Eureka! UNESCO’s science study set to discover Israel

For over a year, UNESCO refused to correct a global science report that omitted Nobel Prize-winning Israel. Only a concerted diplomatic effort — and perhaps a ‘Palestine’-prompted funding crisis — secured a promise to make amends

In its most recent 500-plus page, five-year report on worldwide scientific achievements, UNESCO neglected to detail Israeli achievements — notably the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry won by Ada Yonath.

It also failed to give Israel a country profile or a separate listing in any of its comprehensive regional descriptions.

Following publication of the UNESCO Science Report in November 2010, Israeli officials urged the UN organization to revise at least the online version. Only recently, however, has UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova promised Israeli government officials and representatives of American Jewish organizations to update the report with a chapter on Israel’s many achievements in science between 2005 and 2010, the period covered by the report. The printed report — in which Israel appears only in brief statistical mentions — will not be recalled and reprinted. Curiously, while Israel is virtually missing from the report, the Palestinian Authority is discussed, as part of the regional section on Arab states.

A senior Israeli official who was intimately involved in the issue told The Times of Israel that the most disturbing aspect of the oversight was the fact that Israel sought, for months, to have the report corrected, to no avail.

“It’s bad enough that they forgot Israel in the first place — almost an impossible task, given Israel’s scientific achievements,” the official said. “But what was even worse was the fact that it took a year and a half of nudging on our part to persuade them to promise to correct the error. They’ve been stalling on giving Israel its rightful place in a report on scientific achievements, and it’s only because of financial constraints, and their desire to restore American funding, that they have changed their ways.”

At issue is the agency’s latest five-year Science Report, which lists the world’s major scientific contributions from 2005 to 2010. Among Israel’s many achievements in medicine, physics, chemistry, and other sciences during that period, was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Yonath for her work on ribosome structure. That distinction did not make it into the report.

The report ignored a wide variety of Israeli scientists, including Nobel laureate Ada Yonath, winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, given out by UNESCO itself

Besides winning a Nobel Prize, Israeli scientists delivered and developed hundreds of other important innovations during the period. Among them was the approval by the FDA and European Union authorities of numerous drugs for a variety of diseases, from diabetes to cancer, including Copaxone for multiple sclerosis; the deployment of several satellites, including the world’s first “nano-satellite,” the construction by an Israeli firm of the largest solar power plant in the world; and the receipt of numerous awards and accolades from international agencies and organizations recognizing a wide variety of Israeli accomplishments, including, ironically, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, given out by UNESCO itself. Even this was omitted from the report.

Some Israeli statistics do appear in the report, such as the number of scientific publications produced by Israelis, the prevalence of Internet use in Israel, the number of Israeli scientific researchers, and other data. However, Israel is absent from the main body of the report, which is broken down by country or region. Thus, for instance, there is a US section, covering US achievements in science, with details of programs, analyses of strengths and weaknesses, and forecasts for the future. Among the dozen countries that received their own sections were Canada, Brazil, Cuba, Turkey, India, and Iran. Regional sections, such as those for Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the European Union, and South Asia, include in-depth subcategories for individual countries’ scientific achievements, issues, and challenges.

The report is generally organized around geographical regions, with one  exception — the Middle East. Here, the area is listed as “Arab States,” a category in which Israel obviously does not fit. The Arab States section does not include a country-by-country breakdown of achievements, but instead is organized by topics, with each country’s achievements and issues listed, including those of the Palestinian Authority. Thus, the same national information about scientific achievements and challenges is clearly listed, but it has been organized in a manner that is different from the rest of the report.

Israel, being neither part of the Arab world nor part of any other regional grouping, 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.

The Israeli official contends that it was almost as if the organizers of the report sought ways to ensure that Israel would be excluded, adding that the government — and indeed, scientists around the world — immediately protested. “We thought 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.”

Minister of Science and Technology Daniel Hershkowitz (gesturing) in an unusual 2010 meeting with Israeli Nobel laureates of the past decade. Participating in the meeting were Aaron Ciechanover, Israel Aumann (right), Ada Yonath, and Peretz Levi (not seen). (photo credit: Gil Yohanan/Flash90)
Minister of Science and Technology Daniel Hershkowitz (gesturing) in an unusual 2010 meeting with Israeli Nobel laureates of the past decade. Participating in the meeting were Aaron Ciechanover, Israel Aumann (right), Ada Yonath, and Peretz Levi (not seen). (photo credit: Gil Yohanan/Flash90)

The initial protests came from the Israeli Academy of Sciences, and when that group failed to convince UNESCO that it had made a mistake, the effort was picked up by the government, with Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz demanding redress.

