Israeli government advisers threaten walkout

Research council says it wants independence from ministry.

A rift in Israel's science establishment is threatening the country's long-term planning of civilian science. All 15 members of its National Council for Research and Development, now subordinate to the ministry of science, are poised to resign this month unless the council is given independent budgetary and administrative standing.

"If the council ceases to exist, we won't see any effects in the short term," comments Meir Zadok, director of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. "But its responsibility is to aggregate information about research and development throughout the country and to look ten years ahead to see where the government needs to be involved."

In recent years the council has lent its support to efforts to increase research and university funding. Members have appeared in public forums and in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to lobby for such funding.

The group was established in its current form in 2004 as part of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. In 2007, under the previous government, the council was transferred to the ministry of science when a science minister wanted to expand the ministry's responsibilities.

"The council's budget currently comes through the ministry of science, and it requires the approval of the ministry's officials for everything it does," says Meir Sheetrit, chairman of the science and technology committee in the Knesset. Council members chafed at being subject to the ministry's whims, and complained that their budget was being cut in favour of other areas under the ministry's purview, which included — until last spring — culture and sport.

In response, Sheetrit held hearings and drafted legislation to change the council's status to that of a government-run corporation. "Every­where else in the world," he says, "national research councils are independent, with separate budgets, to ensure their objectivity."

But the government opposed the bill and, in mid-December, the Knesset rejected the legislation. As a result, council members plan to submit their resignations en masse in the next few weeks.

Council director Rony Dayan blames Daniel Hershkowitz, the country's science minister, for torpedoing the legislation. "The officials in his ministry warned him that his small ministry would have trouble justifying its existence if it lost authority over the council," says Dayan.

Hershkowitz rejects that charge and says he supports independent status for the council. "The law that was submitted wasn't appropriate, however," he told Nature. "My goal is that the research council operates with independence, but there needs to be oversight to ensure proper management."

He declined to comment on how he would react to a full council resignation.

Hershkowitz says that he plans to draft legislation in line with his goals of continued ministry oversight. Sheetrit has already reintroduced his own bill, and plans to continue to push for its passage.

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Watzman, H. Israeli government advisers threaten walkout. Nature 463, 14–15 (2010).

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