Siphoning Out Science
On the Weizmann Institute of Science, Dimona and Shimon Peres
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Political speeches tend to repeat themselves. Who knows how many times an Israeli Prime Minister eulogized the Israeli education system and the scientific capabilities of Israel? I saw such a statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making use of the ratio of scientific articles per capita, which apparently placed Israel high on the world list of this parameter. However, this works only if one ignores how the system works.
Contrary to popular perception, the number of academic degrees—or their source—a scientist owns is a secondary parameter in his, or her, evaluation. More noteworthy is where the scientist published his works. Seldom is this done in books; only when research becomes widely recognized as important does it appear in textbooks. Vastly more popular are short articles containing the latest findings. These are published in scientific journals, which can be found in the libraries of most universities. While watching the publications of a scientist, the key parameters are:
The system is rather reliable but susceptible to certain manipulations. Those readers familiar with The Cross of Bethlehem know the unusual details of my entrance into the Weizmann Institute of Science. Three months after beginning my graduate studies there, I published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, the most prestigious journal in the scientific world. Shortly after, one of the co-authors approached me and gave me three more references for my résumé. The article had been republished with minor changes by other journals. This artificial inflation tells more on the manipulative capabilities of the scientific establishment than on its science. Moreover, scientists prefer citing peers from the same institution or country, thus creating a bias for large organizations. Working in a coherent fashion, a university or a country could easily alter their scientific ranking artificially. Israel does that systematically.
Except for the ego of those involved in this, those tricks would be of little relevance, if that was not part of a larger scheme which includes a crafty manipulation of the studies. There were holes in our scientific education. It was extremely difficult for us to include philosophy courses, including Philosophy of Science, which I expected to be compulsory part of the curriculum. Consequently, questions like “is that good?” and “why?” were discouraged. Somebody wanted to make us incapable of making moral judgments. It wasn’t just that. Undergraduate courses were too broad, while the ones for graduate students too specific. For example, up to my masters I specialized in quantum mechanics, but once in my PhD studies I found the need to understand quantum relativistic theories. Nothing in my early studies had prepared me for that, despite that having been easily doable. This creation of artificial knowledge barriers was an intentional way of creating a high degree of dependence between the mentor and the student, so that the latter depends on charity-classes from the first and would find it almost impossible to continue his studies abroad; his success depends on getting an inflated ranking for his work, the mentor is often the key also for this. Mentors often give less than adequate information, creating a slave-like relation with their students.
Once this is understood, all parts are in place. The Israeli administration approach to science becomes then clear. Considering the abovementioned scheme, Israel has an impressive level of scientific knowledge. How is that possible? I had just described faulty science. Many roads in Israel lead to the Indefatigable Conspirator, the nickname given to Shimon Peres by Yitzhak Rabin in his memoirs, and so does this one. When Dimona was decided upon, Shimon Peres pushed to acquire the needed technologies from the French. He claimed Israel was not large enough for independent basic research. This led to the actual situation in which scientists and engineers are poorly prepared to do independent research, but are excellent in acquiring and adapting foreign knowledge to the Israeli military apparatus. The artificial inflation of scientific ranking is beneficial because it makes it easier for young scientists to get post-doctoral positions in the US and to siphon out from there science and technology.
An outstanding example is the microwave generator we used in our research group. It was powerful enough to let us study the structure of coupled proteins, placing the group amidst the four best-equipped labs in the world. These were the first chaotic years of the post-Soviet era; everything could be bought from former USSR scientific installations. During one of our weekly meetings, the professor leading the group announced that a new generator was to be purchased. It was significantly stronger—well over an order of magnitude—than anything in similar labs. It was soviet military technology. A Russian scientist was to arrive from Kazakhstan, assemble the generator and train on its functioning. This technology is known as HPM, High Power Microwave, and can be used for burning out electronic equipment from a distance. The cost of the system was a hundred thousand dollars bribe to the Russians. It was far beyond our lab budget. In the following weeks, our mentor held several meetings with people from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The budget was approved. Two of the scientists in our group were Russian-Israelis. They were instructed to befriend the visitor and learn from him as much as possible, since the equipment was to be replicated later elsewhere.
Shortly after, I left the Weizmann Institute and Israel and began writing The Cross of Bethlehem on a small pocket computer. Then, my HP Pocket PC was targeted with an HPM weapon, days before I was shot at by an Israeli sniper.
Due to its circular nature—I was attacked using the same technology I had used in the past—this is amusing. Moreover, it’s to the point: every scientific project in Israel has political and military aspects. These are not always known to the scientists working on the projects, who often prefer not to ask questions. Is there any hope for a better future? I explained the “We Syndrome” in The Cross of Bethlehem. The Israeli and Jewish cultures indoctrinate the “we” from early on. The term is never fully explained. “We don’t do that” means also “don’t even ask why!” Most scientists growing up in such a reality are hopeless. “We have budget” means “it is a good research,” and don’t ask any further questions because Big Brother is watching and ready to shoot at his own kin.
This text was adapted from The Cross of Bethlehem II: Back in Bethlehem.
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