Education Min. Taps Likud Activist as New Chief Scientist

The Education Ministry has chosen its new chief scientist, Dr. Gavriel Avital, the head of aeromechanics at Elbit Systems and an aerodynamics lecturer at the Technion. The appointment of Avital, who has been a Likud member for the past 20 years, is apparently the first time the ministry's chief scientist has not come from one of the universities' education schools.

Avital, who did his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral work at the Technion, is a member of the rightist Professors for a Strong Israel.

In an interview last year on a Likud-affiliated Web site, Avital said research institutes should be established "to transfer the post-Zionist center of gravity to the conservative right." Yesterday Avital said "today my opinions are more moderate."

"Education schools are cut off from education," he added. "It is true that I am the first [chief scientist] to come from the exact sciences, but I have a background in education and am very close to industry, research, development and teaching."

He said that "I was not chosen for the post because of my activism in Likud."

A chief scientist's responsibilities include setting research priorities and criteria for allocating research funding. But Avital's appointment has drawn criticism from Education Ministry officials and some former holders of the position.

"So far, all holders of the position have come from the realm of education and have been known and accepted. No one knows Avital. He may be a talented rocket engineer but that does not necessarily answer the basic requirements: He is not known in the scientific community and does have authority," said a former chief scientist at the Education Ministry.

"A chief scientist dos not have to know everything about education, but he should at least have extensive knowledge of the field. This is one of the most important posts in the ministry. If [Education Minister] Gideon Sa'ar and [Director General] Shimson Shoshani want to determine policy based on findings and knowledge, they need someone who can help them make decisions based on scientific knowledge."

According to Avital's resume, from 1986 to 2000 he taught in a number of high schools and was vice principle of the Amit school in Carmiel. He was also a lecturer in math and physics at ORT Braude College of Engineering in Carmiel and at Tel Hai Academic College.

"There is an advantage to having a chief scientist whose research is more analytical and organized. I have a sound basis in many subjects," he said.

In the 2006 Knesset elections, Avital ran for 20th place on Likud's list. In the last Likud primary he lost against MK Yariv Levin for the seat reserved for a representative of the coastal region and received a low place on the Likud list.

According to a cabinet decision, a candidate to become chief scientist at one of the ministries must be a "senior scientist, known and accepted in the scientific community in an area relevant to the ministry's activities, and have authority and abilities of judgment in the area of his expertise."

An Education Ministry official said the appointment "conveys contempt for the professional people in the ministry. With all due respect, teaching physics in a high school or even a college does not prepare you to be chief scientist."

The position of Education Ministry chief scientist has been empty for the past two years, after the departure of Prof. Sidney Strauss of Tel Aviv University.