Young Israeli Scientists Win a Prestigious European Grant, but Could They Be the Last?

As the EU clamps down on channeling funds to the territories, there is no guarantee Israelis will continue to be eligible for the kind of 1.5 million-euro grant awarded this year to 32 young local scientists.

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The last days of June went by slowly this year, and Dr. Galia Blum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was already a bundle of nerves. The strain was immense, and she was having trouble concentrating. She checked her email inbox repeatedly in anticipation of a message that would determine her professional future. A reply was due back any day from the European Research Council regarding the grant application she had submitted.

We are not talking about a negligible sum but rather a most prestigious grant of 1.5 million euros ‏(NIS 7 million‏), money that not only bears critical importance for research, but also significance when one comes up for tenure or a professorship.

The application and selection process had taken almost a year. Blum, a pharmacological researcher, submitted her application for a grant from the ERC’s young scientists program last October. In February, she was informed she was among the 20 percent of applicants who made the first cut, and in May she had an interview in Brussels. The council announced that those applicants who crossed the finish line would receive word by the end of July. A quick statistical analysis by the applicants showed that in the past, that generally happened several weeks earlier, on a Thursday or Friday evening.

And then two weeks ago, on Thursday, shortly before 6 P.M., the announcement arrived. “I was driving home, from Jerusalem to Maccabim,” she recounts. “Suddenly there was a beep, and a message came over [on my phone] that the answers were on the research council’s website.” She hurried into her house, leaped over her four children, and ran to the computer, where she was informed of the positive answer. “Immediately there began a series of text messages to colleagues, my parents, the head of the school − to people who had made me swear to call at once.”

The announcement caught Dr. Anat Herskovitz of Tel Aviv University at a supermarket in Kfar Sava, debating whether to buy a bottle of champagne. She had come out of the interview in Brussels with a good feeling but understood just how competitive these grants are. From her standpoint, as well, the grant was a necessity and not merely a nice bonus. Five years after her return to Israel from the University of California, Berkeley, where she did a post-doctorate on bacterial pathogens, she had run out of money. She had used up her state grant for returning scientists and had exhausted all other possible grants from local sources.

Two months before the interview in Belgium, Herskovitz had already prepared and rehearsed her presentation. Her interview took place on the eve of the Shavuot holiday, and the journey to Brussels was a drama in its own right: “I had a connection through Zurich and the connecting flight was canceled because of a strike, so I flew to Germany and took a train from there. It’s lucky I didn’t fly at the last minute. Straight from the airport, the night before the interview, I went to the building where the interview would be, I looked at it and said: ‘Tomorrow, right here, I’m taking the 1.5 million.’”

Every candidate delivers a 10-minute presentation before the council, or as Herskovitz puts it: “You’ve got 10 minutes to earn 1.5 million euros. Even if you want to be calm, it is impossible. You move from a waiting room into another waiting room into another waiting room. You don’t know when they will call you; it’s like being in a movie thriller, no one speaks to you. In the room, 16 judges are crowded around a round table, and if an applicant does not manage to finish within 10 minutes, they cut him off. After the presentation comes a barrage of questions. Most come out feeling horrible. I had a good interview, they were smiling and told me they liked the proposal.

“When I got back to Israel I felt like it was the middle of a pregnancy. My parents, colleagues, neighbors − every day somebody else called and asked, ‘So, what’s happening?’ From the beginning of July I was unable to do a thing and checked my email every few minutes. This grant provides freedom, status and recognition. So much is riding on this. For us in Israel it is a dream, because we don’t have funds like these. There were days when I felt pressure in my chest from the anxiety I was feeling about not having money to pay my employees’ salaries. Every scientist is like the CEO of a small company: He needs to take care of everything from salaries to materials.”

Blum and Herskovitz are on the distinguished list of 32 young Israeli scientists who won this year’s ERC grants of 1.5 million euros each, a program that could be described as a kind of European championship for science, which requires applicants to have received a doctorate up to seven years ago. Out of 3,329 applications by researchers from 22 countries, only 287, or 9 percent, got the green light.

