In-depth: UK-Israel science links

In-depth: UK-Israel science links

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

It’s difficult getting a good ‘scientific’ sound-bite, but William Hague’s description of Israel and the UK this week wasn’t bad, writes Stephen ORYSZCZUK.

Perhaps it’s better than we think, because ‘scientific superpowers’ is not just any old alliteration. It was a mutually self-aggrandising alliteration, Hague’s reflection of both his and his host’s strengths. Alliterations that say “we’re brill” are an incredibly useful tool in the diplomat’s kitbag.

Prof Rony Paz
Prof. Rony Paz of the Weizmann Institute

But it was apt as well as useful. This century will be won or lost on ideas and scientific advancement, more so than any other. The age of industrialisation has been replaced by the age of information, innovation and intellectual property. Where once economic wars were won through mechanisation, they are now being won through the microscope.

Those leading the charge include Israeli and British ventures. The work of British and Israeli research institutions feeds understanding, which feeds technology start-ups, which feed multi-nationals in areas such as pharmaceuticals, medicine and defence.

The two countries seem a natural fit despite their different backgrounds. Britain is scientific aristocracy, whereas Israel – the new kid on the block – seems to have a natural knack for making science profitable, allowing the world to profit from its science in turn.

But before profit come professors, particles and pattern recognition. It all starts in the lab. Building the next iPad is about research and development, but the basic research underpinning it – which could just as easily come from Weizmann as from Oxford – could have been undertaken 20 years earlier.

That’s why Hague and Yaacov Peri have signed up to increasing collaboration in basic research i.e. in work that pushes the boundaries of understanding and knowledge.

Achievements of this sort are showcased by the BIRAX Regenerative Medicine programme. Launched in 2008, this is a joint initiative of the British and Israeli governments, supported by the Pears Foundation and UJIA. Among other things, it has helped develop a regenerative therapy for Type 1 diabetes and Parkinson’s and MS, and it has added to our knowledge about the immune system, stem cells and nerve cell formation.

Progress in areas like this will lead to the technological revolutions of our children’s lifetimes. So it is no surprise that Hague and Peri have chosen to focus on areas such as advanced materials, nanotechnology, agricultural science, water, neuroscience, space research and regenerative medicine.

“We started off on similar areas, but science moves so fast,” says Lord Parry Mitchell, former chairman of Weizmann UK and now opposition spokesman for business and industry.

Prof Alon Chen
Prof. Alon Chen of the Weizmann Institute

Together with Weizmann’s Sheridan Gould and UCL’s Prof. Benny Chain, they kick-started scientific collaboration between the UK and Israel back in 2008, in response to the first academic boycotts of Israel.

“The [Israel] boycotts came to the fore shortly after I took over as chairman in 2006,” recalls Mitchell. “We fought it, successfully, but we only put it back in the box. We wanted to do something that wasn’t reactive, so we decided to raise funds for joint UK-Israeli scientific projects.”

In 2008, Mitchell says, the team raised £500,000. “It paid for flights and hotel stays,” he explains. “It got British and Israeli scientists talking, through seminars in areas such as stem cell research and astrophysics. We flew hundreds of British and Israeli scientists out to the other country’s universities. There they’d discuss ideas, which became joint applications. We gave them small grants and the more successful projects took off. In terms of what finance we could offer, it was peanuts, but we were oiling the wheels.”

They were seed funding, and the project grew into something called ‘Making Connections,’ as it is now known. With £1.5 million, it packs more of a punch these days, as Weizmann’s chief executive Sheridan Gould describes.

“We’ve got 26 collaborations,” she says. “Each one gets about £100,000. When we first started there were only one or two such UK-Israel projects. It still only stimulates collaboration, because big research projects costs tens of millions, but we’re working with some of the best universities in the world. We’re playing in the big league.”

Asked about Prof. Stephen Hawking’s recent decision to boycott a Jerusalem conference, Gould sighs. “People talk about the boycotters gaining momentum, but they haven’t seen what’s happening on the ground. British and Israeli scientists are working together more and more, on dozens of projects, breaking new ground. It’s increasing all the time.”

Mitchell couldn’t agree more, saying: “The boycotters never understood that our work goes towards helping their own grandmothers and grandchildren. And they never understood that by attacking Israeli scientists, they were attacking one of the country’s most left-wing, peace-loving communities – exactly the sort of Israelis with whom they should seek to engage!”

Prof Rony Paz with Lab Assistant 3

With Ireland’s teachers also voting to shun Israeli academics, it seems the battle is still in full swing, but with Israel a world leader in areas such as neuroscience, astrophysics and cancer research, boycotters appear to be only shooting themselves in the foot.

For a group of friends drinking beer in a Tel Aviv bar, listening to young scientists talk about the latest breakthrough in biotechnology, thoughts of an Irish boycott of Israel couldn’t be further from their mind.

They’re at the latest ‘Science on Tap’ event – another Weizmann innovation – which sees pub goers enjoy a glass of wine with their mates whilst hearing scientific news. It perfectly illustrates Israel’s culture of learning and innovation, and there is now talk of it coming to London.

If it does, we may have a new scientific sound-bite: ‘Fancy a pint?’

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