Former Ambassador’s Remarks at The Reut Institute’s Decade Event: A Scientific and Technological Vision for the Future of the State of Israel

Good afternoon.

Many thanks to Reut President Gidi Grinstein and CEO Netaly Ophir Flint for inviting me to speak at this prestigious conference, and congratulations to Gidi, Netaly, and the entire Reut team on your 10th anniversary – your accomplishments in such a short time are impressive, and as you look 10 years into the future at this exciting conference today, the sky is the limit on what you can accomplish!

It is a great honor to join such a distinguished group of panelists and participate in this innovative format.

Let me start by making three quick points, some of which may seem provocative, and then I’ll try to explain my thinking:

First, to speak about a “Scientific and Technological Vision for the Future State of Israel,” – the topic of this panel – is already to define the problem incorrectly.

Second, to be meaningful, any vision for a future Israel that continues to “punch above its weight” in global innovation must incorporate as a key component a concept of collaboration with U.S. innovators.

Third, the days when the most significant innovations could be spawned and grown in government and military-funded incubators have passed.

On my first point: a science & technology vision for the future of Israel mis-defines the challenge before us:

In the 20th Century, the most important innovation occurred when governments, militaries and large corporations brought the brightest minds together, locked them up in a room and focused them on a problem. Whether Israeli military technological advances, NASA projects or Bell Labs, highly-funded, focused and protected projects produced the last century’s greatest technology breakthroughs. They helped the U.S. and Israel stand at the forefront of new technologies, to great military and economic benefit. Later, innovation was maximized when talent and resources were developed within a small community – Silicon valley, for example – which was a step beyond the closed lab.

But the world today is heading in yet another direction. The most important innovation today is happening as a result of thousands of minds across the globe, sharing ideas, collaborating and communicating at lightening speeds. The old model was like a supercomputer, run behind closed doors. The new model is a virtual network of global minds. It is fluid and transformational. We see that scientists, businesses, researchers are successful because they refuse to accept boundaries; they reach out to draw inspiration and knowledge from everywhere they can access, and they can access the entire globe digitally.

That is a critical element to the effort to bring the benefits and opportunities of the Start-Up Nation to Arab, Haredi, and other communities that do not fully participate. All of them can have the same digital access to these networks as any other citizen.

So what do we mean when we say we want a “Scientific and Technological Vision for the Future State of Israel”?  It sounds a lot to me like we are trying to find a better version of the models of the last century, rather than the coming one. I instead would argue the vision needed is a “Vision for Enabling the Israeli People to Tap into, and Contribute to, the Global Innovation Network.”

This gets me to my second point, about the centrality of U.S.-Israeli collaboration to any successful vision of the future of Israeli innovation.

I would venture to say that there is no other relationship in the world that has produced more significant collaborative innovation than that between Americans and Israelis. We see it in so many areas, from consumer electronics, to breakthroughs in basic sciences to military technologies. Israel’s scientists, technology experts, and entrepreneurs have deep and extensive ties and collaboration with their American counterparts, and vice versa. These ties have been born of necessity, such as when Israelis or Israeli products have not been welcomed in other countries; history, such as from the high levels of emigration that have occurred between our two countries in both directions; and, as a natural result of the shared culture and values between many of the people in our two countries.

What does this have to do with innovation and collaboration? A lot. While the future of innovation is one in which technology has allowed the world to link up and share ideas at lightning speed, there are still barriers. Culture, language, academic experiences, values… all can intervene in ways that hinder mutual trust, communication and true collaboration. But for the U.S. and Israel, this can be an enormous asset. Drawing on what are two of the most important populations in the world for science, technology and innovation, the best minds from our two countries have a leg up in a world that offers infinite possibilities for collaboration. Our shared values and vision for open societies in which ideas can be tested not for their political or religious orthodoxy, but for their truth and value in advancing humankind, make us natural partners in driving future innovation.

Israelis and Americans value education and emphasize the importance of building a highly trained workforce equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century economy. We are open and transparent societies. We believe in open debate, in the equality of men and women in the workforce, and in the importance of inclusiveness. We believe in a vibrant private sector leading economic growth. We believe in the role of the government as a facilitator of innovation, not as the manager of it. As such, the U.S. and Israel are uniquely positioned to partner together in spreading the culture of innovation more broadly in the world.

