"About half a billion dollars of the chief scientist's R&D budget is 'marked' by the government for projects which are not my top priority for Israel's
R&D industry," reveals Avi Hasson, the chief scientist at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.
Summarizing two years in office, Hasson told Yedioth Ahronoth recently that "one of the reasons for our impressive achievements in Israel was the fact that the excellence and quality criterion was above any other criterion."
Hasson noted that the chief scientist budget is enough for just 20% of appeals these days.
"In the past, the scientist's budget was about NIS 2 billion ($540 million), and today there is only NIS 1 billion ($270 million) which are not designated for goals set by the government in advance – and this is while the industry has grown and demands have increased," he said.
In light of the constraints, which investments would you give up on?
"I would give up on some of the government's goals, like participating in the Swiss CERN project for particle acceleration, on Israel's membership in the European R&D project, for which we pay NIS 300 million ($80 million) a year, and on other goals which began as ministers' initiatives and were approved by the government, such as the budget for a renewable energy centers, for the development of oil substitutes, etc.
"My fear is that we're wearing out our advantage. What happened with the textile industry could happen to high-tech too. The world is changing. Today a product can be developed in 15 countries deployed in 40 countries. There is no longer a need to do everything here. Two development engineers can be left in Israel and 200 programmers can be hired in India, where it's cheaper.
"It's no secret that some Israeli companies have transferred their development centers to India and China. Today, like in 'Alice in Wonderland,' one must run faster to stay in place. So we must maintain our advantage, the innovation."
What surprised you in the chief scientist job?
"I was positively surprised to see how much influence the scientist's office has. This morning I had a meeting with a very senior official in international pharmaceutical company Merck, which we would like to see investing in Israel. They come to me because we have an intimate knowledge of the industry.
"About 95% of biotechnological companies in Israel are my clients and receive R&D budgets, as do research groups in the academia. On the negative side, I could not believe how difficult bureaucracy is."
We keep hearing threats that Israel is already losing its competitive advantage in high-tech due to the education system and the lack of engineers. Is the situation that serious?
"Twenty years ago I served in Unit 8200 (of the Israel Intelligence Corps), and even then we were already told that the Iranians have a bomb in their hands. The same thing is being said today. That doesn't mean we can sit idly by.
"The world is moving fast. We are still innovative and attractive for foreign investors and companies, because Israel has a supporting infrastructure for entrepreneurship and high-tech, like practicing lawyers, human resources, venture capital funds. But resources must be allotted to maintain the advantage."
What is the most attractive thing today in our R&D abilities for investors?
"Our ability to combine disciplines, for example biology and software. In general, it's our ability to think outside the box and come up with unusual solutions."