Israeli science faces financial crisis

Israel’s space industry facing staff cuts

Decline in government funding precipitates cash crisis.

By Haim Watzman, Nature News, July 29, 2009 

Israel’s space industry faces a financial crisis that could lead to the laying off of half its workforce over the coming year. The message came from academics and industrialists speaking at a hearing of the Science and Technology Committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on 28 July.

Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, says that the crisis has been triggered by a series of cuts in the defence and higher-education budgets, combined with the expense of sustaining and replacing ageing infrastructure that was created in the 1980s and 1990s, the early years of the country’s space programme.

Ben-Israel told the committee that the Israeli government must more than double its spending on space research and development, from about US$60 million a year today to $150 million a year, to save the industry and maintain the country’s position as a small but key player on the world stage.

According to Yossi Weiss, General Manager of Israeli Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) space division, the industry as a whole has already laid off 15–20% of its scientific and engineering work force over the last three months.

Another 30% would be dismissed during the next year in the absence of extra financial support from the government. The loss of these trained and experienced workers would make the decline in the industry irreversible, says Weiss.

Ben-Israel argued that an increase in funding would be a profitable investment. The revenues of the satellite industry worldwide are about $150 billion, he said, claiming that with proper support Israel should be able to get 1% of that market.

European connection

Israel’s space industry had its beginnings in 1983, when the government established the Israel Space Agency. The country launched its first satellite, Ofek-1, in 1988, and has successfully launched ten other civilian and military satellites.

Last year, an IAI-built reconnaissance satellite named TecSAR was launched by the Indian Space Research Organization. Collaboration between Israel and India is continuing, notably with the planned TAUVEX space telescope.

Israel is also involved in providing satellite components for the European Union’s Galileo project to develop a civil global navigation satellite system. But the partnership on Galileo is an exception — Israel has no formal agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA), and that prevents Israel from participating in many other ESA projects. Ben-Israel and others told the committee that investing in ESA membership is vital if Israeli space research and industry is to grow.

Dan Blumberg, head of the department of geography and environmental development at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, adds that the lack of government investment in space research and development makes university-based researchers more dependent on country’s military industries and satellite programmes. However, military secrecy prevents the publication of much research done through military–academic cooperation.

"We can’t publish and we can’t present our results at scientific conferences," he says. "Israel is becoming less of a presence in the field as a result."

Source: Nature News

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