So, whether we are talking about a vision for the U.S. or Israel in ensuring that our peoples stay at the cutting edge of innovation and contribute to the future development of science and technology, I think it is critical that we include as a central part of that vision the importance of collaboration with our most important partners.

So, that brings me to my last point which I would venture to guess would make some of my government colleagues wince — the idea that government is not the answer.

Governments can create innovation and make it happen – at least they could in the model of the last century.  But, for innovation of the kind that will be necessary for success in the coming decades to occur, government and other institutions need to take more of an enabling approach.  We need to create the environment in which our citizens will be free to participate in the wave of innovation that is drawing in billions of minds across the globe through technology. If the U.S. and Israel sit back, throw up the walls and try to push through government or military programs, intensive projects to develop the next great technology, we shouldn’t be surprised when we wake up one morning to find that we have fallen behind in a race led by a hundred innovator/ entrepreneurs living in a dozen different countries who pushed their ideas out onto the internet and drew on a hundred thousand netizens – scientists, academics and even amateurs – across the globe who challenged their ideas, offered up tweaks for improvement, or alerted them to other approaches that were being tried elsewhere.

When I look back to the 1970s when Israel was still a nation emerging economically, I think one of the wisest things we did was put some real money into our three bilateral science foundations – namely, the BIRD (Binational Industrial Research & Development Foundation), BARD (Binational Agricultural Research & Development Foundation), and BSF (Binational Science Foundation) which I am sure you are all familiar with. Those are some of the best investments of U.S. and Israeli government monies that I can think of. The payoff has been many times the initial investment. Our investments helped science become one of the engines of Israeli economic growth, giving rise to a vibrant hi-tech Israeli private sector, but also paid enormous dividends to the U.S. economy in terms of jobs, innovation, and scientific breakthroughs.

So, where do we go from there? This past summer, the Israeli Ministry of Finance hosted a major dialogue of our two economies – known as the JEDG (Joint Economic Development Group).  For the first time, innovation/R&D was added to the agenda. Senior officials from both sides, your Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Economy’s Chief Scientist’s office, and U.S. counterparts talked about this very question. One thing we decided to do was to negotiate an umbrella Science & Technology agreement, which we are doing. This will help make it even easier for scientists and innovators from our two countries to draw on government program support to build collaboration. Another idea that emerged was the need to develop a one-stop shop,” a catalogue of all the U.S. and Israeli government programs that could provide support to academics, scientists and entrepreneurs who are interested in building collaborative projects with their counterparts in the other country. So, working through the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation, Israel and the U.S. are putting together a publication which will serve as a resource tool for our innovation industry. It will in effect become a “how to” guide.  Look for it hopefully next spring.

These are good examples of what governments can do to support innovation. But what is even more important, is for our governments to continue to support the freedom, openness, and integrity of the internet and other forms of communication and exchange. The internet has become the critical infrastructure of our scientific and economic future. In the way that air, sea and road travel was the backbone of last century’s economic success, the internet will be the essential infrastructure for the future.

That is why at our bilateral economic meeting in June we also agreed to expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation and collaboration in cybersecurity. Threats to the integrity of the cyber world are threats to the success of our economies and innovation. This week, the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security organized a Cyber conference at Tel Aviv University, and the U.S. State Department’s Cybersecurity coordinator as well as others from the Department of Homeland Security were key participants.

And so, returning to my original three points:

A vision for the future, for Israel or the U.S., needs to be a vision of how we will ensure that our people are plugged in and participating in the global exchange of ideas. That means our governments need to think more about enhancing the environment for collaboration and exchange, rather than trying to drive innovation through programs and projects.

A vision for the future also needs to contemplate further building and strengthening of the collaboration between the innovators in our two countries. Our strong ties have historical and cultural roots, but what keeps them growing are our shared values and our never-ending efforts to expand and deepen the relationship. Travel, tourism, academic exchanges and close government-to-government ties all help drive this closer cooperation.

And, finally, my vision for an innovative future is one in which we get as much of the world “on-line” as possible. When several billion Chinese, almost a billion Indians, the continents of Africa and Latin America and the Arab world is all online with Israelis, Europeans and Americans, participating in the exchange and development of new ideas and technology, the world will see scientific and technological advancement like never before in history. Israel and the United States can play leading roles in helping drive us toward the realization of this potential.

Thank you.