Ultimately, UNESCO admitted that it had erred, but refused to do anything about it. Hershkowitz and other Israeli officials requested that a chapter be added to the online report and offered a commitment to not demand that printed copies be recalled and corrected, but this was turned down as well. “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.

Israeli appeals and UNESCO recalcitrance went on for nearly a year and a half — until UNESCO made a major misstep, at least from a financial point of view. When the UN group admitted “Palestine” (as it termed the Palestinian Authority) as a member state last October, the US cut off its funding, about a quarter of UNESCO’s budget.

It was at that point, said the official, who participated in nearly all the meetings on the matter, that several American Jewish groups that had been similarly frustrated by UNESCO’s reluctance to fix the report decided to get involved. According to the official, UNESCO decided to mend fences with Israel over the issue because of the funding problems. And at a meeting earlier this month with officials from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and B’nai B’rith, UNESCO Director General Bokova promised to finally include an online chapter on Israel to augment the report.

‘When Dan Schechtman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, we suggested to UNESCO that this would be the perfect time to update the online version of the report. They refused’

Speaking to the Times of Israel, Jason Isaacson, director of the AJC’s Office of Government and International Affairs, said that the organization, as well as the State of Israel, appreciated Bokova’s efforts on the matter. “We got to know her when she was appointed to head UNESCO. The report was issued before she was appointed, and she was in full agreement with us that this should never have happened. She has instructed her staff to complete and post the chapter on Israel, and we expect this to be done within several weeks.”

As to how such an error could have occurred in the first place, Isaacson said he was just as puzzled as anyone else. “We never heard an explanation, whether it was an editorial glitch or a deliberate decision. But considering Israel’s prominence in the scientific world and UNESCO’s history regarding Israel, I cannot believe that political considerations were not part of the exclusion.”

Gretchen Kalonji, assistant director general for Natural Sciences at UNESCO, respectfully disagrees. “I don’t know the details of how this omission came about, but the folks responsible for the report are not with us anymore,” she said. “The report has changed in format over the years, and previous versions had Israel prominently featured. But the omission was definitely not politically motivated. We have had good ties with Israeli scientists for many years, and we intend to post the chapter on Israeli achievements in the 2005-2010 report.”

In addition, Kalonji said, UNESCO is initiating a new project highlighting scientific accomplishments by country; Israel will be the first to be honored. And, she added, a special interview UNESCO conducted with Professor Ruth Arnon, director of the Israeli Academy of Sciences (and co-developer of Copaxone), is to be posted “in the coming weeks” on UNESCO’s website.

For the Israeli official, it’s about time. “When Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry last year, we suggested to UNESCO that this would be the perfect time to update the online version of the report,” he said. “They refused.”

Science and Technology Minister Hershkowitz, for his part, said that he “congratulated UNESCO for its decision to release reports that include Israel’s accomplishments in science in a respectable and clear manner that cannot be ignored.” Hershkowitz met with Bokova last year to discuss a number of issues, and in an interview with Haaretz, Bokova said that she had promised Hershkowitz that UNESCO would present Israel’s scientific achievements “at the first opportunity. We are very proud to honor Israeli researchers,” Bokova said in the interview. “Professor Ada Yonath was named a UNESCO ‘Woman of Science’ a year before she won the Nobel Prize. We have become an avenue to the Prize, and we are very proud of this.”

But despite official reassurances that UNESCO respects Israel’s scientific accomplishments, the Israeli official said that the saga of the Science Report is more representative of Israel’s experience with UNESCO than the aforementioned positive comments. “The Science Report is not the only publication that we have been trying to get UNESCO to change,” he said. “The organization’s History of Humanity, we feel, is very biased against Israel.”

That, however, is another story and another battle, the official said. For now, he is happy that UNESCO has committed to making the changes in the science report. “Of course now we are waiting for them to actually fulfill their promise,” the official said. “When dealing with UNESCO, I have come to realize, seeing is believing.”

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