Israel’s scientific future faces grave danger, and not only because of the great budgetary distress of higher education institutions, or because of the great brain-drain concern. Simultaneously to these two issues, another problem is emerging that is no less grave: A significant and methodical decline in creating the future generation of scientists.
The number of students registering for B.Sc. studies in chemistry, physics, biology, engineering and so on is declining every year. When taking into account the growing population in general and the growing number of students in particular, there’s a basis for saying that we’ve faced a dramatic 20% decline in the past decade alone.
This worrisome trend is clear not only at the university gates. We can easily see it at high schools. The number of high school graduates in Israel stands at roughly 100,000 a year, yet only 9% of them take in depth physics studies, only 8% engage in broad chemistry studies, and roughly 10% study biology extensively.
Moreover, some of the graduates belong to two or three of the abovementioned groups – this means that only one in five high school graduates in Israel studies any scientific subject in depth. All the rest – roughly 80% of Israeli high school graduates in recent years – in fact lack basic scientific knowledge.
Indeed, here and there we are told about distinguished students who represent Israel honorably in scientific competitions and win gold and silver medals (at a much higher rate than Israeli athletes in the Olympics.) Indeed, for the time being the IDF is able to find candidates with the required intellectual and analytical skills for its elite units. Indeed, academia and the high-tech industry still welcome young Israelis into their ranks. Yet we’re talking about an increasingly smaller group.
What’s DNA?What’s just as grave is the growing scope of scientific ignorance among the general population. An overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens who read and hear about common 21st Century terms - such as protein, DNA, laser, and ozone – don’t know what these mean. They do not know what’s enriched uranium, its connection to centrifuges (and what they are,) what’s a ballistic missile, and what hides behind the term “genetic engineering.”
According to various tests, the scientific knowledge possessed by Israelis is inferior to that of the citizens of Europe (including Eastern Europe,) South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. There’s a basis for claiming that apparently we’re rapidly approaching the situation in large parts of our region and in Third World countries.
Scientific ignorance is the ideal breeding ground for the growth of charlatans, various “healers,” mediums, and New Age sages, with all the dangerous implications this has for our human and social fortitude. Such ignorance, coupled with a shrinking non-ignorant population, presents grave threats to our economic and technological power.
The history of recent decades clearly indicates that the breakthroughs we saw in advanced industries were premised on the educated human cadre in the exact sciences. The greater that cadre, the greater its power of creation became and the more ideas it came up with – ultimately this led to the establishment of the start-up companies that flourished here.
Based on the picture emerging at this time, we’re rapidly approaching a situation where it would be very easy to find an economist for the high-tech company, as well as its attorney, marketing expert, accountant, and CEO. However, the engineers and scientists whom these companies are premised on and cannot exist without will become a rare, depleted resource.
The writing is clearly taking shape on the wall. Is there someone out there who reads it and prepares to counter this problem?
Professor Ehrenberg, Dean of the Faculty of Exact Sciences at Bar-Ilan University, is a physicist
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