Home inFocus Israel: Refuge and Renaissance (Spring 2018) Israel and the U.S: Partners in Science

Israel and the U.S: Partners in Science

Albert H. Teich Spring 2018
Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover at the Technion.

Cornell University ranks 13th on the list of top research universities in the United States. Its research expenditures in 2016 were nearly $1 billion, more than such research powerhouses as MIT, Yale, Columbia, and the University of California’s flagship campus, Berkeley. Its distinguished faculty and alumni have received 47 Nobel Prizes. It probably wouldn’t surprise many people, therefore, to know that Cornell and a partner institution were the successful bidders in a worldwide competition sponsored by the City of New York to build and operate a new high-tech university campus in New York. What might surprise some, however, is that Cornell’s partner in this unique collaborative enterprise is not another U.S. institution, but the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.

Why the Technion? Though younger and smaller, the Israeli institution has a worldwide reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the dozens of successful enterprises it has spawned are among the key reasons that Israel has become known as the “startup nation.”  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Cornell Tech aims to be a different kind of higher-education institution, infused with some of the Technion’s DNA, even as officials in Israel and in New York acknowledge that a lot of the Technion’s culture . . . is intimately tied to its role in Israel’s early Zionist past and in its current high-tech boom.”

Cornell Tech, as it is known, dedicated its campus on Roosevelt Island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens in September 2017. It currently enrolls about 300 students and 30 faculty members. Heavily focused on technology and business, it offers a Tech MBA as well as master’s degrees in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, operations research and information engineering; a Master of Laws in law, technology and entrepreneurship; and Technion-Cornell dual master’s degrees in “connective media” and health tech. It also offers Cornell Ph.D. programs and a novel project called the “Runway Startup Postdoc Program” that offers academic and business mentorship plus substantial financial support to help recent Ph.D.s launch high tech startups.

Although the presence of a top Israeli university in Manhattan is unique, collaboration among Israeli and American scientists and engineers is not. Neither is it new, nor is it limited to high tech. Indeed, joint U.S.-Israeli efforts in fundamental research have yielded groundbreaking results and have received world-wide recognition, including at least one Nobel Prize. Much of this research develops out of human relationships that draw together researchers both professionally and personally.

One such relationship began when Professor Eitan Friedman, founder of the oncogenetics unit at Sheba Medical Center in Israel and Professor Harry Ostrer, then of New York University School of Medicine, now at Yeshiva University, discovered their common interest in the genetic background of the Jewish people. They began to work together, traveling around Israel and Southern Europe in order to recruit individuals from populations of Jews not well-represented in the United States, each supplementing the other’s knowledge and techniques. Their work, which has been published in prestigious scientific journals such as the American Journal of Human Genetics, is contributing to a multi-institution project that is creating a genetic map of Jewish diasporas and comparing it to other Middle Eastern populations.

Their research is helping to understand the genetic basis of disorders like breast cancer in the Jewish population. And the collaborative aspect is an essential element. In Professor Friedman’s words, “Having a partner who shares your goal and understands every aspect of a project of this magnitude is crucial for its success.”

Support for Friedman and Ostrer’s research was provided by the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), an organization created under a historic 1972 agreement between the two nations that has been supporting collaborative research between scientists from the two nations for the past 46 years. When it was founded, the Israeli science community was clearly the junior partner. Today, although the U.S. science community retains global leadership, Israeli science in many fields is also world class. Israeli scientists are widely sought as collaborators, and the relationship between the two nations is seen by all involved as mutually beneficial.

BSF-sponsored U.S.-Israeli collaboration reached the pinnacle of scientific achievement in 2004, when the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion, and Professor Irwin Rose of the University of California, Irvine, for their joint discovery of the ubiquitin system of protein degradation, which regulates the breakdown of proteins governing almost all major functions of the cell. Their discovery, a major advance in fundamental life science research, also led to an important application: the development of a new anti-cancer drug known as bortezomib (marketed in the U.S. under the tradename Velcade), an injection-based treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow that affects more than 15,000 Americans each year. The collaboration that produced this result was supported for 15 years by a series of BSF grants.

BSF supports fundamental research in more than a dozen fields of basic and applied research, from behavioral genetics to oceanography to materials science. Most BSF grants are funded by income from an endowment created by the U.S. and Israeli governments when the BSF was created in 1972 and augmented once in 1984.

Facing rising costs of research and a more or less fixed income, BSF worked with the U.S. National Science Foundation to develop a creative approach that is generating funding from outside of BSF’s core program. In 2012, the two organizations signed an umbrella memorandum of understanding for joint funding of collaborative research projects. Under this umbrella, they have agreed upon specific programs in 18 areas ranging from computational neuroscience to geology. Proposals are written jointly by United States and Israeli scientists. They are reviewed and evaluated in the U.S. as a single project along with regular NSF proposals. If accepted for funding the U.S. component is funded by NSF, while the Israeli component is funded by BSF, using special funds it receives from the Israeli government, independent of the BSF endowment. In general, the success rate of the joint proposals has been higher than that of other NSF proposals, suggesting the added value of collaboration.

In 1979, seven years after BSF was established, the two partner nations expanded the range of their support of scientific collaboration with the creation of BARD, the U.S.-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund. Most of BARD’s projects focus on increasing agricultural productivity, especially in hot and dry climates, such as that of Israel and comparable areas of the United States.

