A Nobel Future?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published October 14, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.
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At last I have use of the word: Surprize! For that is surely the least that can be said about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.

But enough about that, maybe even too much. It’s a different Nobel Prize, with larger ramifications, that I find fascinating — to wit, this year’s prize in chemistry, awarded to Ada Yonath, of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Simply put, her research has determined the complete high-resolution structures of both ribosomal subunits and discovered within the otherwise asymmetric ribosome the universal symmetrical region that provides the framework and navigates the process of polypeptide polymerization. Consequently she showed that the ribosome is a ribozyme that places its substrates in stereochemistry suitable for peptide bond formation and for substrate-mediated catalysis.

Got that? The rest is easy.

Yonath is the first woman to win the prize in chemistry in 45 years, the ninth Israeli Nobel laureate. If you start the record in 1948, when Israel was born, you find that Israel is tied for 11th place in the number of Nobels its citizens have been awarded — three for peace, three for chemistry, two for economics and one for literature. It has been topped by the United States (279 Nobels), the United Kingdom (78), Germany (54), France (28), Russia (20), Sweden and Canada (17), Japan (16) and Switzerland (14). That’s not a shabby record for a small country. (India and China have five each, Austria, Poland and Australia have eight, and South Africa and the Netherlands, like Israel, have nine.)

Here is where it gets interesting: Israel’s winners were born in 1885 (Agnon), 1913 (Begin), 1922 (Rabin), 1923 (Peres) and, in the sciences, in 1930, 1934, 1937, 1939 and 1947. Let’s stay with the sciences, since the award of the peace prize, as we have once more been reminded, is rather more idiosyncratic. The Israeli winners in the sciences were, at the time of their award, 75, 70, 68, 67 and 57 years old. That’s standard for Nobel awards, since they tend to be given years after the work being honored has been completed. And that is why it is useful to ask whether the current crop of students in Israel is likely, 40 or more years from now, to produce new Nobel laureates.

Here are a few items from the extremely disquieting data:

According to Haaretz, last year 116,000 Israeli youngsters graduated from high school. Of these, 9,362 had studied some chemistry, 13,000 had studied some biology and 11,000 had studied some physics. That means that the vast majority of high school graduates were not exposed to science at all.

The still more disturbing statistic, drawn in the main from publications of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, requires a word of background: There are four different education “streams” in Israel. These include the national education stream, primarily for non-religious Jews; the Jewish national-religious stream; the fervently Orthodox (a term I prefer to “ultra-Orthodox”) or Haredi stream, and the Israeli Arab stream. In the year 2000, 39% of school-age children were enrolled in either Haredi or Arab schools. By the beginning of the current school year, those two streams accounted for 48% of all school-age children. From 2000 to 2009, the number of Arab pupils rose by 10% — and the number of Haredim rose by 51% (while enrollment rose by 8% in the national-religious schools and declined by 3% in the national education stream).

Although we have very little data on the Haredi schools (20% of all students), since they lack a national core curriculum and do not take part in nationwide tests, it is likely safe to assume that they lag well behind the other streams in math and science. This means that within the very near future, a majority of Israel’s schoolchildren will be drawn from the two sectors of society — Arab and Haredi — that perform well below international standards.

Those Israeli students who do take part in nationwide tests, as judged by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, score well below all 39 OECD members save for Mexico in reading, with 39% of Israel’s students below proficiency (compared to the OECD-member average of 20%); 42% score in the lowest two categories in mathematics, and only 6% in the highest two (compared to the OECD averages of 21% and 13% respectively); in a general measure of science, they rank just ahead of Kyrgyzstan and Qatar, and rank 38th in their ability to use scientific evidence. (A part but not all of the deficit may be explained by the poor performance of children in the Arab sector, where schools are often underfunded.)

These data are more than disturbing; they are alarming. And they are about much more than Nobel Prizes. They give sinister credence to the widespread complaint in Israel that the education system is failing. Nor is there more reason for satisfaction if we look at Israel’s universities, which have suffered a budget cut of two billion shekels in the last decade (even as student enrollment has tripled in the last two decades), where one new staff member has been hired for every two who have retired.

Israel has long and correctly boasted that its principal natural resource is its people. That resource is not self-replenishing. And these days, inequality in education seems even more pronounced than the record-high inequality in income. Without a long-term and serious commitment both to general reform and, specifically, to reforms in both the Arab and Haredi sectors, a whirlwind approaches.

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