“In Israel it’s about what you know, not who you are”
We met in Tel Aviv, in Café Masaryk on Masaryk Street under a larger than life-sized wall-mounted picture of the first Czechoslovak president. The venue alone demonstrates how unique and lasting Czech-Israeli relations are. It was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who was the first statesman in office to travel to the then territory of Palestine in 1927 to support the idea of establishing an independent Jewish state. But good diplomatic relations can’t rely solely on history; new trends and areas have to be focused on too. The modern State of Israel, termed a “start-up nation”, excels in science and research. Although the Israeli population represents just 0.1 % of the global population, in terms of scientific publications, Israeli scientists produce a respectable 0.5-0.8 % of worldwide output. It is no coincidence, then, that in 2015 it was to Israel that the Czech Republic first sent out a scientific diplomat. And as Leaders readers know me as an equal opportunities advocate, I am twice as proud that the first scientific diplomat role has been filled by Delana Mikolášová.
Delana, let’s begin with the recent past; it’s your two-year anniversary in this role. What have you achieved over this relatively short period of time?
A lot has been achieved; first of all I should mention the establishment of institutional co-operation with the Weizmann Institute of Science. This institute is considered one of the ten most prestigious science institutes in the world. In spring this year (2017, author’s note), Deputy Prime Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Pavel Bělobrádek, visited the Weizmann Institute of Science accompanied by a scientific mission to sign a Declaration of Mutual Co-operation with the Institute’s president, Daniel Zajfman on behalf of the Czech Republic. As a result of this meeting this meeting, the Czech Academy of Sciences has already arranged scholarships for Czech post-doctoral students. Our young scientists will now have the opportunity to undertake research at the Weizmann Institute for up to three years. We can be proud of this success, as with the exception of bilateral agreements with the USA and partially with Germany, no other country of our size has achieved an agreement for such an extensive and direct form of co-operation. I am extremely pleased that the first two Czech researchers have been working at the Weizmann Institute since November 2017 and more will follow next year. Another success I would like to mention is the links forged between scientists and researchers from the Academy of Sciences with their Israeli counterparts. Within eight months, a total of over 150 scientists from both countries have met as part of a mobility grant, which is an exceptionally high number. I am pleased that there is mutual interest in co-operation. Besides prestigious institutions such as the already mentioned Weizmann Institute, the universities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Technion in Haifa, the Israeli Chemical Society is also actively engaged in the Czech research environment, sending its experts to the prestigious international organic chemistry conference organised by Masaryk University in Brno. When I started out in this position, one of my main tasks was to establish working cooperation between Czech and Israeli institutions and research sites engaged in science and research. I think we have achieved this. Now both Israelis and Czechs know whom to contact if they are interested in co-operation. Important partners for me in Israel are in particular the Ministry for Science, Technology and Space, and the Directorate for Science and Research for Co-operation with Europe, part of the Ministry of Economy. I’m involved in the process of establishing Czech-Israeli co-operation as a kind of facilitator; I don’t deal with the academic side of the matter, but rather help mainly through brokering suitable contacts and accelerating cooperation on both sides. Scientific co-operation is very interesting within diplomacy; political topics are sidelined and you are confronted with all the different fields, from biology to physics, something which is incredibly interesting.
To what extent is the role of science diplomat, or more specifically Attaché for Science, Research and Innovation, widespread in other countries?
The fact we are building up this network puts us alongside larger countries. In Israel, countries such as Great Britain, Italy, Holland, France, and from the Visegrad Four also Hungary, have filled this position.
For a long time, you were the only science diplomat the Czech Republic had appointed.
There are two of us now. My colleague was appointed to Washington in summer 2017. I think it is really important to expand a network of science diplomats, as it is becoming an ever more influential part of modern diplomacy in the West. The Czech Republic should not be left behind here. Once the other party becomes familiar with our position, it greatly facilitates communication for all involved.
What was your career path?
I studied Political Science and European Studies in Olomouc. I spent almost two years on an exchange study programme at the University of Tel Aviv during my studies. I taught for a while at university, and I then underwent a selection procedure at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Diplomatic Academy. After completing my diplomatic training I worked for three years at the Middle East and Africa Department where I was responsible for relations with Israel and the Palestinian territories. As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t consider myself an expert in science; my contribution is more a knowledge of the environment, contacts, culture and mentality. Israelis are focused on accomplishments and speed; they are used to make decisions very quickly. It may occur that Israelis change times or venues for meeting at the very last minute and you shouldn’t take this as a sign of disrespect or disinterest. It is also important to take Jewish holidays into account, and the fact that here Sunday is the first day of the working week. Czechs too often aren’t aware of these facts, and this can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings.
