When I first became Ambassador to Israel, I said that I wanted to ensure that the relationship between the UK and Israel was about more than just our disagreements. We know the disagreements well – over settlements, for example, or more recently over some of the legislation currently before the Knesset. We have always done an excellent job of arguing with each other. But we have not always done a great job at working together in the areas where we both excel, where we both share a common goal, and where by working together we can be more than we can be working apart. One of those areas is science.
Britain and Israel are natural partners in science. As William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary put it when he visited Israel a year ago, we are both scientific superpowers. We both have disproportionate numbers of Nobel Prize winners. And we both have disproportionate numbers of the world’s leading laboratories and universities – Britain has four of the world’s top 10. We are close geographically, our scientists both speak English, and there is enormous mutual respect between our scientists. Yet the level of collaboration has been lower than the potential would suggest.
Erroneous claims of boycotts
That is why we are launching the BIRAX (Britain Israel Research Academic Exchange) Regenerative Medicine Initiative. Regenerative Medicine is at the cutting edge of medical research, and it is an area where both Israel and the UK are recognized as world leaders. Put simply, instead of trying to help the body deal with damaged tissue in the traditional way of drugs, transplants and medical devices, it aims to help the body regenerate the tissue and its functioning. It uses a variety of approaches including stem cell therapy, tissue engineering, gene therapy and biomedical engineering. It offers enormous potential for future treatments for everything from heart attacks to diabetes and blindness.
This may seem like an unconventional area for a diplomat to invest his energies. But I see it as a fundamental part of my mission, and one way I can make a real difference during my time here. Over the next five years, we aim to raise 10 million pounds to promote collaborative research between the UK and Israel in regenerative medicine. This effort has the full support of both governments, and will fund 15 UK-Israel research projects. Projects will be selected by an expert panel and approved by our new UK-Israel Life Sciences Council – a group of 19 of the most eminent scientists from both countries that include four Nobel Prize laureates and three members of the UK House of Lords.
For too long, a negative image of British academic institutions has persisted in Israel – fuelled by erroneous claims of widespread boycotts against Israel. The reality is very different, with real enthusiasm for joint projects and exchanges between our universities. With 60 of Britain’s experts in regenerative medicine coming to Israel to look for opportunities to collaborate with their Israeli counterparts, my hope is that this conference leads to a surge of collaborations between British and Israeli scientists, and stimulates ground-breaking joint research. In the future, if this works, there will be millions of people suffering from a wide variety of illnesses who benefit from this UK/Israel joint effort.
Matthew Gould is the British Ambassador to Israel