In the case of the Israeli researchers, 31 percent had their applications approved. That put them in third place in terms of the number of grants received, after Britain, with 60 recipients, and Germany, with 46. Germany has a population of 80 million, and Britain’s population is 60 million, so per capita, and by a wide margin, Israel takes first place among the 22 countries. Leading the list of local institutions whose researchers received a grant is, not surprisingly, the Weizmann Institute of Science, with 10 recipients, followed by the Hebrew University (8), Tel Aviv University (6), the Technion Israel Institute of Technology  (2), Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2), Bar-Ilan University (2), Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (1), and Hadassah University Hospital (1),

Expensive research

The compounds that will be developed in Blum’s research are meant to make it possible to do molecular imaging at high resolution and in real time using a standard CT scanner available at hospitals. Currently, there are no methods allowing for use of this machine for molecular imaging. Blum, whose post-doctoral work was done at Stanford University, will utilize in her research chemical and biological methods that will enable the early detection of cancer and hardening of the arteries, and report on the location of diseases, their severity and the efficacy of treatment.

If you’re not in the field, you would likely have a hard time understanding Blum’s research topic in much detail, but the significance of the grant is clear: Without it, the research would not be possible. “The sums required are very hard to obtain,” she says. “The grant, which is spread over five years, funds all of my costs, including personnel, equipment and materials. The cost of machinery alone is around 400,000 euros. Research is very expensive.”

For its part, Herskovitz’s research deals with the Listeria germ, which comes from food and causes diseases. In pregnant women, it can cause miscarriage. “We are trying to understand how it knows to grow inside the cells in our bodies,” notes the researcher, “and we have succeeded in showing an interesting interaction of the germ − it has a specific virus. The Listeria virus sits inside its genome and affects the germ’s ability to cause disease in us. This means that we also have to ascertain how the virus affects the germ. We found an intriguing mechanism and made a broad research proposal for how to attack the phenomenon from all sorts of directions. It is innovative; no one has previously shown how a live virus collaborates with a germ and both of them work together inside the human body. We described it as a human ‘babushka’ doll, inside of which is a germ and inside of that a virus. We need to understand the interactions on all three levels.”

The European Union program has come to play an important role in funding research in Israel. So it is understandable that the recent tensions with the EU would arouse concern. The day after the recipients’ names were released, that organization publicly issued guidelines under which future agreements with Israel will include a clause stipulating that the agreement not include funding for Israeli projects and activities outside of the 1967 borders. However, an entity located within Israel can continue to benefit from such collaboration.

After the guidelines were issued, Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry said that the ruling jeopardizes the scientific ties between Israel and the EU, and that from a budgetary standpoint this could mean cuts of up to 40 percent of the research funding received by Israeli scientists.

On the face of it, EU restrictions on grants will not hurt scientists at universities and research bodies within the 1967 borders, so only Ariel University has a problem. Nevertheless, there is some question as to whether the attitude with regard to Israel will remain unchanged. Could these guidelines also have an impact on research entities that are based within sovereign Israel but employ settlers? How about researchers who live within the Green Line but pass through the occupied territories on their way to work? And what about research conducted in the territories?

“We are studying the situation and have a hand and finger on the pulse,” says Prof. Isaiah “Shy” Arkin, head of the Authority for Research and Development at the Hebrew University, and himself a biochemist. “We read the wording of the decision and we do not see immediate damage to any of the seven research universities in Israel. But we are staying attuned. All of the institutions are within the Green Line, including Mount Scopus [the main campus of the Hebrew University, in East Jerusalem], and there is no dispute over this. But what happens if a researcher decides to study diseases in Judea and Samaria? I don’t know. It could be that the thinking in the backrooms will have an effect on a decline in acceptance rates. We already have lengthy statistics and it will not be a problem to see it.”