Israel presents itself as an interesting partner or investor. What else should Czechs know about Israel?
Israel is very close to Europe. Today we’re sitting here together in a café. in the centre of Tel Aviv, and as you can see for yourself you don’t need to worry about complex cultural differences or be afraid of the security situation. News in the media, in particular regarding security, does not always reflect reality. Regarding science and research, in terms of number of scientists per capita Israel is ahead of powers such as the USA and Japan. There are 8 400 scientists per million population in Israel; in the Czech Republic we have 3 400 scientists per million population. There are 5 000 technology start-ups here, and 500-1000 more popping up each year, which is the highest concentration after Silicon Valley. In Israel, it’s mainly about what you know, and not who you are formally. This is a society which gives great opportunities to women; gender here does not play a role. Furthermore, all Israelis have army experience, where women hold roles as commanders, and so they don’t have problems with women in high management. Israelis are also very family-oriented, establishing their families earlier than in Europe. Israel only gives short parental leave of just three months. However there is also a very well-developed system of care for small children in the form of various crèches then nursery schools which allow women to return to work quickly without their career having suffered in any major way through setting up a family. I would also like to say that Israelis don’t insist on authority and as such it is relatively easy to meet with even high status people. And you will always get the chance to showcase what you know or can offer. It is purely up to you how to take advantage of this.
I’d like to return to Israel’s successes, especially within the exact sciences. Are the humanities in decline in Israel? And are there some proven practices which the Czech Republic could apply?
Humanities and social sciences comprise the bulk of subjects studied at universities; science and IT only represent about 30 %. The reason Israelis aren’t afraid of science is that from the beginning of schooling they are taught to build a natural relationship with science. 2nd Grade of the Elementary School children begin undertaking certain science projects. Politicians are also involved. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres promoted high school student visits to university laboratories. These models are then important within communities. It has been shown that Israeli Arabs do not have so many natural role models in their families in terms of academic
workers. However, if they visit university with their peers they can easily find their own models. Science knows no borders. It was Shimon Peres who promoted the idea of Israel as an innovative nation. The Shimon Peres Centre, which Peres founded during his lifetime, does not just focus on studying peace, but another important part of its agenda is to promote science and innovation across all sections of Israeli society. Shimon Peres declared that, “Israel’s size should not be measured in square kilometer, but in the number of scientists per square kilometer.” Basic research is not particularly differentiated from applied research, and an entrepreneurial approach is part of the university approach. A title is not of itself important. A doctorate in biology is no guarantee that your start-up will also be a success.
I feel your dedication and energy. Israel has infected you in a good way then.
Yes; after a few days you begin to feel that absolutely anything is possible here. I’ll give my friend Helen Wexler as an example, who was nominated amongst the 60 most influential Israelis under 30 on the basis of a prestigious ranking put together each year by Forbes magazine. At 27 she is leading a successful start-up engaged in sustainable architecture on the Moon in collaboration with a NASA team. Her second project focuses on supporting the start-up ecosystem in Jerusalem, and co-operates with Jerusalem Municipality Council. She also lectures at the Hebrew University and often takes part in conferences in Europe and the USA. Yet she still has time for her friends and her partner. These stories enrich you while also making you think about what you can do. As I have already mentioned, the ideas of “If you want to, you can” and “There are no obstacles” really are infectious in a positive sense.
Finally, I’d like to ask you for any recommendations for anyone interested in co-operation with Israel.
Israelis don’t lack the self-confidence to showcase their ideas and test them out even if they don’t always succeed. We Czechs still tend to underestimate ourselves. We have great experts who sometimes feel that Israelis are better informed. Yet this often isn’t the case. Israelis merely know how to present facts better. Note that in the renowned book “Start-Up Nation”, many of the projects showcased were not implemented or even fell apart. The facts that start-ups fail is considered a normal state of events. And similarly it would be strange if you applied for a position in some company without experience in at least one start-up. It is entirely common to change your job or field of work, with specialisation put off until later. It is important to adapt to what is needed. This flexibility can give us inspiration.
By Linda Štucbartová