Israeli academic told to ‘forget about science’ in politics

Top Israeli scholar says he was told to leave behind his scientific qualities when he became a member of parliament

September 27, 2018
Knesset
Source: iStock

A leading Israeli academic has highlighted the tension between science and politics, revealing that he was told to “forget everything about science” when he worked in government.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a professor at Tel Aviv University and chair of both the Israel Space Agency and Israel National Council for Research and Development, served as a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, between 2007 and 2009 for the centrist Kadima party.

During a keynote speech at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore, Professor Ben-Israel, an expert in space, cyber and technological related security, said that when he joined the government he was told by the incoming president, Shimon Peres, to leave his qualities as a scientist behind.

“He said: ‘You are a scientist. Forget everything about science. In science what really matters is a certain culture of questioning authorities. Criticism is very important. If you don’t have this quality, you will not be a very good scientist. In politics, that’s not what we want – it is about compromise. There is no absolute wisdom. If you want to succeed in politics, forget everything you know about science,” Professor Ben-Israel told delegates at the summit.

Professor Ben-Israel added: “He was right and therefore I left politics forever.”

Answering questions after his speech, Professor Ben-Israel also told universities to “add some controlled chaos” into their organisations.

“Comparing Israel to Singapore, we are much less organised and much less systematic than Singapore. This gives Singapore certain advantages but it gives us also certain advantages,” he said, claiming that many innovative initiatives in Israel tend to be bottom-up and “therefore our top priority is people”.

“We have made criticism a kind of art. Every time you meet more than one Israeli you feel it immediately. People accept nothing as not open to interpretation. Therefore people do not wait for the high authorities, the leadership, to do something,” he said.

He added that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently revealed that his administration was working on a national plan around artificial intelligence but “people don’t wait for the government to finish this process, which will take probably one year, and tell the nation what to do”. One in 10 of the world's start-ups relating to artificial intelligence are based in Israel, he said.

“This is not something created by the government. People know that this is the next direction and they start doing it. We are encouraging professors to participate in their own start-ups. We don’t tell them you have to choose either university or industry.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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