The EU is the second-largest source of funding for basic scientific research in Israel after the Israel Science Foundation. Israel pays money to the EU to be allowed to enter these competitions, and payments from all the countries together constitute the total sum at the ERC’s disposal. In Israel’s case, in the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Program, which covered 2007-2013, the returns for academia and industry were 50 percent higher than what Israel paid in entry costs, so it certainly paid off.

Economic distress

The new EC program, called Horizon 2020, is not yet officially signed, and Israel’s negotiations over participation are set to begin only in the middle of this month. This time, Israel, which is privileged to be able to participate in all of the EU’s research and development programs in Europe, will be called upon to up its ante for participation: both because the pie as a whole has grown and because each country’s payment is determined by the ratio of its GNP to Europe’s GNP. Since Israel has grown while many European nations are in economic distress, its share of the pie will have to grow.

Earlier this month, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett called on Israel to suspend all cooperation with the EU in response to the new European guidelines. The prime minister still has to weigh in on the issue, but even if he confirms Israel’s desire to take part in the next program, that will still be on condition that the negotiations end in success − and that includes, even if indirectly, the matter of territoriality that defines to what an agreement applies. Estimates put final approval of the program by year’s end, and the last date to submit the next grant applications will be between next March and May.

“From the standpoint of science in Israel, it is nearly impossible for us not to participate in the next program,” says Prof. Oded Shmueli, vice president for research at the Technion. “Not being part of it is like shooting ourselves in the foot. If it is not possible on the political level, we will deal with it, but it’s hard to put into words just how important this is to science in Israel. It’s like trying to excel in sports without competing with others; like if Maccabi Tel Aviv were to compete only here and not in the Euroleague. We are not the United States, with 50 states and an incredible number of scientists. If we are not a part of this, it will weaken us.

“These guys are superb scientists, because to win, it isn’t enough to be good: you also need an idea that borders on science-fiction, with a vision.” Shmueli says, adding that, “the correct wording will be found to enable us to participate.”

“The ERC’s mechanism shows just how competitive research is in Israel. We can establish ourselves in our little pond and praise our academic institutions, but only when we are tested by international standards do we see how well we are doing,” says Shy Arkin. “If someone wants to get a sense of Israeli excellence in science, he can imagine a row of Europeans sitting at a table, and in these days of budget cuts and lack of sympathy for Israel, they are still prepared to give Israeli scientists a great deal of money for research. I don’t believe it will happen, but there is no doubt that if grants in euros do not arrive next year, it will deal a powerful blow to science in Israel.”

Prof. Benjamin Ehrenberg, vice president for research at Bar-Ilan University, says that even though there is still disagreement over certain aspects of the EU guidelines, he has little fear that Israel will not participate in the next program. “The Europeans need to court us. The EU’s scientific administration knows that having the Israeli scientist in such a group has added value.”

Ehrenberg adds that he doesn’t expect the EU guidelines to have “major implications” for local researchers: “As it is there is not much research in Judea and Samaria. Ariel University has cause for concern, but I don’t see a lot of winning studies coming out of there.”

Ehrenberg believes that if Israel does not take part in the next program, it will be possible to distribute directly to local scientists the participation funds Israel would have payed to the EU. “The Israel Science Foundation has a superb capacity for testing excellence. I don’t think it will come to that, but even in that case we will manage.”

‘Happiest person alive’

Galia Blum could have held off another year on submitting her application. Although she finished her PhD in 2003 and the program for young
scientists defines eligibility as up to seven years after receiving a doctorate, women are entitled to receive a certain extension if they have children. “I was afraid there would be a problem in the next program because of the plight of European countries or because the requirements would change,” says Blum, who is 43 . “Even though I had a problem of a shortage of independent publications, I submitted the application, and naturally I am glad that I did. I was the happiest person alive to have that behind me.”

Nineteen researchers from the Hebrew University submitted grant applications this year, so the success rate for that institution’s researchers was 42 percent.

