Politics won’t dampen ties with Israel, UK’s top scientist says

Politics won’t dampen ties with Israel, UK’s top scientist says

His country does not boycott Israeli institutions or universities, at least in ‘Israel proper,’ maintains British Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport

Sir Mark Walport (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Sir Mark Walport (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel is among the best countries to collaborate with, UK Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview, thanks to its high level of research and entrepreneurial talent. The UK, said Walport, is anxious to work with Israeli institutions of all kinds to develop the technologies that will improve the human condition.

Part of his job is to seek out scientists around the world to collaborate with British researchers to discover new and better ways of treating the sick, protecting infrastructure and improving lives.

Politics, as far as he is concerned, will not stand in the way.

“I want to be very clear about this,” said Walport. “There is no pressure on us to halt or hamper our relationship with Israel. There seems to be a misperception of this point, and we all know that some loud voices have been advocating this. Like Israel, the UK is a democracy, and like Israel, we would never want to muzzle political voices, whatever their opinions – and that is especially true for universities.

“Nevertheless, there is no officially sanctioned boycott of any Israeli institution, product, or anything else in the United Kingdom,” said Walport. “There may be strong voices, but there are no official policies. Numerous government officials have spoken about this, and our position is very clear.”

It should be noted that the UK, like the rest of the European Union, does not collaborate with research institutions in the West Bank, including Ariel University. The EU’s Horizon 2020 Project, for example, in which the UK is a full participant, will not fund projects that are conducted outside the borders of Israel proper.

The agreement admitting Israel to the program was delayed because Israel refused to agree to a ban on funding to West Bank projects, and the stalemate was resolved when the two sides agreed to disagree; Israel does not accept the funding ban, but the EU declines to fund research conducted over the Green Line. Since the EU is providing the funds, it spends it as it wishes. The agreement, however, does not ban funding to institutions that operate in Israel proper but run projects in the West Bank funded from other sources.

Israel and the UK have worked closely on medical research, technology, business, and other areas for years. Just a month ago, for example, BIRAX – the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange – provided £10 million to advanced medical research projects in 11 leading universities in Britain and Israel. Among the projects: regenerating the liver using a patient’s own stem cells (University of Edinburgh/Hebrew University); using a breath test for diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease (University of Cambridge/Technion); regenerating immune cells to treat diabetes (Cardiff University/MIGAL); and using heart cells to restore damaged heart muscle (University of Oxford/Weizmann Institute).

Walport was in Israel this week to meet staff at several Israeli universities, to speak at the Braintech 2015 neuroscience conference, and to announce yet another collaborative program between the UK and Israel – the Frost Scholarship Programme for Israeli students, which will bring four Israeli grad students to the University of Oxford to earn a master’s degree in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. The program lasts for five years, and the scholarship will provide 100% of university and college fees, plus a grant for living costs of £14,057.

“My job is to advise politicians, elected officials, and government ministries of the best way to deal with important issues, both localized, national, and the grand challenges facing humanity,” said Walport. In that latter category he would include issues like security for infrastructure, ensuring that the electrical grid remains intact, functioning, and safe from hackers. “I spend a lot of time thinking about this,” said Walport. “The infrastructure is what allows us to live life as we do, but if it goes away, that would be the end of life as we know it.”

Israel is a center of cyber-security development, and the UK is very interested in developing relationships with cyber-security companies and universities where research into those areas is taking place. Developing relationships with cyber-security firms is on the agenda of the UK-Israel Tech Hub, which was established three years ago specifically to enhance tech ties between the two countries. Headquartered in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Hub is the only government-sponsored tech connection program of any country to have a full-time presence in Israel.

In the medical and science fields, the number of projects that British and Israeli researchers are collaborating on at any one time is in the hundreds, if not thousands.

“Just today, I visited with an Israeli firm that is using nano particles to fight cancer, and that is working with a UK firm that is doing sensor work with nanotechnology, to develop a new method for fighting cancer,” said Walport. “A genetic application that is being used in the UK to treat the nervous system is being used in Israel for people with heart problems. There are so many more examples of cooperation between researchers in our two countries. We have a great deal in common – world-class universities, top researchers, and common values. We have given each other a great deal, and there is so much more we can, and will, do together.”

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