Mortimer Zuckerman to fund STEM program to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties, counter BDS.

Mort Zuckerman and Ben-Sasson

Mort Zuckerman, right, with Hebrew Univ. Pres. Menachem Ben-Sasson, at The Harvard Club Monday. Courtesy of Jeff Weiner/Technion

To curb the Israeli academic “brain drain” and increase cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli scientific communities, newspaper publisher, businessman and philanthropist Mortimer Zuckerman has committed more than $100 million to attract postdoctoral researchers from Western countries to Israeli universities and lure Israeli academics back.

“This project will help bring back home some of Israel’s most brilliant sons and daughters, allow them to advance their own careers here and in so doing contribute to Israel’s growing scientific excellence,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video address during a news conference here Monday announcing the program, which provides fellowships and related educational activities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as STEM. “It will also enable some of America’s brightest young scientists to conduct their research in Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program will give the funds out over 20 years to four Israeli universities: Technion, Weizmann Institute, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. The level of funding puts it on par with the Rhodes Scholarships, which awards just over $5.9 million in scholarships a year, or $119 million over 20 years.

Professor Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Alexander Grass Center for Bioengineering at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week that the university has a similar fellowship collaboration funded by the Helmholtz Foundation with a number of universities in Germany. He said the exchange runs “extremely well” and has greatly “tightened the ties” between researchers in the two countries. He said he expects the Zuckerman program to have similar outcomes, but on a vastly larger scale, since the funding for the Zuckerman program is "about an order of magnitude larger."

“A fellowship program [with the United States] has a remarkable potential of tightening the ties between the two countries,” he added.

“You can imagine that a postdoctoral fellow going to Israel and making connections is going to be much more in tune with Israeli researchers when creating his own lab,” he said.

The program has two main components: the Postdoctoral Scholars Program, which will support postdoctoral researchers from the United States and other Western countries at the four schools, and the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program, which is designed to bring Israeli academics back to the Jewish state by funding new labs, programs and projects at the Israeli institutions.

“We are pleased and grateful to have Mort Zuckerman as a partner in advancing two top national priorities in Israel — reversing brain drain and deepening the Israeli-American friendship. With the help of this new fund, Israel and the United States will forge a shared tomorrow of scientific and technological excellence,” Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University, said in a written statement.

A 2013 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel found that between 2008 and 2013, just over 1 in 5 faculty members at Israeli universities have left the country to work at American universities. Another study found that one in four Israeli scientists had left the country.

The latter figure has improved in recent years, according to a 2015 survey by the Israel National Brain Gain Program, which reported that the number of academics living abroad remained steady between 2012 and 2014 after years of rising steadily.

At a news conference Monday morning in a stately wood-paneled room at the Harvard Club, Zuckerman told the crowd of politicians, academics and reporters that he hoped the program would result in a “renewal” of America’s “spirit of innovation.” He added that he was moved to create the program to give back to the United States, the country that allowed the Canadian-born media and real estate magnate to build his fortune.

“Winston Churchill said it best: ‘We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give,’” he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took time out from post-blizzard logistics to headline the event, praising Zuckerman as “one of Israel’s most effective advocates,” and the program as “critical” both for the future of science and technology, and in the fight against global terrorism.

“When you look at so many of the challenges that we’re dealing with now that will require solutions from science and technology: energy generation, military defense systems, weather management, climate change, food supply, all these riddles are going to have to be solved by science and technology,” he said, noting New York State’s efforts to improve STEM education at the university level, including Cornell Tech, the four-year-old collaboration between Cornell University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, which is slated to open a permanent campus on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island in 2017.

Moving the conversation to terrorism, Cuomo said that while New Yorkers used to feel insulated from global terrorism, in the post-San Bernardino era, “we’re feeling the day-to-day pressure and terrorism that Israel has felt for so many more years. ... That urgency of terrorism changes the entire feel and the entire body politic. Now is a moment to forge a collaboration with Israel [that is]stronger, bolder than ever before. ...

“But today’s announcement goes even further for me, because it’s not just about the STEM disciplines. Underlying it is the concept of collaboration, and of partnership, and of bringing two great powers together. And for those issues that the STEM disciplines can’t solve — issues like bringing different religions together, different cultures together and different countries together. That’s where the fellowship between Israel and America is going to be critical, and I believe it comes at a critical time.”

Academics, including three Nobel Prize laureates, praised the program for fostering both scientific collaboration and, as Nobel Prize Laureate Richard Axel put it, “a free and open dialogue” between researchers from both countries.

“What this program does is to allow a discourse between people, people who might disagree both intellectually, scientifically, politically, ideologically, but nonetheless, it is the university that in fact has the responsibility to allow this discourse,” he said. “The universities engaged in this program ... have provided for their students and their students the opportunity for free inquiry, and freedom of inquiry cannot be taken lightly.”

Officials also hope the program will provide some good PR for Israel on American campuses, where the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement continues to inspire not only student “die-ins” and rallies on the quad, but also campaigns for academic boycotts by faculty members.

Last week, Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and chairman of the Association of University Heads in Israel, said, during a Knesset Science and Technology Committee discussion on academic boycotts, that Israel needed to create “one address to coordinate this issue” because otherwise “the fire will spread,” according to The Jerusalem Post.

Earlier this month, 71 British doctors asked the World Medical Association to expel the Israeli Medical Association, accusing Israeli doctors of conducting “medical torture” on Palestinian patients. And in November, the American Anthropological Association voted 1040-36 to adopt a resolution to refrain from formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions (but not individual academics). The resolution will be voted on by the entire 12,000-membership in April.

Hebrew University’s Nahmias said the Zuckerman program will be a great help in attracting American postdocs because postdoctoral fellows in Israeli universities generally earn “much less” than their American counterparts and the cost of living in Israel is equivalent or higher to costs in the U.S. In addition, he said, the BDS movement is a deterrent. Although he maintained that the BDS movement is no bigger than other fringe groups on American campuses such as communists or neo-Nazis, it gets a disproportional level of media coverage.

“There are financial considerations and there are also PR issues,” he said.

While the headlines are ubiquitous, Nahmias says he’s never encountered any reluctance to collaborate from American academics.

“I think the BDS movement’s bark is worse than their bite. They are not a significant movement in any terms,” he said.

Technion’s Lavie agreed that the program will help Israel on the international relations, as well as the scientific, front.

“The new program will not only help improve scientific research at its highest level,” he said in a statement, “but will also serve as a new and important pillar supporting the foundation on which the ties between Israel and the United States will continue to prosper.”