Herskovitz says the new EU guidelines vis-a-vis Israel and the territories gave her concern. “I immediately telephoned the research authority to ask how this would affect us, and they said there is nothing to worry about. Scientists in Israel cannot imagine the possibility of not being able to ask for money from the EU. My lab is largely funded by money that comes from Europe.”

Like the rest of the recipients, Dr. Shalev Itzkovitz of the Weizmann Institute is a top-notch scientist who returned to Israel after three years in which he did a post-doctorate at a leading U.S. university, in his case MIT. He says he toiled for two months on writing the grant proposal and on preliminary experiments.

The Weizmann Institute had 14 researchers submit grant applications this year, so its impressive rate of success was 71 percent. Itzkovitz describes his research as follows: “We are combining computational and experimental methods to characterize tissue architecture. The usage is both basic science, understanding how the tissues in the body work, and also with the object of characterizing with high sensitivity alterations in tissues in pathological states of disease such as diabetes.” Specifically, he says, he and his team will be looking at liver cells − “how individual cells divide the labor among them, and what happens to them when the subject is sick.”

Itzkovitz got his good news about the grant while on a train, returning from a conference in Tel Aviv to his home in Rehovot. Like the others, he says the wait was stressful, and that the money will be very helpful: “This sum will enable me to fund six people in the lab. It gives you peace and quiet for five years.”

In contrast to Herskovitz, Dr. Ido Bachelet of Bar-Ilan University was convinced he had failed the interview. “It was the morning after Shavuot, so I spent the entire holiday memorizing the material. We were several Israelis there. Before the interview I felt like primordial man felt when he went off to hunt a lion. After I came out I did not feel I had met the task 100 percent and my sense was that I had not given the performance of a lifetime. It helped a bit to relieve the pressure, because I didn’t have high expectations.” He was at home when he received the news.

Bachelet’s research deals with nanorobotics. “We are building and programming robots by means of molecules. The robots know, among other things, to control drugs in the body and to repair tissue. For instance, they can identify when a cancerous tumor develops resistance to a drug, and they can change medication mid-treatment without harming healthy cells. Now we are programming the robots to behave like a swarm of bugs that knows how to solve problems, adapt to changes in the environment and remember solutions to past problems.”

Bachelet returned to Israel two years ago after completing a dual post-doctorate − in mechanical engineering at MIT and in bioengineering at Harvard ‏(“It was clear to me I would return”‏). For him, the new grant will allow him to carry out high-quality research without having to skimp on expenses: “The great advantage of having money is that you don’t have to fight for things − because those battles are time consuming. I’m not going to start an empire of 30 students; my program remains as is, and the ERC will help me to move it forward. I have been given great responsibility and a tremendous opportunity. This money should be treated precisely as what it is: a tool, a means to advance my goal.”

In the case of Dr. Boaz Pokroy of the Technion, his interview in Brussels fell not on Shavuot, but a few weeks earlier, on Israel’s national day of barbecuing. “Leaving the family on Independence Day,” he notes, “is not pleasant, but for this grant it was worth it.”

This was Pokroy’s second attempt to win funding: In 2009, when he returned from doing a post-doctorate at Harvard, he applied but did not pass the interview. This was the last year he would be eligible to submit an application as a young scientist, and this time it worked.

Pokroy’s research deals with the principles that govern certain substances in nature and their replication, for use in improving synthetic materials. “We use, for example, a strategy that exists in crystals that form in nature. There are proteins there that enter the crystalline structure, and we do similar things with materials such as semiconductors. I can’t say that without the research grant it would not happen, but the grant gives you the option of doing it on a whole other scale. 

Galia Blum. "The grant, which is spread over five years, funds all of my costs."Credit: Emil Salman
Anat Hershovitz. "Every scientist is like the CEO of a small company."Credit: David Bachar
Shalev Itzkovitz. "The grant gives you peace and quiet for give years."Credit: David Bachar
Ido Bachelet. "I didn't have high expectations."Credit: David Bachar

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