U.S. Nobel Laureate: Israel Must Invest More in Higher Education

The 2006 reform in Israel's higher education has spawned four of 30 planned excellence centers aimed at upgrading local research and stanching the brain drain. But without more funds, says a Nobel laureate involved in the initiative, those goals will remain elusive.

Prof. Roger Kornberg, the 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry laureate, is not eager to talk about the past although he does have an unusual family pedigree: The Kornberg family is the seventh in the history of the Nobel Prize in which a parent and one of his children have both received the prestigious award: His father, Arthur Kornberg, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959. What is perhaps even more unusual is that the father and son both came from the same field and the same academic institution - the Stanford University medical school. But from the perspective of the younger Kornberg, the past is not relevant today.

"The achievements for which I am recognized in science were the work not of family or friends, but of associates who devoted the better part of their productive years to the research that we did together," explains Kornberg, when asked about the values his father instilled in him, and the atmosphere in which he grew up, in a Jewish family in the 1950s.

Roger Kornberg - Gil Cohen-Magen - January 2012
Gil Cohen-Magen

"And so there's always a tendency to ask, how did your upbringing set the stage or make possible what you accomplished. And that unavoidably detracts from what was ultimately the far larger role of many collaborators that I've had, of the many students and fellows, beginning with my wife [Prof. Yahli Lorch, who is part of Kornberg's research team], who is a scientist - who is the only one who participated throughout - and the very many capable young people from Israel, from America, from Europe and other countries. They worked terribly hard for a long time, [there was] a lot of blood, sweat and tears, so I just prefer not to allow that other aspect of the story to distract from what is really the essence of it."

Kornberg, 64, won his Nobel Prize for discoveries about the process by which DNA replicates itself. He spoke with Haaretz at a cafe in Jerusalem, where he spends part of each year as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University. Kornberg is also a member of the advisory committee to the Excellence Centers program, the jewel in the crown of a six-year reform plan for higher education in Israel. The aim is to develop a first-rate research infrastructure specializing in different scientific and technological fields, at local universities, one that meets international standards, after years of neglect of and erosion of budgets for academic research. The cost of the program, which was approved by the government in March 2010 and operates under the auspices of the Council for Higher Education, is estimated at about NIS 1.5 billion, of which NIS 450 million will be funded by the state; the remainder will come from the universities themselves and private donations. The goal is ultimately to establish up to 30 Excellence Centers, to which leading Israeli researchers working in various fields abroad will be recruited, alongside outstanding local academics.

At a recent ceremony attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the CHE's planning and budget committee, the first four of a planned 30 Israeli Centers of Research Excellence were launched, which have each begun to operate in different fields: cognitive processes, molecular bases in human diseases, alternative energy and computer sciences.

Though no one disputes that establishment of the centers is good news for the battered higher education system - the initiative has been subjected to quite a lot of criticism. It has been argued that it focuses only on disciplines that are in any case successful, such as the exact sciences and the life sciences, and that it strengthens the status of the leading universities, thereby reinforcing the existing hierarchy among institutions of higher learning in Israel. Specifically, people teaching in humanities departments - which in the past decades have suffered deep cuts - are complaining about funds being diverted to the new centers at their expense. Technically, they are eligible to apply for funding for their own excellence centers, but the likelihood of one being established is low.

But the biggest complaint heard from local researchers has been with regard to the so-called brain drain: Local researchers have argued that the program gives precedence to bringing Israeli scholars back from abroad rather than advancing the careers of those who have chosen to remain in the country.

For his part, Kornberg believes this criticism is unfounded. "There may be, and I hope there is, a component of attracting successful scientists back to the country, but from my observation that is not a major component," he says, adding, "I think that it's an important objective. But the centers are principally the creation of the scientists, universities and institutes - at the moment - of people who are here in the country.

"I feel that if the country doesn't do science and technology well, then it is at risk. The economy will be increasingly based on technology, and the ability of the country to defend itself depends on the strength of the economy. Not to mention the quality of life here and the ability to retain the general population of the country because of it being a good place for people to live. So it certainly deserves the first priority."

Small change

The addition to the higher education budget due to this reform will amount to NIS 7.5 billion in the coming years. However, according to Kornberg, this is relatively small change: "Compared with other national projects, like the support for the religious and the construction and support of settlements - this is a very small project. And yet there are many who believe, certainly I am one, that this is more important. The country will survive without the others but I don't think that it will last forever without this. And it won't be the kind of place that we want it to be," he warns.

"The first priority is obviously defense and ... obviously Israel can never compromise in a significant way in that regard. But what I would again emphasize is that the cost of basic research is trivial compared with the costs of any of these other national projects, whether it be defense or education in general, or what-have-you. The cost is very small and the return on the investment is the largest that there can be. It may take a very long time, but a very small investment in this direction will ultimately result in enormous growth of the entire economy. "

Do you think Israel can replicate the Nobel winners and high-tech successes from the past?

