Israeli Researchers Pray for Compromise That Keeps EU Funds Flowing

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Israel’s negotiations on a flagship EU scientific program are due to begin this week, with researchers hoping for a compromise that will keep the grants coming that let them continue their careers at home.

The negotiations are on Horizon 2020, an 80-billion-euro program. But Israel is loath to sign deals that force it to renounce sovereignty outside the 1967 borders - a condition in EU guidelines due to go in effect on January 1. The European Union has said it will not fund projects with links to East Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Golan Heights.

Such EU funding is vital. Horzion 2020’s Career Integration Grants, for example, go to European and Israeli researchers returning to their native countries after spending years at foreign universities. The grants are meant to help researchers readjust to the academic setting back home.

In the last five years, 336 Israelis from all the country’s universities have taken part in the program, each receiving 100,000 euros. Later this year, Israel is expected to sign another 17 such contracts, putting it first among countries with scientists eligible for the grant. Israel is second to Spain in receiving EU grants designed to encourage researchers to return home.

One winner of a Career Integration Grant is Roy Beck-Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s physics and astronomy school. He fears that Israel’s universities will regress if they lose out on the funding.

“These grants are but a small example. If we write off the possibility of getting them, we’ll ostracize ourselves from the scientific community because we won’t have the financing to justify ourselves and be competitive, “ Beck-Barkai says. “I think this is one of the most catastrophic things that could happen to us professionally.”

Back from Southern California

Beck-Barkai recently returned from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The European grant gives you almost unlimited freedom; it’s really unusual in this sense. It lets you break through barriers, travel, create new professional relationships and make progress at the beginning of your career,” he says.

“The university’s integration grant is much less flexible and is limited to very specific needs. We come back here out of Zionist motivation and with a great deal of goodwill, but if we can’t work here we’ll have to work elsewhere. It would be a slap in the face.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department. Ben-Yosef received an EU grant upon returning from San Diego about six months ago. “Without that money, I would have been in trouble. The university barely has an integration budget; competitive Israeli grants are very hard to get,” says Ben-Yosef.

“This money allows me to run a very serious project and start my research. The money is meant to help you readjust during the first years when the university is looking at your every move under a microscope to decide whether to grant you tenure.”

Ben-Yosef is directing the latest dig at the Timna archaeological site. “Thanks to the money, we were able to finance a season of digs last year and are planning another season this year. I’m also setting up a lab to research ancient metals, in a discipline known as archaeometallurgy,” he says.

“It’s giving me breathing room at my most stressful time as an academic. The fact that I was hired by the university doesn’t guarantee a lot, because I’ll be judged by my publications and projects until I get tenure. Not everyone makes it to the next stage; some fall by the wayside.”

Ben-Yosef says the university can only finance only one-fifth of what he’s doing, and that without the EU grant his project would never have gotten off the ground. The road to tenure would be longer.

“The money and prestige afforded by the EU grant are tremendous advantages,” he says. “The number of grants Israel receives from the EU gives the country incredible international prestige.”

Researchers at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.Credit: Moti Milrod

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