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  • USIEA Team

Binational Scientific Research

Israel Update – Week of January 29, 2024

Binational Scientific Research: Since its inception, Israel has worked closely with America on scientific breakthroughs in fields including clean energy, cancer care, and irrigation. Unfortunately, funding for that research is now under threat.

Recently, the Biden administration reimposed a ban prohibiting U.S. taxpayer funds from being used on any research development or scientific cooperation projects conducted in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. This reversed an October 2020 decision by the Trump administration to remove those geographic restrictions, a decision codified in an agreement signed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, in a ceremony held at Ariel University in the city of Ariel in the West Bank.

While ostensibly implemented for humanitarian reasons, Biden’s policy reversal will adversely affect U.S. citizens by curtailing their access to lifesaving medical and technological breakthroughs. Collaboration between the U.S. and Israel has yielded cutting-edge medicines and medical equipment, serving to lessen the dependency of both countries on China.

The U.S. and Israel have formally facilitated scientific relationships for nearly fifty years. Three bilateral U.S.-Israel science and technology foundations – the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), the Binational Science Foundation (BSF), and the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Foundation (BARD) – were founded in the 1970s to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties by fostering Israel’s then-nascent scientific community. The foundations were initially endowed with 200 million dollars, provided equally by each government. Since then, more than 1.4 billion dollars have been invested in grants given to U.S. and Israeli companies and academic institutions in numerous fields of science and technology. These grants have provided both countries with an enormous return on investment.

The charters of all three foundations originally stipulated that “projects sponsored by the Foundation may not be conducted in geographic areas which came under the administration of the Government of Israel after June 5, 1967, and may not relate to subjects primarily pertinent to such areas” – that is, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. This prohibition was considered inconsequential when the foundations were first created in the late 1970s. At that time, the West Bank had not yet been settled by Israelis. The city of Ariel consisted of a few caravans on a barren hilltop. Today, the realities on the ground have changed significantly. Nearly half a million Israelis live on the West Bank. 

Ariel University, founded in 1982, has been on the cutting edge of medical research that has benefitted both the U.S. and Israel. It is, by all measures, a first-rate academic institution. Since the binational funds were extended into the West Bank in 2020, Ariel University has undergone an exponential increase in collaboration with American universities. In 2021, 18 proposals were sent to binational funds, seven of which were granted funding. In 2022, 32 proposals were sent, and in 2023, more than 60 proposals were submitted. 

The results of BSF funding are impressive:

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is collaborating with Ariel on a novel mechanism for drug resistance in cancer cells. With today’s cancer drug shortages, the timing of this research could not be more critical.

  • Ariel University partners with the University of Rochester to develop a novel therapeutic modality for the improvement of affective and cognitive function by using extracellular vesicles derived from mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

  • Biomirex, Inc. is working with Ariel University on a targeted-delivery system for pancreatic and triple-negative breast cancers.

But future cancer patients are not the only potential victims of funding boycotts; in the near term, funding cuts will have the greatest effect on Israeli researchers returning home to continue their research after post-doctoral fellowships in the U.S.

The White House indicated that engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights is "incompatible with the foreign policy of the United States." But are the lifesaving drugs being developed by American scientists and Ariel University actually hazardous to our foreign policy?

The path to rescinding funding to Ariel University is not straightforward. The 2020 modifications of the BIRD, BARD, and BSF charters forbid geographically based restriction or discrimination, and Israel is not eager to reinstate the original charters. Indeed, to date the Israeli Ministry of Science has received any request to modify the charters.  As such, all proposals must be evaluated based upon their merit, whether they are submitted by the Technion, Tel Aviv University, or Ariel University. The grant approval committees are directed to “follow the science.” Nevertheless, since July 2023, when the BSF board last met to evaluate and approve grant submissions, a sea change has taken place. If the U.S. cannot prevent Ariel University from submitting grants, they are not required to actively approve them. Each grant proposal is ranked via a point system, and the highest ranked proposals receive grants. Out of the 27 proposals submitted by Ariel University that came before the grant committee in June 2023, only two were approved – only 7% – significantly lower than the 30% rate of grant approval in 2021 and 2022. This drastic reduction cannot be attributed to chance or to poor science, but it is impossible to prove that the reduction is a result of U.S. policy. 

The situation at BIRD has taken a similar downturn. In 2023, Ariel University had one researcher who was being funded by BIRD. In June 2023, his funding was inexplicably rescinded. Another similar case pertains to an Ariel University researcher working under a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant. After three years of productive research, in June 2023, NIH suddenly, and inexplicably, canceled his grant. Other than the obvious effect of the university having to scramble for alternate sources of funding, midterm cancellation of a grant makes the scientists look bad, as if their scientific research is not up to U.S. standards. The end result is that a political decision has besmirched the good name of Ariel University along with its researchers. 

If the Biden Administration continues to implement its funding ban, all collaborative research with Ariel University is likely to cease – unless Congress acts quickly. 

Congress must codify the October 2020 policy and pass a law mandating that U.S. funding for BIRD, BSF, and BARD cannot actively or passively discriminate against scientists based on where they conduct their research.

To this end, a letter, sent in July 2023 to President Biden from 15 Republican Senators, calls out “guidance to relevant U.S. Government agencies and officials terminating American support for bilateral scientific and technological cooperation in the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria, including parts of Jerusalem” and calls on the President to “rescind this discriminatory guidance.” This is a good start, but unless the cry is bipartisan, it will be lost in the wind.

The U.S. government should fund collaborative research between American scientists and their partners from abroad regardless of where the research takes place. 

Artificial political lines should not block access to critical science. America, Israel, and the world simply have too much to lose. 


Good things,

Ari Sacher

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