Kornberg has some trouble formulating a conclusive response: "Indeed the successes of Israeli science and the technology that stems from that are due to investments that were made in the 1960s and 1970s. We're seeing now the consequences of an investment made then. But what must be borne in mind is that circumstances under which the investments were made at that time were far more difficult than the circumstances today. After the founding of the state, there was food rationing in the country, and the economy was very small. Israel was in the category of a Third World or emerging economy. Survival was precarious. Nevertheless, the budget at that time was created for science and research at a scale sufficient for the purpose, and that is why Israel has a booming economy today.

"It is ironic that now, with the economy [of Israel being] one of the strongest in the world, there is a question of whether to continue making such an investment.

"The country has many fine universities. And they are great universities because they have superb faculty with international reputations - so there is no shortage of talent. If anything, the country has more talent than it is able to accommodate. And that is one of the concerns. Increasingly, young Israelis are taking positions at universities or research institutes and the like outside of the country, and that is, in the long run, surely detrimental to the future of the country.

"Research has become more technological, more highly technical. It is more expensive than it was in the past and, with the limitation of funds in Israel, it has become more difficult to provide comparable resources to what a young person, or a senior individual, may find available to him or her in the United States or in some cases in Western Europe.

"I would estimate that the research budget available to a biomedical scientist or to a laboratory in Israel is approximately a quarter of what is available to a laboratory in America. And if the funds in America at the moment are ... enough to [conduct] the research at a level that is competitive worldwide - then clearly Israeli scientists are placed at a great disadvantage."

Will the reform in higher education and the Excellence Centers close the gap that has developed?

"You can perform a simple calculation to answer that question. You can look at the number of scientists in the country today, and multiply by the average cost of research for an individual laboratory in the U.S. and Western Europe. You will find that the amount that is being invested here is far too small. Better something than nothing and I'm glad that this investment is being made, but there is a risk that it will be viewed as a solution to the problem, that people in government will say now we have dealt with that matter, we have created the program and we have solved the problem - and that is simply not true. It isn't even close to being true. So it should be viewed as a beginning, a first step."

Politics and science

Kornberg also rejects the arguments concerning discrimination against the humanities and social sciences faculties, and sees them as part of an internal dispute that diverts the funding responsibilities from the government.

"The idea that the funds for this purpose are taken away from some other academic pursuit is either wrong or it should be wrong," he says. "Each should be treated as a separate issue. The support for research has a clear purpose in its own right, and the support for other education also has a clear purpose in its own right. Each is an important objective and responsibility of the government."

Why is this happening? Why are higher education and research being neglected?

"Politics. The whole problem is politics. It has to do with the shortsighted, short-term view of politicians. This is not a uniquely Israeli problem. It's true in America and it's true worldwide. Politicians, even more than businessmen, are preoccupied with the very short term. It's only a question of maintaining power and winning the next election. Very few have a longer horizon."

For example, he says, President George W. Bush "was anti-scientific, in every respect. He didn't appreciate the value of science. On the contrary, he was either suspicious of or afraid of science. He wanted to bend it to his own personal needs and wishes. And he was perhaps the first and I hope the last president in history to attempt to distort the results of science to suit his own policies. He certainly did not provide adequate support for science. Support, in real terms, declined markedly during the Bush years.

"[President Barack] Obama represents the exact opposite. He truly understands everything that I have told you about the value of science, about the need to support science and technology, and about the way to support science and technology. There is nothing that scientists or people in the industry can tell him that he doesn't know already and that he hasn't attempted to put into practice. So whatever objections or criticisms one might have of Obama in other areas, this is not one in which he can be criticized. On the contrary, it's an area in which he can only be appreciated and applauded."

Do you have any criticisms in other areas?

"Many of us are concerned about his ill-conceived policies toward Israel and the situation in the Middle East. There are many who feel he has been insufficiently bold. You might say that the mistakes he has made with regard to Israel reveal a lack of a sufficient understanding of the situation. Some people would say a lack of sympathy, although I don't think one can necessarily read his mind. At the same time he's taken some bold steps that were serious mistakes in regards to Israel, he's failed to take bold steps, many would say, in important domestic areas. But, you know, it's easy to criticize after the fact. It's not so easy to do the job."

Do share the concern felt by many Americans that the United States is creating a generation of satisfied young people whose knowledge is superficial?

"The concerns that people have expressed about the loss of scholarship of a certain kind are real, but again the way to respond is not by hand-wringing or breast-beating, but by observing that there is a problem, [even as] at the same time new tools have been created for accomplishing the opposite [i.e. stimulating scholarship]. There is no more powerful technology for deep scholarship than making all libraries in the world entirely searchable. What could be a more valuable tool for scholarship?"

Do you think in the Internet era that kids can still be heavily influenced by their parents?

"I don't know the answer to that. My youngest son spends much more time than my wife or I would like with his personal computer and other electronic devices. But you know, 20 years ago it was VCRs, and before that it was television, and I don't know what came before that, but there was surely some equivalent. We can hardly ban these devices or eliminate what has been created, so we have to take it as a given and proceed from where we stand. What we have to try to do is continue as we always have in the past: encourage them to develop their minds and apply their capabilities to important problems."