In one collaborative effort funded by BARD, researchers at the Volcani Agricultural Institute in Beit Dagan, working with colleagues at the University of Georgia, have developed an aerodynamic/electrostatic method to deliver fine particles of either chemical or biological materials such as pesticides with exceptional precision and efficiency. BARD reported that the equipment developed under this project has been patented and is being marketed internationally by the University of Georgia. Other BARD projects include breeding heat tolerant varieties of wheat (a joint effort of Texas Tech University and the Volcani Institute), biological control of soil-borne pathogens (Hebrew University and Cornell University) and increasing the resilience of local agricultural water supplies though wastewater reuse (a collaboration of BARD, the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the University of California at Riverside).

A rather different model of collaboration is employed by the third of the trio of binational foundations sponsored by the U.S. and Israeli governments. BIRD, the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, created in1977, supports cooperation in the private sector, involving Israeli and U.S. companies, startups as well as established firms. Its model is one of risk-sharing:  BIRD funds 50 percent of each company’s R&D costs under conditional grants, up to a total of $1 million. It does not take equity positions in the firms it supports, but instead requires repayment of its grant if the projects produce commercial revenues. BIRD supports 20 projects annually and reports that “the cumulative sales of products developed through BIRD projects have exceeded $10 billion.”

In one recent BIRD-sponsored collaboration, Voiceitt (Technologies of Voice Interface, Ltd.), an Israeli startup, is partnering with SCJ Associates, an electronics manufacturing service in Rochester, N.Y., to develop an innovative speech recognition application that translates the non-standard speech patterns of people with speech disabilities into clear speech in real time. The technology, which has won several awards, received a $900,000 conditional grant from BIRD. According to BIRD’s announcement “Voiceitt will provide the voice technology software and SCJ Associates will be responsible for the design and manufacture of the wearable hardware for future commercialization.” The BIRD grant recognized not just the commercial potential, but also the prospective social impact of the technology.

All three binationals originated through agreements between the U.S. and Israeli governments in the 1970s, long before the current political environment on many U.S. campuses spawned hostility to Israel and before the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement. In recent years, reactions to that hostility have led some American scientists to develop their own local initiatives to counter the BDS image of Israel by showing Israel in a positive light through scientific collaborations. In 2016, a small group of faculty members at the University of California at Davis began their own program to promote collaboration among scientists on their campus and colleagues in Israel. The Vice Chancellor for Research at Davis agreed to match the funds they were able to raise, and with that financial base they created a tax-exempt “California Israel Fund,” issued a call for proposals, and set up peer review processes at Davis and in Israel.

Thirty-eight groups, each involving U.S. and Israeli scientists, submitted proposals; eight either have been or will be funded. The organizers expect that some of these (and perhaps some that were not funded) will go on to win support from other sources, such as BSF and BARD. And, as word gets out, the Davis model may well be emulated by entrepreneurial Israel-oriented scientists on other campuses.

Institutional support, as well as strong faculty and student interest, is behind collaboration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT has collaborative educational programs with nearly two dozen countries through a program it calls MISTI – MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives. Prominent among these is the MIT-Israel Program. Although much of this program is student-focused and matches undergraduate and graduate students with internship and teaching opportunities across Israel, the program also includes “Israel Seed Funds,” which support new collaborations between MIT faculty and research scientists and their Israeli counterparts. Within the Seed Funds there is a dedicated program connecting MIT and Ben Gurion University. The Seed Funds provide awards of up to $30,000, primarily for travel of teams, including students, from the respective countries.

Projects supported by the MIT-Israel Program cover a remarkably wide range of topics. Winners of the most recent (2017-18) competition included MIT Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Admir Masic, a former Bosnian refugee, and Elisabetta Boaretto, a nuclear physicist and head of the Weizmann Institute’s Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory. Their project is mining ancient Roman construction technologies for insights that can inform future building techniques. In the 2015-16 competition, MIT mechanical engineering professors Gareth McKinley and George Barbastathis teamed up with Professor Ibrahim Abdulhalim, electro-optical engineer at Ben Gurion University, on a project to develop “smart windows” using nanocomposite liquid crystals that can be switched instantly from transparent to translucent.

Private philanthropy is also playing a significant role in collaboration. The Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, announced with much fanfare in January 2016, is investing $100 million over 20 years in U.S.-Israel science and technology collaboration. In announcing the program, billionaire publisher and real estate mogul Mortimer Zuckerman stated, “At a time when collaboration is essential to advanced scientific research, this program gives the next generations of leading American and Israeli academics the ability to work together on cutting edge research in ways that stand to benefit their fields for years to come.” The program is providing funding for outstanding American researchers to do postdoctoral work at several Israeli universities; supplementary support for Israeli postdocs at American universities; and funding to Israeli universities to help them compete for the top talent in the global marketplace. Seven top Israeli institutions are participating in the program.

Science is an intrinsically international activity and has been for centuries. The Internet, the declining cost of air travel, and the growing use of English as the international language of science have made international collaboration far easier and less costly than in the past. Recent studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between international collaboration and increased productivity in science. The mobility of both Israeli and America scientists and the cultural ties between the two nations continue to grow. The personal and institutional connections that are being built today seem certain to yield dividends for both societies far into the future.

Albert H. Teich, Ph.D., is a Research Professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs at George Washington University and a former member of the Board of Governors of the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation.