UK universities minister Sam Gyimah has claimed that “collaboration with Israel is a strategic priority”, after signing a memorandum of understanding with his Israeli counterpart.
Speaking to journalists during an event to mark the launch of BIRAX Ageing, a new £5 million fund for bilateral Anglo-Israeli research projects, Mr Gyimah said that he is planning to visit the country to “deepen our collaboration in scientific research and innovation”.
The new fund, which will put out a call for proposals in April, is a joint initiative of the British Council, the UK Science and Innovation network, the British Embassy in Israel, the Pears Foundation and the United Jewish Israel Appeal, and will be overseen by a group of 26 leading scientists making up the UK-Israel Science Council.
The new research will explore the ageing process and innovative approaches, often involving big data and precision medicine, to tackling the diseases of ageing. It will also build on the success of earlier projects devoted to degenerative medicine, financed by the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange since 2012.
The complex issues raised by an ageing society were flagged up as a grand challenge in the UK government’s 2017 industrial strategy. There are several reasons why the minister welcomed collaboration with Israel in addressing them.
One is developing a wide range of partners at a time when collaboration and funding in the European Union may well come under pressure.
“Collaboration with the EU, while deep, is not the only area where we do scientific collaboration,” Mr Gyimah explained. “Our universities are global institutions. You don’t need to be in the EU to solve lots of problems…It’s about maximising your opportunities. Brexit is forcing us to look beyond our comfort zone. Now it’s about maximising the programmes available to us, rather than correcting for a deficiency.”
But if the UK and Israel made natural partners as “scientific superpowers”, Mr Gyimah also thought that the UK might be able to learn from the way Israelis do science and incentivise entrepreneurship.
“Something that Israel is particularly good at is commercialising new technology,” he argued. “If you are funded on the basis of excellence, as scientists are here, that mainly happens in universities. Saying ‘I’m going to fund products going to market’ is a very different criterion for research funding.”
Mr Gyimah hoped to visit Israel to get a better sense of “the expectations of public funds going into universities”, as “that’s probably what drives the incentives for getting products to market”.
“Rather than entrepreneurship sitting in one box and academic research somewhere else, we could do more to bring those together,” he said.
“I want to understand the entrepreneurial culture and how incentives drive that, and also disruption – you need disruptive businesses as well. There are some of them in the UK, but if we’re going to survive and thrive post-Brexit we need a lot more.”