Sunday, May 18, 2008.

Israel is a country of unrelenting tensions: between religious and secular, between left-leaning peaceniks and right-wing uncompromising hawks, between rich and poor. These are universal tensions; we have them here as well. But here is one that is unique to the history of Israel: Tension between those who saw Israel as a place of refuge and renewal of a nation, and those who saw it as a spiritual place, radiating enlightenment and reason to the rest of the world—the embodiment of the biblical “light unto the nations”.

The “practical” wing of Zionism was headed by young socialists from Eastern Europe like David Ben Gurion, who advocated the creation of “facts on the ground” in the form of collective farms (Kibbutzim), and industrial enterprises owned by the labor unions. They succeeded in creating an egalitarian society with all its wonderful attributes and inescapable shortcomings.

The “intellectual” wing of the Zionist movement was populated with thinkers, writers, and philosophers; they earned the disdain and ridicule of the socialist “doers”. But not all were hopeless dreamers. One of the leaders of “spiritual Zionism”, as they were called, was a professor of Chemistry at Manchester University, Chaim Weizmann. As it often happens, being in the right place at the right time can change the course of history. Professor Weizmann devised a way to manufacture synthetic acetone on a large scale, and that discovery came at a time when the British were bogged down in the unwinnable trench warfare of WWI. To win, they needed high explosives for the artillery, and to make the explosives, they needed acetone. Weizmann gave it to them on a silver platter, and together with the development of the tank, the battle in France took a decisive turn; Germany was quickly defeated.

As the story goes, Weizmann was received by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and was asked to name his reward. He asked for a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Apocryphal, to be sure, but a few months following that meeting, on November 2, 1917, Lord Balfour, the Foreign Minister, issued a declaration of creating a national home for the Jews in Palestine. In 1948, when Israel was created, Chaim Weizmann was elected its first president. Weizmann did not retire to political life; he continued to head the research institute he established in Rehovot, later named after him, the Weizmann Institute of Science. This institute attracted some of the best scientific minds of the time, and it is still regarded as one of the prime scientific research institutes in the world. The fourth president of Israel, Ephraim Katzir, was also a professor, of biochemistry, at the Insitute. And he, too, continued to run his laboratory while serving his term (1973 – 1978).

The critical role of science in the birth of the state of Israel has not abated. In fact, it has grown immensely. Today, every large technology company has an R&D center in Israel. I traveled this morning north, from Tel Aviv to a place called Herzliya, and saw the campuses of Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Hewlett-Packard, Google, to name a few.

A news item on the radio: Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, opened today the company’s new R&D center in Herzliya, and stated that it was second in size to the one in the U.S, and in terms of size relative to the population, it was the biggest.

And then, there is the story of Intel. About 5 years ago, Intel was on the ropes because its engineers in Silicon Valley developed faster and faster chips, at tremendous power consumption and heat generation. They were obsessed with more power, more speed, at any cost. Very much like Detroit and its power-hungry machines. Consumers like Dell and Google turned to the more economical products of AMD, and Intel saw its market share plunge. It was the Israeli Intel scientists in Haifa, who defied Intel HQ’s testosterone-charged strategy and quietly developed the low power chipset, called Centrino, that saved Intel from self-destruction. Another Israeli/Intel chip, codenamed Penryn, is the first eco-friendly chipset—it does not contain lead and halogen—and is due to be introduced later this year. Gordon Moore, the legendary co-founder of Intel, called it “the most revolutionary transistor development in the last 40 years”.

Another index of scientific creativity and excellence: Israel, a country of 7 million people, is second to the U.S. in the number of technology and biotechnology companies trading on the NASDAQ.

Speaking of cars and green technology: Shai Agassi, an Israeli engineer and entrepreneur, is in the process of developing a plug-in electric car that will have a range of about 200 miles, go up to 90 miles an hour, and use off-the-shelf, readily available technology. Part of the business plan is to build battery charging stations throughout the country, where a car can pull in for charging up the battery, and where a change of battery will take less time than filling a tank of gasoline. The venture was started six months ago and the first cars will go on the market in 2009, and, in 2010, will be marketed in Holland. This is lightning speed; just a change of model takes GM or Ford a minimum of 3 years from design to market.


Why can’t we do it?

Why is it that such a small country with virtually no natural resources can outdo us in creativity and entrepreneurship—what we call Yankee ingenuity? I think the answer lies in the attitude toward science in public policy. The legacy of Chaim Weizmann, its first president, lives on. Shimon Peres, Israel’s current president, convened last week a conference of hundreds (!) of scientists, engineers, architects, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, philosophers, historians from around the world (among them ten Nobel prize winners)—all grappling with and contributing to an overarching question: Where should the country be in the next 60 years. This was not one of those ceremonial shows for public relations consumption; it was a serious endeavor at strategic planning. It lasted a full week; it will be published; and it will form the basis for the country’s blueprint for public policy. Today, Al Gore received one of Israel’s highest honors (the David Prize) for his environmental work. He, in turn, praised Israel for its extensive reforestation project and for its solar energy use. These events received wide coverage in the media; the news hour on channel 2 (the most popular) devoted over 15 minutes to coverage of the science-related events.

You can see my point: Israel did not declare war on science, it embraced it. Why can Israel resolve its ethical issues regarding stem cell research and move on to become one of most advanced centers in this field, while we are held captive by backward-looking troglodytes? Why can Israel, the birthplace of the Bible, accept the fact that the world was not created 5,400 years ago and that evolution should be taught in school, while we have to fight off creationists and similar crackpots? Why can Israel see an opportunity in green technology while we are still arguing if global warming is real? Why can Israel have courses in computer science in middle and high school curricula while we are graduating students who can’t read and comprehend a simple sentence? Why can the Israeli president engage the world scientific community while our president does not know the name of his Science Adviser? Why can’t we think strategically and plan for the future? There are so many whys…

Our size and wealth will not help us in the long run; we won’t be able to buy our way out of this rut. Foreign scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who once stayed here for the high salaries and the unlimited opportunities are now leaving in great numbers for greener pastures. Remember the dinosaurs? When the earthshaking catastrophe happened, they couldn’t adapt fast enough and became extinct. It was the small and agile mammals that survived and thrived.

Stay tuned.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.