Negev R&D Center May Close, Despite Researchers' Pro Bono Work

Last year, the Ministry of Science and Technology decided not to keep funding the Makhteshim Country Science Center, an ecological research and development center located in Mitzpeh Ramon, because of inadequate management. Since then, three scientists from the center have been working without pay or research budgets - solely because of the importance they attribute to the site and their work.

"We very much believe in Mitzpeh Ramon, and we think the center is of utmost importance for the periphery and advances knowledge and research in Mitzpeh Ramon," said Dr. Noa Avriel-Avni, who has stayed on along with Dr. Georgy Shenbrot and Dr. Carmi Korine. "We give knowledge to people from the periphery and we research ecology in a place surrounded by nature reserves."

Avriel-Avni is a specialist in environmental education who runs a unique project at schools from Eilat to Be'er Sheva for monitoring the climate and environment.

"Each of the schools researches its own environment and serves as a climate and ecology monitoring station," she said. "The project crosses communities and helps students understand the meaning and importance of the environment."

About two months ago, Avriel-Avni wrote a letter to Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and Chief Scientist Prof. David Mendelovich. In it, she described the researchers' distress.

"As a resident of Mitzpeh Ramon for the past 20 years, who came to the locale because of the R&D center, which worked and is working to promote environmental education in the community and the region, I have been pained by the way it has been managed in recent years," she wrote.

"At the same time, I would like to warn that continued foot-dragging in finding a solution to the R&D [center's] administrative problem is liable to fatally damage the chance of reviving flourishing and productive research and development in Mitzpeh Ramon.

The few researchers who are still hanging on in the town - to a large extent out of ideology, and a recognition of the importance of the R&D done there - will not be able to survive much longer when we have not been paid our salaries for nearly a year."

A few months ago, a proposal was raised for solving the center's problem: It would be merged with another R&D center in the area, thereby enabling the researchers' activity to continue. Thus far, however, it has not been implemented.

Korine, who is both a scientist and a director of the Makhteshim Country Association, pointed the finger of blame at the Science Ministry.

"Until 2006, the research and development center was managed by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with financial support from the Ministry of Science and Technology," he said. "But after 2006, the ministry required the R&D [center] to establish a nonprofit organization [the Makhteshim Country Association] to manage the place. In 2007, they examined the association and found it had not used all its [state] funding. People from the Ministry of Science and Technology told us: 'If you don't give back the remaining money, we are stopping your funding.' Had they come to an arrangement with the Makhteshim Country Association, the R&D would be continuing as usual."

In late 2009, Korine added, the ministry decided to merge the R&D center with another R&D center in the Negev. "But in actuality, they have not done anything to make this happen. Research projects have been suspended, students aren't getting scholarships and the researchers are working without pay. The Ministry of Science and Technology held meetings about the merger, but nothing was done. Everyone thinks the merger is very important, but someone has to see to it. And the ministry hasn't done anything about it."

Yesterday, a special R&D conference was held in Mitzpeh Ramon, entitled "From an Emergency Situation to Fruitful Activity - Rescuing the Regional R&D Center at Mitzpeh Ramon."

The researchers were hoping that the daylong symposium would enable them to explain the center's importance to the area and spur a resolution of the problem.

The Ministry of Science and Technology responded that it "attributes importance to the Makhteshim Country Science Center and is examining possibilities for continuing the research projects carried out there."

However, it added, "an in-depth review of the Makhteshim Country Science Center carried out in 2007 found management flaws that were not dealt with and not fully rectified, and therefore did not enable the ministry to continue supporting this center, either through ongoing funding or through funding for the research projects carried out there. Moreover, the center does not have a certificate of proper management from the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations, which is essential for any transfer of funds to the center. Therefore, the Ministry of Science and Technology stopped its support for the Makhteshim Country Science Center."