the bedrock of the decades of patient scientific research that brought about Israel’s technological revolution is disappearing. A recent study shows that 80 per cent of Israeli high school students have not even been exposed to scientific studies.

Prof Yonath herself tried to show some optimism at the press conference held after her Nobel was announced.

“The young generation of scientists in Israel today are superb, of the highest possible quality,” she said, but she also sounded a warning note. “The cuts don’t help. The fact that researchers have to spend so much time thinking about funding wears them down.”

Last updated: 6:03pm, October 22 2009