Co-opting Nobel Winner as 'Israeli’ Won’t Hide Truth About Academia

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Science Minister Jacob Perry rushed to congratulate Prof. Arieh Warshel, who was named Wednesday as one of the three winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This brought "national pride to Israeli science," they asserted.

Their ludicrous comments were no more than a clumsy attempt to claim a scientist who left Israel more than 40 years ago.

Netanyahu and Perry could be left to wallow in their little puddle of parochial smugness had their words not thrown into stark relief one blatant fact – the deterioration of Israeli academia.

Prof. Warshel's brother said the new Nobel laureate left Israel after being unable to get tenure at a local academic institution. This may be so. Perhaps there were other reasons for the move as well. Had he stayed at the Weizmann Institute or at one of the universities, would he still have reached the same achievements? Such questions, which are valid also with regard to his partner for the prize, Prof. Michael Levitt, have no succinct answer. In contrast, the picture emerging from a recent study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel on the changes in higher education is immeasurably clearer and sharper.

The study released three days ago finds that the emigration rate of Israeli researchers in recent years is the highest among Western countries. The study also finds that in the last four decades the nationwide expenditure per student has plummeted, along with the number of senior faculty members at Israeli universities. The universities have, in turn, employed an increasing number of adjunct lecturers and junior faculty members.

The study, conducted by the Taub Center’s executive director, Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University, comes as no surprise to the few who keep track of the annual OECD reports. The last annual report of the organization Israel was so proud to join says that in 2009, the country invested $11,214 per student, compared to the $13,728 average invested by the other member states.

This investment placed Israel 20th on a list of 37 states. On Wednesday it was reported that Israel's higher education budget would be cut by NIS 100 million next year.

The low investment per student, like the NIS 100 million that disappeared from the budget, is merely an example. Such trivia will not stand in Netanyahu and Perry's way to adopt professors Warshel and Levitt retroactively into the local higher education system.

There's really no need to spoil the party that these politicians are now trying to sell the public. The overcrowded classrooms, canceling of courses and merging of others, the rise in the academic staff's average age, the meager number of available positions, the thriving private colleges and the brain drain of a generation of researchers to foreign universities – these matters can be postponed to some later date, as far in the future as possible.

Israeli Arieh Warshel at his Los Angeles home after learning he won the Nobel chemistry prize, October 9, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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