Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s government neglects scientific education

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Article Summary
Judging by budgets and funding, Israel is focused on settlements, not advancing scientific education.

Israel lags far behind enlightened, developed nations in terms of its human rights record as an occupying power. On the other hand, its scientific and technological creativity is outstanding and praiseworthy. On April 15, Tel Aviv University announced that its scientists were the first in the world to print a 3D human heart using human cells. Professor Tal Dvir and his team had overcome obstacles to creating individually adapted human organs, a development that could eventually do away with the need for organ donations. Earlier this year, Israel made space history by becoming the seventh country to successfully launch a spacecraft to the moon. Although the long journey ended in a crash landing on April 11, it reflected the impressive technological skills of this tiny Middle Eastern state.

Two days after the Knesset elections, newly reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara entered the control room of Israel Aerospace Industries to watch the moon landing of the Beresheet spacecraft. The ministries of Science and Education had together allocated 9.5 million shekels ($2.64 million) of the total project budget of 350 million shekels ($97 million), with more to come. Netanyahu declared to the dozens of reporters and photographers covering the anticipated landing that he was “seriously considering” investment in the space program. After the crash of Beresheet, the prime minister consoled the disappointed project leaders with a promise that an intact Israeli spacecraft would land on the moon within three years. “This is also a sign for Israel’s boys and girls — where there is a will, there is an unlimited way,” he said.

Far from the spotlight and with a modest government annual budget of 7 million shekels ($1.95 million), 700 Israeli high school students (yes, 700, no mistake) flew to Detroit, Michigan, this month for an international robotics championship sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international youth organization fostering scientific and technological skills. The Israeli delegation, numbering 20 teams, is the fifth in size among the 30 national participating delegations, larger than the Chinese, Indian, Japanese, French, British, German, Dutch, Swedish, Swiss, Australian and Brazilian delegations.

The Israeli contingent includes Jewish and Arab youths, religious and secular, champions from Tel Aviv and from the Negev Desert town of Yeruham, and from the Arab Galilee village of Yafiya. It all began in 2005, when former air force commander Avihu Ben-Nun met with American Segway inventor and FIRST founder, Dean Kamen, and accepted his proposal to open a branch of the organization in Israel. Some 12,000 children aged 5 to 18 took part in robotics activities this year in 70 schools throughout the country — 1,100 teams in all on four difficulty levels.

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Michael Biton, the former mayor of Yeruham, who was recently elected to represent the Blue and White party in the Knesset, was one of the first to realize the educational potential that lies in robotics. “Yeruham has a hole-in-the-wall image,” Biton told Al-Monitor this week. “Robotics turned our youth into part of the global arena.” Over one-third of the town’s children, from kindergarten kids to high school seniors, participate in robotics activity. “This is actually the town’s leading youth movement. Robotics is one of the most dramatic engines of Yeruham’s education revolution. We have won the most prestigious awards. Our graduates reach the army’s most classified units,” the former mayor from the small southern town said with pride.

Senior engineers and programmers volunteer to accompany the program participants and serve as role models. The activity also teaches the meaning of team spirit and helping others, and children from Yeruham go out to Bedouin encampments not even hooked up to the grid and show schoolgirls there how to assemble robots. A 15-year-old boy from Yeruham was sent to Ethiopia to provide guidance for engineers and teachers so they could teach local children how to build robots.

Biton found that Yeruham was first in the world in terms of the number of children per capita engaged in developing robots. “This is a concrete expression of Netanyahu’s high talk about Israel being a startup nation,” the former social activist turned politician remarked snidely. Indeed, a Brandeis University follow-up study of FIRST participants in the United States and elsewhere found that 94% of robotics instructors reported greater understanding on the part of students of how to use science and technology in problem solving. Some 88% reported heightened interest in higher education, 84% reported interest in jobs that apply science and technology, and 99% had enhanced their teamwork skills. “Too much depends on the initiative of a mayor or on the generosity of philanthropists,” Biton said in conclusion. “The government should open the front gate to technological entrepreneurship.”

Data compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) point to a weak link, if any, between the impressive achievements of Israeli science and technology experts and government investment in research and development. Israeli government R&D funding in 2016 comprised only 13% of the national expenditure in this field, compared with 32.3% on average in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states. The business sector’s investment in nurturing research and development is hardly exemplary, either — some 30%, compared with 50% in OECD states.

Absent budgets, more and more Israeli scientists are turning to greener pastures abroad. CBS data indicate that since 2013, the number of Israeli academicians living abroad has been growing gradually and the number of those returning has declined. Some 25% of doctoral degree holders in mathematics from Israeli institutions, and 16% to 20% of doctoral degrees in computer science, mechanical engineering, biomedical and aeronautical engineering live and work abroad these days.

If the government continues to invest the best part of the taxpayers’ money in expanding Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu and his wife may still be able to pose for a photo-op against the backdrop of a tiny Israeli spacecraft landing on the moon (though Beresheet was mostly privately funded). However, the best Israeli space engineers, human organ developers and robotics graduates will not be here to see it.

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Found in: Technology, Education

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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