Israel Sports New Science Minister

9 August 1999 7:30 pm

Filling out his cabinet 3 months after his election victory, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last week appointed a science minister: Matan Vilna'i, a career army officer-turned-politician. Scientists are watching to see whether Vilna'i can protect a $50 million science budget at a time most ministries are being asked to make do with less.

Vilna'i inherits a shrinking science portfolio--the science ministry's budget was $60 million just 4 years ago--in a government whose R&D spending is slanted toward applied research. The science ministry funds what it calls strategic research: Initiatives in hot areas such as biotechnology and the next-generation Internet, as well as collaborations between scientists from Israel and Arab countries. To this mix, the previous science minister, Silvan Shalom, launched a program that funds social science research that aims to "bring science to the community" (Science, 7 May, p. 894).

Maintaining R&D programs will not be the only concern for Vilna'i: Barak transformed the science ministry into the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport. Some researchers are worried that the new portfolio could dilute an already weak voice for science in the government. "This is definitely not a good idea to equate these three things, at least psychologically," says Gabi Kventsel, a chemist at Technion--the Israeli Institute of Technology in Haifa. However, says Kventsel, "we should wait some time to see what the actual output of his ministry is."

Vilna'i, 55, has vowed to not let science play second fiddle to, say, soccer. "We will do everything needed to invest in and develop science," he told Science after being sworn in on 6 August. Although he is the fourth science minister in just under 4 years, and he lacks science credentials, Vilna'i, a decorated veteran, has a high standing in the Labor Party. Some observers are hoping this will give him the wherewithal to fight for science. Based on public statements so far, says Israel Hanukoglu, a molecular biologist at the College of Judea and Samaria who served as science adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "it appears the new minister and the government are committed to strongly supporting science."