Israelis' Nobel Win Points Toward a Road Not Travelled

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The fact that two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry have an Israeli past is heart-warming, but nothing more than that. Granted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials hastened to adopt professors Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt on Wednesday, but it’s hard to draw any parallels between their success and the State of Israel’s higher education system. Rather, it seems their victory highlights trends that arouse fear for the future of academia.

Excitement over the Israeli stretch of the scientific road Warshel and Levitt traveled can’t substitute for an accounting of the many years of neglect of the higher education system. A report published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies this week shows that over the last four decades, Israel’s population has grown by 133 percent and the number of students attending research universities has grown by 157 percent, yet the number of senior faculty members at these leading universities has grown by only 9 percent.

It must be hoped that the five-year plan launched three years ago, which promised the universities substantial budget increases, hasn’t come too late. The fact that NIS 100 million was cut from the higher education budget for the current academic year doesn’t bode well. Moreover, researchers’ ability to bolster international scientific cooperation, and thereby to try to overcome the limitations of Israeli academia, has been badly hurt by Europe’s refusal to accept Israel’s settlement policy.

A worrying expression of Israel’s neglect of higher education is the ongoing decline in the proportion of students who take the matriculation exam in math at the highest (five-unit) level. This pool of future scientists has shrunk over the last six years from 14 percent of all those who take the matriculation exams to less than 10 percent. The decline in the status of math has been well known to senior Education Ministry officials for about a decade now, but the ministry considered other issues more important – school trips to Hebron instead of to the Weizmann Institute or the Technion. And the crisis in math instruction, like that in other scientific subjects, will certainly affect the ability of the next generation of students to join the front lines of global science.

The story of Levitt, and especially that of Warshel, contains an important message: Israel’s future lies in education and academic excellence, not in nurturing the settlements, funding yeshivas, or financing a disproportionately large defense budget.

Nobel laureate Michael Levitt at the Weizmann Institute in 1980. Credit: Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute

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