Science, for the Sake of the Future

The Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to Israeli Prof. Ada Yonath fills our hearts with excitement and pride.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to Prof. Ada Yonath fills our hearts with excitement and pride.

Excitement, because of this outstanding scientist's enormous achievement, her curiosity and uncompromising determination, and no less than all this, her impressive personality. She is a modest, simple woman who never stopped working for a moment, even when she was told she had won the prize.

And our hearts are filled with pride because such a young, small country, with relatively few resources, has so far produced nine winners of the world's most important and prestigious prize, including several scientists who literally devoted their lives to scientific work. Indeed, as Weizmann Institute of Science President Daniel Zajfman wrote in yesterday's Haaretz, this is "a complete triumph of the human spirit, of the aspiration to better understand the world and our place in it."

Prof. Zajfman is correct to stress that no one dictated the direction of these scientists' research or asked them "what benefit we will get from it." Admittedly, it is now clear that Ada Yonath's daring journey on the road to understanding the ribosome led her into revolutionary regions that are likely to help medicine overcome antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But there is no doubt she did not know this when she began her journey, and the same is true for everyone else - both those who tried to undermine her and those who encouraged her.

For that is the nature of scientific work: It demands huge quantities of time, money and manpower, along with a suitable research environment. Even years of inquiries that seemingly produce no "results" build a basis for succeeding generations.

But it is not for nothing that Yonath's colleagues are worried. Like Israel's previous Nobel laureates in chemistry, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, Yonath is the product of an Israeli academia of the past - an Israel that nurtured the exact sciences, the social sciences and the humanities alike and put them at the heart of its values, and its economic attention.

In recent years, Israel's higher education system has deteriorated to dangerous depths. Or in the words of Roger Kornberg, the 2006 Nobel Prize winner, "Israel is living on borrowed time. It must double the number of university faculty positions within a short time if it wants to maintain its scientific and technological edge. That is the government's responsibility."

And indeed, only the government can guarantee a steady investment in science. But in fact, investment in research and development has fallen. There is admittedly a dispute among the experts as to what percentage of gross domestic product investment in research actually accounts for, but all agree that the gap between the ideal and reality has been growing steadily, and that Israel is being pushed to the bottom of the Western ladder in this field as well. Israeli students are ranked 39 out of 57 countries in science, and our education system views increasing the matriculation rate as a higher priority than long-term investment in the sciences.

This deterioration is worrying and weighs on both the excitement and the pride. In his speech of congratulations to Yonath, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said her contribution to science "has characterized the Jewish people and the State of Israel for many years." For the future's sake, he and his government must ensure that these achievements do not become a thing of the past.