Alan Aziz

How did Israel become a science powerhouse?

There are many plausible theories, but the key is the steady investment in its many students

September 09, 2021 10:52

Natural milk made without cows? A patch that sniffs your skin to detect if you have a disease? Intelligent robots that help to quickly remove cataracts?

If people are asked to guess where they originated, many might think America, China or even the UK. Since you are reading the JC, however, you have probably guessed it’s Israel.

How is it that this tiny country – 73 years old, devoid of much of the natural resources that the rest of the region relies on, and responsible for absorbing countless immigrants and refugees – has become such a world leader in research and innovation? There are countless theories. After all, a young country facing constant threats cannot afford to be stuffy and stale and must, therefore, nurture the best ideas as quickly as possible. Necessity is the mother of invention. According to some, this is accelerated by army service, where people form lifelong bonds and quickly learn how to solve problems under immense pressure.

Others have claimed this is simply the logical outcome of some nebulous sense of Jewish genius — that even in the diaspora, tough conditions forced us to excel in whatever fields were open to us. Having a state has simply allowed that drive to flourish even further.

I think the answer is a combination of several of these factors, and maybe a bit more. Yes, you need a will to succeed, but there must also be the right environment to nurture that will. And the success of Israel lies, particularly, in one specific environment. Members of our community will often proudly note that Israel has five science Nobel Laureates, an astonishing number for such a small and young country. Four of these five Nobel Laureates emanate from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) in Haifa, as so do the examples at the start of this article.

How did Israel reach this pinnacle? The roots date back to before the State of Israel was established in 1948, with the building of Technion, its first university (and precursor to the many institutions that have since followed). Even in the very earliest days, the Yishuv placed a premium on higher education, viewing a university of their own as an indispensable part of their vision rather than some luxury to come later.

But those first pioneers were also incredibly practical. They had to be. Constructing a new country from the ground up involved overcoming an endless series of challenges that needed solutions. A shared faith and culture might have prompted Jews to return to Eretz Israel but it was technology and science that made that land liveable by taming malaria-ridden swamps and making the desert bloom with drip irrigation.

Students are the future of a nation, which is why the calibre of higher education institutes in Israel — led by Technion — is so important. Marrying educators at the cutting-edge of their fields with start-ups that work with hungry-to-learn students is a formula that explodes with potential. They are not only inspired to think big but can seek guidance from those who have already taken their ideas down from the ivory tower and set them loose in the global marketplace.

There are, obviously, many benefits to all of this. First, there is huge potential to continue transforming the lives of millions around the world. The global impact is huge, especially in developing countries, where people who are all too often held back by problems like poverty and disease can be truly empowered. It is, of course, always beneficial to donate money, but — as the saying about teaching a man to fish goes — it’s so much better to develop something like a skin patch to sniff out TB so that these communities can learn to fight off this illness by themselves.

Another bonus is that these positive stories increase Israel’s soft power. This is not the primary objective but it is significant. I have no doubt, for example, that the Abraham Accords were prompted partly by the states involved realising how much more they had to gain through a warm peace rather than a continued cold war.

When certain constituents closer to home petition their governments to boycott Israel, ministers weigh up what they would stand to lose if they acceded to these demands.

Israel has five science Nobel Laurates not by chance, but because it is truly at the forefront of the technological world. The only way to ensure the continuance of these great achievements is by continuing to invest in the students who will carry the torch forward throughout the next generation — both at home and around the world.

In Israel, it’s not merely a case of students being the future of a nation, but the future of the whole world.

Alan Aziz is CEO of Technion UK



September 09, 2021 10:52

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