Israel celebrates Nobel Prize, but worries about declining prowess

Dan Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, is part of a tradition of scientific achievement that's considered a key asset to Israel's military and its reputation as a mini-Silicon Valley.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman poses for a photo in a lab at the Technion Institute of Technology in the northern city of Haifa on Wednesday. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Shechtman for discovering quasicrystals, patterns in atoms which were thought impossible.

Israel has celebrated this week's announcement of Israeli professor Dan Shechtman’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry as if he won Olympic Gold.

But on the day after claiming the sixth scientific Nobel in the past decade, many here are worried that the Jewish state’s research prowess is past its peak. Budget cuts to top universities have contributed to "brain drain" and test scores among school pupils have dropped.

At stake is more than just positive international PR from the prestige of the Nobel win. Scientific achievement is considered a strategic asset underlying its military prowess and its reputation as a center of technological innovation.

"If we are not a state that is positioned at the top of global science, we will not be a state that stands on strong legs," wrote Sever Plocker, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Thanks to science, we have an army with technological capabilities that deter every enemy, and information technology-based exports that bring Israel revenues of $25 billion every year."

Budget cuts, humiliation

But for most of the past decade, Israel’s government instituted budget cuts that forced a reduction of researchers at Israel’s leading universities, which treasury department officials saw as bloated, says Mr. Plocker in a phone interview. That sapped the competitiveness of Israeli universities by forcing young Israeli academics to look for jobs abroad, while hurting the morale of veteran staff at home.

"As scientists, we felt humiliated by the government. It didn’t seem that the government saw our activity as important," Mr. Shechtman told Israel Radio on Thursday.

Dan Diker, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Policy, says the Nobel win is a morale boost for Israel at a time that it feels increasingly isolated diplomatically. He noted that one newspaper devoted four pages of its front section to the victory.

"It reaffirms in the minds of many in leadership that Israel is an address for scientific innovation, military innovation, and technological innovation," he says.

Low teacher salaries, flagging test scores

At the primary and secondary level, Israelis worry that standardized test scores have fallen off sharply compared to the rest of the world. As in the US, low teacher salaries are blamed for deterring quality instructors from entering the profession.

"The teacher used to be a folk hero in every community. That status has eroded," says Erel Margalit, chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners, a fund that invests in technology start-ups. "In different parts of the country the public education system isn’t as strong as it used to be. It needs more competitive tools. Management needs to be rebooted and refreshed."

Recognizing the danger, Israel’s government has pursued reform to reverse the decline, allocating an extra $2 billion for universities to expand staff and research institutes meant to lure back Israelis from abroad.

"It's too early to tell, of course, if these various reforms will be enough to restore Israeli research to its former glory," wrote Haaretz in an editorial on today. "But at least there is reason to hope that the phenomenon of Israeli Nobel Prize winners will not become a thing of the past."

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