Political appointments more harmful than boycott push

The European Union commissioner responsible for research, science and innovation, Carlos Moedas, recently completed his two-day visit to Israel. The visit marked the 20th anniversary of the association of Israel with the European Union Research Framework Programme.

His visit came just a few days after this year’s highly competitive European Research Council, or ERC, grants were announced.

Once again, Israeli researchers figured high on the list of recipients, with two universities in particular, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, obtaining a large number of awards, which will significantly boost the research budgets of these institutions.

The ERC projects, awarded to individual researchers and scholars, along with the consortium projects of Horizon 2020 (formerly the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7) have become the main name of the game for Israel’s universities as they compete in research excellence on the international stage.

During the past decade, it has been the European funding of research, for which Israel is entitled to compete because of its associate status, that has become the key target for the country’s universities. Israel has succeeded, on an annual basis, in achieving greater research funding than the amount it pays into the common budget, indicating the high level and quality of its scientific endeavours.

Political intervention

All this unfortunately comes against the backdrop of increasing government political intervention in the affairs of the country’s universities – intervention which reached a new low earlier this month with the announcement by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the appointment of an unknown junior academic, Dr Rivka Vadmani-Shauman, from one of the country’s teaching colleges, to the important post of chairperson of the Council for Higher Education, following the unprecedented sacking of Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron from the position that she has competently filled for the past three years.

If that sounds elitist, so it should. The positions of Council for Higher Education, or CHE, chairperson and head of VATAT – the funding and budget authority of the country’s universities and other institutes of higher education, chaired by another recent Bennett appointee, associate professor Yaffa Zilbershatz of Bar-Ilan University – are, along with the head of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the most important positions in the country’s scientific hierarchy.

Responsible for determining future policy and development of the country’s universities, their decisions determine whether the country’s scientists will have the necessary work conditions to enable them to achieve even greater success in the ERC’s and other international research projects in the future.

Appointing an unknown junior lecturer to this position, someone who has never taught or undertaken significant research in one of the country’s seven major universities, and who has not even been promoted to associate professor status, is an insult to the country’s research community.

Even if Bennett had wanted to continue his attempts at transforming the CHE into a political committee, no longer independent from political interference by government, he could at least have chosen a right-wing professor – of which there are many – who has international status and proven administrative capabilities.

Messer-Yaron’s attempt to reform the way Israel’s universities are organised and administered was strongly rejected by Bennett, despite the months of hard work that had been invested in preparing the necessary proposals and documents. Implementing her proposals would have ensured the autonomy of the higher education system, which was seriously challenged by Bennett and his predecessor as education minister, Gideon Sa’ar.

The latter initially intervened in the composition of the CHE by appointing members based on political allegiances and ideologies rather than academic and administrative capabilities.

We have witnessed several highly politicised decisions taken by an increasingly interventionist CHE in recent years, not least of which was the attempt to close down an entire academic department – the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University – based on a series of false academic accusations, when it was clear that the only real reason was the political statements of a minority of its faculty members, which contrasted strongly with the right-wing policies of the previous government.

Laughing stock

In a meeting of the Bashaar think tank of Israeli academics on 8 January at Tel Aviv University, the heads of the country’s academic community made their positions clear.

The head of VERA (the national committee of university presidents), Professor Peretz Lavie, made it clear that the universities were opposed to this appointment, which he said made the country’s universities a laughing stock in the eyes of the international community, and expressed his hope that this would be no more than a temporary, one-year appointment, until the new CHE was appointed (the CHE is appointed for a period of five years).

Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate that the current interventionist policies of the education minister will not lead to even greater politicisation with the next CHE committee appointees – which are the prerogative of the minister.

The current chairperson of the university rectors’ forum, Professor Zvi Hacohen of Ben-Gurion University, also expressed the dismay of the country’s academic community at what they see as the continued erosion of the country’s scientific image in the eyes of the world.

Instead of dealing with such critical issues as the need to recruit new, young, excellent research faculty who can compete on the international stage, prevent further government cuts in the teaching and research budgets of the universities and the teaching colleges, Bennett appears to be hell-bent on destroying the scientific reputation of the country, as long as the composition of the CHE and its administrators suit his own political objectives.

Israel’s universities have enjoyed a long history of autonomy and independence. Obviously, a system that receives well over half of its budget from the government – although this has been seriously reduced during the past 15 years – must be held accountable for its actions. But that accountability must focus on academic and scientific excellence, not the political allegiances of faculty members.

Israel enjoys any number of Israel Prize recipients – of all political persuasions and flavours – and an increasing number of Nobel Prize laureates, along with a prestigious list of members of the Israel Academy of Sciences, any one of whom could, and should, be appointed to the key positions of VATAT and the CHE.

But this would not be in the interests of the education minister, who prefers to appoint junior personnel, subject to his decisions and policies, which are far removed from the true objectives of our scientific and research community.

Academic community confers

The 8 January meeting of Bashaar, along with the active discussion among Israeli academics on the Academic-Il list in recent weeks, suggest that the latest decision is pushing the country’s normally silent academic community beyond the brink. There is talk of possible industrial action – although whether this will have any wider impact beyond harming students and research projects, which would be self-defeating, is questionable.

The country’s university presidents and rectors need to speak with one clear voice rather than allow the government to rely on their internal divisions – the classic divide-and-rule tactic, which has been practised effectively by the education ministry for some years – in opposing increased political interventionism and the weakening of the scientific standards of the country’s researchers.

If Israel is to continue enjoying its current success rates within European and other international research projects, the country’s universities must be freed from the increasing political interventionism of the country’s right-wing politicians – for whom everything is secondary to their wider political objectives.

If they continue in their current actions, then the reason that the world will turn its back on our scientists has absolutely nothing to do with political boycotts – the marginal impact of which is overrated by our politicians in their latest pouring of resources into a new anti-boycott campaign, which would be better used for educational and research projects – but is because of our own stupidity in the way that we manage and administer our system of higher education.

Moedas, who is visiting Israel not only to celebrate 20 years of research cooperation between Israel and the EU, but also to consult with senior research and scientific personnel in Israel concerning the future potential for even greater cooperation, will not be blind to what is happening.

We should be thankful to the EU for the immense research opportunities that are being offered to our leading scientists and universities and we should urge our government to immediately cease its path of scientific self-destruction in the name of right-wing politics, before it is too late.

Professor David Newman is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. The views expressed are his alone. This is an edited version of an article he published in The Jerusalem Post.