Israeli scientists in the running for worldwide award, even if UNESCO still can’t find Israel

Despite the fact that Israel does not fit into any of UNESCO’s world groupings, three women still have a chance to win up to $100,000

Left to right: Professor Hagit Yaron-Meser, Chairperson of the Open University; Prize winners  Osnat Zomer-Penn, Dr. Efrat Shamah-Yaakovi , and Gili Bisker; and Ruth Arnon, director of the Israeli Academy of Sciences (Photo credit: Lamm and Velich Photo Studio)
Left to right: Professor Hagit Yaron-Meser, Chairperson of the Open University; Prize winners Osnat Zomer-Penn, Dr. Efrat Shamah-Yaakovi , and Gili Bisker; and Ruth Arnon, director of the Israeli Academy of Sciences (Photo credit: Lamm and Velich Photo Studio)

Three Israeli scientists are the country’s finalists in this year’s worldwide L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women in Science” awards. The three will receive cash prizes of either NIS 10,000 or NIS 50,000, to be used to help them to do post-doctorate work abroad, and they will be Israel’s representatives to the worldwide contest, where the winners in each of five world regions earn prizes of up to $100,000.

The fact that Israel does not fit into any of those five regions, said an Israeli official involved with the awards, will not constitute a roadblock to an Israeli candidate bringing home the world award.

This year’s winners are Dr. Efrat Shamah-Yaakovi of the Weizmann Institute; Osnat Zomer-Penn, a doctoral candidate from Tel Aviv University; and Gili Bisker of the Technion, who was named a For Women in Science International Fellow, a designation for younger scientists. The three will now go on to the international competition, the winners of which will be announced in early 2013.

Shamah-Yaakovi is investigating epigenetic changes associated with cancer. Epigenetics is a branch of biology that deals with changes in genetic activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but are still passed down to children. Shamah-Yaakovi is examining the way epigenetic changes influence cancer development, an emerging area of research that could lead to new ways to treat cancer.

Zomer-Penn, meanwhile, is working in the field of computational biology, a relatively young scientific discipline that combines biology and computer science. She has developed computerized tools to study the evolution of the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and to compare the genomes of different strains of virus which are common in different geographical areas. The research objective is to understand how the viral genome has evolved to evade the immune system cells and how the virus itself in different populations around the world.

Bisker, like Zomer-Penn a doctoral candidate, is developing new treatments for cancer based on controlled release of drugs derived from nano-particles of gold and administered using short laser pulses.

Ruth Arnon, director of the Israeli Academy of Sciences, said the purpose of the competition was not just to recognize women’s achievements in science, but to encourage more women to remain in science, and especially to enter academia.

“Studies show that girls in grade school and even in high school do better than boys in math and science, and the truth is that at many higher learning institutions, like the Weizmann Institute, enroll equal numbers of male and female students in the sciences. But we find that among academic staff in universities – which are usually drawn from post-doctoral graduates of those institutions – we find that only about 15% are females. What happened to the women?”

What happened was life, said Arnon.

“In order to get to the point where they can teach, academics must spend time abroad and do post-doctoral work in American or European universities. This is a solid rule in Israeli academic institutions, and many female scientists, after doing their doctoral work here, decide they cannot cope with the pressure of raising a family and pursuing a career abroad. Thus, they drop out of the process.

“Money doesn’t solve everything, of course, but the L’Oreal-Unesco competition winners are able to get some ‘breathing room,’ using their prizes to make a transition to a research and academic career easier, and we appreciate what L’Oreal is doing for science in Israel.”

In fact, all three of the Israeli winners announced at the event are around 30 years of age, and married, with at least one child each.

Shamah-Yaakovi and Zomer-Penn will receive NIS 50,000, while Bisker will receive NIS 10,000. The three were chosen by a panel of five judges which included Arnon and Nobel Prize winner Professor Ada Yonath – herself a recipient of the L’oreal-Unesco award in 2008. Two other Israelis – Naama Geva-Zatorsky and Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv – have also won the competition, when they were named For Women in Science International Fellows in 2011 and 2012.

