EU marks 20 years of successful research cooperation with Israel

The European Parliament was last week (22 June) the venue for a high-level conference marking the 20th anniversary of EU-Israel innovation partnership. Israel was the first non-European country to become associated to the EU Framework Programme (FP) for Research and Technological Development.

Israel spends about 4.1% of GDP on R&D. Its thriving high-tech sector, the motor of the economy, accounts for about 9 % of the employment and attracts considerable foreign direct investment.

Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, opened the conference saying: “Israel’s successful & dynamic innovation ecosystem is an inspiration.”

MEP Angelika Mlinar (ALDE, Austria), co-host of the conference, said: “Only by sharing experience, knowledge and best practices we will be able to successfully address our global societal challenges and together achieve excellence.”

“We want to deepen the research and innovation partnership and specifically reach out to the start-up culture in Israel,” MEP Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany), co-organizer of the conference, stated.

Aharon Aharon, CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority said: “Israel’s participation in H2020 brought great benefits to both sides.”

Looking forward, MEP Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), co-host of the conference concluded: “Science is definitely the field where we can bring people from different areas all together. There is still room to expand EU-Israel cooperation.”

Top researchers and investors from Israel and the EU addressed the audience including Physics Professor Eliezer Rabinovici, Vice-President of CERN and co-founder of the SESAME project (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East). The project is an international science diplomacy initiative based in Jordan.

It is one of the few projects in the Middle East where trans-national dialogue is continuing in spite of a very difficult context. SESAME members include Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Pakistan, and Turkey. The Brussels Times asked Prof. Rabinovici about his views on scientific cooperation between countries in conflict.

Politics and science

Question: SESAME involves scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and Iran. How do they manage to overcome political differences and cooperate with each-other?

Prof. Rabinovici: I cannot speak for an Iranian or for anyone else but myself. Personally I have no problem cooperating with people with whom I have political differences. In most cases I do not even know the political opinions of the people I work with. When scientists collaborate they do so for further understanding of a problem that interests them both. I can conjecture that my counterparts also consider the collaboration as a source of mutual advantage.

It is clear that on a personal level each person brings his or her personal scars, which we all carry, to the table. But this does not stop us from cooperating to the benefit of all.

Question: In which way can projects like SESAME contribute not only to scientific research but also to understanding and peace between nations in conflict?

Prof. Rabinovici: Science has one big advantage: It already has a shared language of communication. You cannot dispute the common laws of physics or mathematics – everybody accepts them.

Scientists and engineers appreciate good work when it is done. In this context of working together mutual respect may or may not develop. If it does develop it facilitates the ability to listen – also to the political opinions expressed by the other. And the mere process of listening is the first step of understanding. Sometimes these relations – as any relation between human beings – may flourish and in other cases they will remain limited to the professional interaction.

Question: It took many years to launch and implement SESAME. Are there any other similar projects in the pipe-line involving Israeli and Palestinian scientists?

Prof. Rabinovici: Unfortunately I am not aware of any other project of this magnitude and reach in the region. I hope that there are other interactions and in any case I would expect that the light shining from SESAME encourages such cooperation further and shows that it is possible – to the benefit of all sides.

An EU official told The Brussels Times that the exposure of EU and Israeli academia and industry sectors to cutting edge research and to key actors in the private sector have been invaluable contributions to both Israel and the EU’s research worlds, societies and economies.

“But the EU – Israel partnership is not just about money. What is built in the EU – Israel research and innovation projects are lifelong lasting relationships between like-minded scientists and innovators. These projects also lead us to solve some of society’s most pressing problems. This is a win-win situation for both the EU and Israel.”

“Certainly, working with Israel on research goes beyond single projects. Europe and Israel, for instance, work together on strategies on neurodegenerative diseases, anti-microbial resistance, and personalised medicine,” the EU official added.

The Brussels Times asked Martin Kern, Interim Director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), why cooperation between EU and Israel in research and innovation projects is important. EIT is Europe’s largest innovation network with almost 1000 partners.

“We believe diversity is key and support geographical, sectoral and gender diversity in all of our innovation and entrepreneurship activities,” he replied. “

“From a European perspective, there are important lessons learnt from the success factors and key drivers of the Israeli start-up nation ecosystem. Equally cooperation with European partners can bring new opportunities to Israel. It is therefore crucial to strengthen opportunities for the future. EIT is looking forward to expand the emerging cooperation to accelerate innovation on both sides.”

According to Kern, Israeli stakeholders have been closely following EIT developments ever since its creation in 2008, actively participating in a number of its key events. The EIT currently works with partners in Israel through two of its Innovation Communities: EIT InnoEnergy and EIT Food.

Background information

In 20 years of partnership, Israeli investment in the programme has been around €1.4 billion, while the return to Israeli entities in the form of grants reached around €1.8 billion.

Around 5,000 Israeli entities have participated in more than 3,000 projects and involving 4,435 participants through FP5, FP6, FP7 and Horizon 2020 (the successive EU framework programmes for research and innovation).

Since the start of Horizon 2020, some 76,400 requests for funding were made in the first two years alone, of which 9,200 projects were approved, at a total cost of €15.9 billion. Of the projects approved, 600 projects included Israeli participants. The total funding for projects involving Israelis amounted to €370 million.

Israeli universities such as the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Technion Institute of Technology and the Weismann Institute are among the highest ranked in frontier research funded by the European Research Council (ERC) with a success rate of 18 %.

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