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Education for a Scientific Society
The future of Israeli excellence rests on investing in research
Yehonathan Tommer (tommery06)     Print Article 
Published 2009-10-09 11:53 (KST)   
Prof. Ada Yonathin herlaboiratory at the Weizmann Institute, Israel
©2009 Courtesy of Corbis/ Micheline Pelletier

When Ada Yonath, professor of biochemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, commenced her life-long research into the structural biology and function of the ribosome, her skeptical colleagues said that the project was destined to fail where others before her had tried.

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Over and above the personal recognition she rightly earned, Yonath's award of the Nobel Prize underscores deep seated fears in academic circles for the future of Israel as a modern, civil society capable of meeting the domestic and international challenges presented by a volatile neighborhood.

Wednesday's award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her research discoveries into the structure of the ribosome (that part of the cell which synthesizes protein and translates genetic code in the production of protein) vindicate Professor Yonath's persistence and makes a path breaking medical contribution to developing more effective antibiotics in overcoming drug resistant pathogens and saving more lives.

Professor Yonath is the fourth woman awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry and the first since 1964 when Dorothy Hodgkin of Britain received the prize.

She shares this year's prize with two colleagues working in the same field, Britain's Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and American researcher Thomas A. Steitz.

Professor Yonath is also the ninth Israeli to have been awarded a Nobel Prize for outstanding achievement.

Yonath was shocked to receive a call from Stockholm to inform her that she was a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize which comprises a check for $1.4 million, a diploma, gold medal and an invitation to the prize awarding ceremony in Stockholm on December 10th.

"I was sure they were pulling my leg," she said at a news conference in Israel where she was surrounded by her research team. But disbelief turned to joy. "I'm really, really happy."

Yonath found a way of freezing the ribosomes of bacteria and related organisms that thrive in the salty, airless conditions of the Dead Sea and making X-ray images of them, the Nobel Prize Academy said.

She developed a three dimensional model called X-ray crystallography,which is now regularly used by scientists, to map the position of hundreds of thousands of atoms comprising each ribosome.

"I remember being completely stunned by her being somewhere between brave enough and crazy enough, because it was way, way, way beyond the technology available at that point," Dr. Jeremy Berg, who directs the American National Institute of General Medical Science, told the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper.

That was in 1987 when Professor Yonath spoke to him of her ideas at a meeting with Berg at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

"Companies are likely to shy away from this kind of research whose payoff is decades in the future and is arguably something taxpayers should not have to fund," Berg said. "But it was certainly seen as completely unique and potentially so important that it should be funded."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians lauded Yonath's accomplishment as a proud plume in the nation's cap. But heads of the country's universities warned that in rushing to pat ourselves on the back, young Israeli scientists would find it difficult to attain the same high achievements like Professor Yonath's Nobel Prize; particularly if budgets are slashed for science education in schools and academia.

Professor Manuel Trajtenberg who heads the Budget and Planning Committee of the Council for Higher Education told local media that Israel's internationally acclaimed academic success are the "fruits of past investments."

Thirty years ago Israel led the world in scientific publications per capita. But to today it has slipped to fourth rank. "At the time there were few of us but we reached amazing achievements."

Despite a tripling in the number of university students in Israel in the last twenty years, state subsidized budgets have been cut, student-staff ratios have not grown correspondingly, technical laboratory facilities are frequently under equipped and fewer research grants are available for talented students.

Professor Ehud Keinman of the Technion in Haifa and President of the Israeli Chemistry Society was even harsher in criticizing the Israeli educational infrastructure.

Over 80 percent of Israel's high school graduates have never been exposed to scientific knowledge and the vast majority of Israeli citizens are inferior in scientific knowledge to the citizens of South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, he said.

"Growing ignorance produces intellectually disabled citizens and affects Israel's chances of surviving as a society in a turbulent part of the world," he added.

The picture is not as dark as it is painted and "money is not all," dissented Professor Israel Aumann who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005.

"There is always room at the top," he said optimistically. "Budgets are important and will not be a hurdle in the future. So is the Jewish mind which has demonstrated its ability to surmount objective shortcomings."
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yehonathan Tommer

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