But it’s possible that Yonath may end up being the last Israeli winner of the world competition, if UNESCO’s recent reorganization of its regional groupings is applied to the L’Oreal-UNESCO awards. That’s because since 2009, instead of naming the five worldwide winners of the awards by country, UNESCO now names them by world region, with a winner for North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Africa/Arab States.

That Israel does not really fit into any of those categories was made clear in 2010, when UNESCO issued a World Science Report that basically ignored Israel’s contributions to science, during a period when Israeli scientists won numerous international awards, including several Nobel Prizes. Israel, being neither part of the Arab world nor part of any other regional grouping in that report, was completely omitted from the main body of the report — the part detailing regional and national accomplishments — which constitutes 408 of the report’s 529 pages.

In an investigative report on the matter earlier this year by The Times of Israel, Israeli officials said that they had vehemently demanded that UNESCO amend the report to reflect Israel’s important scientific achievements for the period covered by the report. Speaking to the Times of Israel earlier this year, an Israeli official very familiar with the report said that Israel “thought that the omission was ridiculous, considering how much Israel has accomplished in science, and especially since Iran, as well as states with far fewer achievements, was included.” The switch to regional groupings – an innovation in the 2010 report, prior to which individual countries, including Israel, were profiled – made it seem almost as if UNESCO intended to ensure that Israeli achievements would not be listed.

“We raised [the issue] at all levels, and while they agreed that they had made an error in omitting Israel, they refused to take any steps to correct it, telling us that they would make sure Israel was included in the next report, in 2015,” the official said, after meeting numerous times with UNESCO representatives in Paris. Finally, at a meeting with Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz late last year, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said that the online version of the report would be updated to include a chapter on Israel. As of this writing, however, the report on the UNESCO World Science Report site has not been changed.

But another Israeli official who has been very involved in the L’Oreal-UNESCO awards said that he did not believe that the World Science Report regional groupings scandal would be a precedent for naming award winners, even though it appears that the regional groupings problem that prevented Israel from appearing in the Science Report was inherited by the award groupings. “I discussed this issue with the UNESCO people and told them that if it was going to be a problem for Israelis to win the awards, we just wouldn’t send Israelis to the competition, and they promised that it would not be a problem.”

The official, who is very familiar with the inner workings of UNESCO, said that Israelis have a somewhat mistaken impression that the organization has anti-Israel agenda.

“You have differentiate between the politics, which is the usual UN anti-Israel political system, and the professional level of UNESCO’s activities. On that level, UNESCO deeply appreciates Israel’s contributions. I have been told many times how much the world benefits from Israeli scientific findings. The UNESCO political agenda, as with so many other UN agencies, is directed by the non-aligned nations, who jockey for influence and money from rich countries. But that is the usual UN nonsense, and we need not be concerned over it; any UNESCO professional will tell you that it is irrelevant.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, said the official; Israelis should know by now that the UN doesn’t “like” the country politically. “Of course we can play the political game as well, responding tit-for-tat to every insult. But then we wouldn’t get anywhere, and our relationship with the rest of the world would be as petty as our response. Israel has a great contribution to make to the world, and the world, and UNESCO, knows and appreciates it, even if it doesn’t seem so on the surface.”

Much of the anti-Israel feeling is really blown out of proportion, the official said.

“Take the story last week of UNESCO’s dedication of a chair at a ‘Hamas university’ in Gaza,” he said. “The process of approving that chair has been going on for years and was requested by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which ostensibly does not get along with Hamas anyway. The PA is trying very hard to build itself up, and they are doing many of the things Israel did when it was first established.

“We have to realize that the PA is very weak, and we don’t realize just how strong Israel is in so many ways, including science. It wouldn’t hurt us to be generous with the PA, and it could go a long way to helping them advance their people.”

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