Getting to the ‘core’ of Israel’s tech leadership

A bid to prepare Israel for future leadership roles in science and technology seems to be paying off, government officials believe

Professor Manuel Trachtenberg sits beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting, February 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Professor Manuel Trachtenberg sits beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting, February 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

If you want to stay ahead in the tech game, you’ve got to stay ahead in the education game, say the experts. To that end, several years ago Israel established  the I-CORE program, a group of university-associated research centers specializing in a range of disciplines that are going to be crucial to the future development of Israel’s high-tech economy. And last week, the Israel Council for Higher Education, responsible for the program, authorized the establishment of 11 new I-CORE programs.

The Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE) program began operations at the end of 2011, as top researchers, Nobel laureates, and leaders of education and industry in Israel expressed deep concern over the state of technology and science education in Israel. At a 2010 roundtable discussion with journalists, for example, Prof. Uri Sivan of the Technion, one of Israel’s leading nanotechnology experts, said that “fewer than 20% of students in Israeli high schools today study science, and the pool of university students who can excel in areas like physics is already small.”

Even worse, he said, “in the coming few years, many of our science and technology professors will be retiring – and right now we don’t have sufficient personnel to replace them.”

Echoing those fears was Shlomo Gradman, Chairman of the Israeli High Tech CEO Forum. At a recent conference, Gradman said that “Israel produces about 10,000 new engineers annually, while China and India graduate 850,000. Israel is looking at a lot of competition in the coming years for investment money for innovative development.” Add to that the problem of funding, brain-drain, and lack of opportunity for academics – all three endemic to Israel – and you’re looking at the makings of a future education disaster. “And we can’t afford to fall behind,” Gradman said. “Half of this country’s exports are in the area of hi-tech. Imagine what would happen to the economy if we lost that number of exports.

I-CORE can, and hopefully will, be a way for Israel to overcome these obstacles, said Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, Chairman of the I-CORE Planning and Budgeting Committee. On the occasion of I-CORE’s launch, Trajtenberg said that the program was designed to “once again make academic research a national priority. The I-CORE program will significantly boost Israel’s research capabilities and enable our researchers to continue leading the way to discoveries that will impact the lives of people everywhere.” With the power of I-CORE, Trajtenberg hopes, Israel will “continue producing Nobel Prize winners.”

The I-CORE program is a key component of the government’s Multi-Year Reform Plan in Higher Education, established in 2010 to strengthen Israel’s academic research position and stature in Israel and abroad, the Council for Higher Education said.

The first set of four I-COREs concentrated on areas including alternative energy sources, the molecular basis of human diseases, cognitive sciences, and computer sciences. Each I-CORE is assigned to be led by a university, and includes top researchers and professors who will carry out projects in specific areas of the I-CORE disciplines. For example, the computer science I-CORE, under the leadership of Prof. Yishay Mansour of Tel Aviv University, is studying algorithms, “which significantly drives the core of new computer technologies and profitable commercial applications,” he said.

Along with Mansour, who heads TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science, 24 other researchers from the Technion, Hebrew University, TAU, and the Weizmann Institute are studying the applications of algorithms to areas like machine learning, computer vision and human perception, and distributed computing – all areas considered to be the leading edge of tech research.

The program has proven so successful that the Council has decided to implement another 11 I-COREs, and even expand their scope beyond tech. Four of the new programs will engage in research in the social sciences and humanities, and seven will deal with exact Sciences, engineering and life sciences, and medicine. Among the new I-CORE programs: Structural Biology of the Cell, Mass Trauma Research, Education and the New Information Society, Empirical Legal Studies, Astrophysics, Chromatin and RNA Gene Regulation, and Modern Jewish Culture.

The four latter programs will be established at Hebrew University, which was assigned more I-COREs than any other institution. Commenting on the honor, Hebrew University’s president Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson said that “with the Hebrew University ranked first among Israel’s institutions of higher learning and 53rd in the world, it is fitting that our researchers have been called upon to strengthen research in Israel and take part in so many research centers.”

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