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The cell phone rang on May 35 - nanotechnology - to invest or not to invest?

Hagit Messer Yaron

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Nanotechnology - this magic word has been on everyone's lips lately. The 16th Knesset dedicated its first session to this innovative scientific-technological field at the beginning of the year, state bodies engaged in research and development agreed to allocate 30 million dollars from their budget to it, the last Caesarea conference called for nanotechnology to be prioritized and Shimon Peres leads the establishment of a private fund to invest in projects in this field.

This frenzied enthusiasm is part of a process of trend change taking place in science policy in Israel, which began about a decade ago. This change, the main focus of which is the concentration of investments in research and development (R&D) in limited and limited areas, defined as "preferred areas", could lead to a fatal injury to academic freedom. As a result, Israel may discover in a few years that its global position in the fields of science and technology has greatly deteriorated, similar to its dismal state in the field of education.

Traditionally, the state's investments in science focused on basic and free science, where the researchers themselves choose the research area and topic. The state participates in the funding of basic research in any way - without directing it. The reasoning that is usually given for the other, targeted approach is that the concentration of resources will lead to an economic-business advantage and the exploitation of the industrial potential inherent in science. In times of budget cuts, undirected science based on the personal curiosity of researchers may seem like a luxury.

However, basic research has an importance that goes far beyond that: it is the base of the R&D pyramid and the most advanced technology developments were built on it. Even academic fields that are perceived as clearly lacking economic or applied potential lead to surprising insights and breakthroughs. Thus, for example, studies in linguistics led to the development of speech understanding by a computer.

The question of whether it is the right, or even the duty, of the state to direct science, or whether to allow scientists a free hand, is one of the oldest issues in science policy. The question is discussed in many countries. Today's Israel, it seems, is heading towards a fundamental change of trend without the policy makers giving their opinion on its full implications.

How can you even determine which areas are preferred? Who decides which ones and how is this determination made? Is it better for the State of Israel to follow trends in the world, such as nanotechnology, and walk the "path of the elephants", or is it better to find fields that are unique to it? Shimon Peres deserves to be appreciated for his interest in science and technology and his mobilization to promote the field, but does he, or anyone else, have the tools to determine what is a preferred field that will lead to economic success in general and in Israel in particular? Although in various parts of the world they tried to develop such prediction tools (for example, the Delphi survey in Japan and Germany), there is no consensus on reliable and acceptable tools.

The thought that it is possible to estimate today what will yield an economic advantage in the future is indeed attractive, but upon closer examination it turns out to be simplistic. There is no guarantee that today's magic words (nanotechnology, biotechnology) will also be the leading fields in the future; On the other hand, it is possible that the revolutionary breakthrough will actually come from an area that no one can imagine today. Because scientific progress has a special character: random, surprising, unpredictable.
History shows failures in the ability to predict the direction of the market, as in Motorola's Iridium project, and alongside them - potential markets, some of which were identified by science fiction writers and others, that no one imagined existed. The mobile phone was predicted by the author Erich Kastner in his unforgettable book "May 35"; There, in the city of Abtomat, Danny and his uncle were left with an indelible impression by the sight of a man who "took out a telephone receiver from his coat pocket, spoke a number into it and called: Miriam? Please listen, today I will be late for lunch..." This vision of Kastner was realized after several decades mainly on the basis of military communication technologies that were naturalized, but neither he, nor Jules Warren, nor others predicted the Internet and its uses.
Few of the users of this network know that the origin of Internet technology is in basic science, and it was developed during an attempt to answer fundamental questions in the physics of elementary particles.

Basic research is required so that the scientists have the freedom to research any subject in which they find interest and the means to realize their research. The modern state recognized the importance of basic science both as a cultural value and for its benefit to society. "Rules of the game" were built that allow him to operate and flourish. These are based on two fundamental principles: the budgeting of basic research by the state out of a commitment to academic freedom and the placing of research products and knowledge in the public domain. There is no other entity, apart from the state, that can finance research conducted according to the principle of academic freedom. Therefore, the state's reneging on its obligation to budget for basic research will inevitably lead to damage to it.

Another central question is, if preferring a certain R&D field does bring an advantage. The experience of the recent past in Israel did not prove the connection between defining a field as a favorite and its economic-business success. About a decade ago, electro-optics was diagnosed as an important field and in 1995 it was recognized as a preferred field. Among those engaged in it, there is a widespread belief that the preference of the field led to its flourishing, and indeed in Israel about 90 optical communication companies were established, but recently it was announced that about half of them were closed. Is it a success?

In 2000, a national priority was declared for biotechnology and a year later the government granted this field a special budget of NIS 50 million. Has biotechnology been exhausted as a national priority area to such an extent that a new priority must be defined?

Cellular communication and the Internet - the two arrowheads of the contemporary economy - grew out of the two types of R&D that dominated the Western world and Israel until the end of the twentieth century, and not from the direction of R&D. The first type is the classical, basic science and research, which has its roots in the beginning of human culture. This is the research for its own sake, whose goal is to satisfy curiosity and increase human knowledge. The second type is the R&D that aims to provide a solution to a specific need, such as a cure for SARS or protection against Qassam missiles. R&D designed to satisfy specific needs flourished in Western society in the twentieth century, mainly on a military and security basis, and many believe that it led to the main technological development in this century.

The answer to the question of the feasibility of targeting investment in certain research areas is not clear cut. There may be a place to consider funding R&D in relation to the market by the state through the appropriate mechanisms. It is important that the direction of R&D be done at the same time and in addition to public funding for basic research and for R&D designed to provide a solution for a specific need, as was done in the mid-nineties as part of the "Infrastructure Program" in the Ministry of Science. It should not be accepted that the focus on R&D funding in "preferred areas" will come at the expense of free and undirected basic research.

It is the state's right and duty to initiate and finance R&D whose products are designed to satisfy the needs of the public that the state is entrusted with: security, health, environmental quality, education, and more. In an era of budgetary distress, the debate focuses on the question of whether it is correct to prefer fields in R&D, where there is apparently economic-business potential, at the expense of supporting R&D without preference, in mechanisms that have already proven their ability to bring Israel to the forefront of science and technology in the world. Damage to them, and especially to basic research, could jeopardize Israel's international standing in these areas.

* The author is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Tel Aviv University and formerly the Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Science
The science of nanotechnology

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