Baroness Greenfield: Israeli scientific achievements are mindboggling

Baroness Susan Greenfield at Hebrew University: Preventing research from being done can cost people their lives, and it makes academics look small-minded. (Photo: Sasson Tiram)Israeli scientific achievements “are absolutely mindboggling,” according to the Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of the world’s …

Baroness Susan Greenfield at Hebrew University: Preventing research from being done can cost people their lives, and it makes academics look small-minded. (Photo: Sasson Tiram)Israeli scientific achievements “are absolutely mindboggling,” according to the Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of the world’s most influential women and a leader in brain research. Therefore, if efforts underway in some British academic circles to boycott Israeli scientists succeed, ultimately lives will be lost, she explained.

“During this trip, I’ve visited Hebrew University, the Technion, and the Weizmann Institute, and they are all doing stellar work,” the prominent British neuroscientist and Oxford professor of pharmacology told Israel21c during a visit to Israel last week.

When asked to select one scientific research project in Israel that particularly impressed her, Greenfield hesitated, not wanting to slight any institution, but finally said,” I’d have to emphasize the research on a possible vaccine for neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s Disease. Think of the scope of that!”


Greenfield was in the country as a guest of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, The director of Britain’s oldest independent research body the Royal Institution. Her lecture – “How the Brain Generates Consciousness,” – was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of 500 at the Los Angeles Building on the Givat Ram campus.


Greenfield, who was named a life peer to the House of Lords in 2001 and was included in The Guardian´s list of the 50 most powerful women in Britain, first visited Israel as a volunteer in 1970 on Kibbutz Gesher Haziv in the north of the country and in a Haifa old age home for four months. She has visited the country a dozen times.

Besides working in her Oxford lab on brain chemicals that may be involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, Greenfield has written books on science for a layman audience (Journey to the Centres of the Mind, Private Life of the Brain and The Human Brain: A Guided Tour), and created a TV series on the brain and how it works (Brain Story).

Greenfield is also the first female director of the Royal Institution. Presciently founded in 1799 by brilliant physicist and politician Count Rumford as a place where the usefulness of science would be explored and explained to the public, the RI employed a series of scientists famous for both their research and lecturing skills and became a fashionable place to go in Victorian London.

Greenfield is a vocal and active critic of recent British attempts to boycott Israeli academia. Recently, she authored an article in the Times newspaper stating her belief that the boycott efforts are not only immoral, but dangerous.

“The obvious implication of the boycott is that if this is stopping medical research from being propagated, then the development of treatments and people’s lives could be affected,” Greenfield said.

“It’s hard to evaluate how effective the boycott Israel effort has been. If an Israeli academic paper is rejected, how does one prove that it was because it was Israeli?” Greenfield asked. “From talking to Israeli scientists, there is a perception among them that there is an anti-Israel sentiment, but these things are pernicious – it’s difficult to prove it.”

Former Israeli Science Foundation head Prof. Paul Zinger was quoted by the Sunday Telegraph late last year as saying about 7,000 research papers are sent abroad for reference by Israeli academics each year. “This year, for the first time, we had people writing back – about 25 of them – saying ‘We refuse to look at these,” he said.

The British boycott was triggered by two academics, Steven Rose, a professor of biology at the Open University, and his wife, Hilary, a professor of social policy at Bradford University. Last April they sent a letter with the signatures of 123 other academics to the Guardian stating their intention to boycott Israeli academics.
Three months later, two professors from Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University were fired from academic journals.

Greenfield expressed anger and puzzlement over the boycott movement, saying that the world would be the only loser if the boycott achieved its aims.

“I don’t know why this boycott movement is focused on Israel. It’s one of the things I use as an argument. Why aren’t you boycotting American academics for invading Afghanistan, or British academics for taking part in the war on Iraq? It’s strange that Israel was selected, it’s seems illogical.

“Who is going to benefit from an academic boycott of Israel? Certainly Arabs who conduct research with Israelis or benefit from Israeli medical and other scientific discoveries will not. Preventing research from being done can cost people their lives, and it makes academics look small-minded,” Greenfield said.

One way that Greenfield hopes to combat the boycott efforts is to bolster scientific cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. She met Jordan´s Queen Rania last year and discussed Israeli-Jordanian scientific cooperation, and the original plans for her visit to the region involved meetings in Jordan and Iraq.

“I had originally hoped to work with the British Embassy and bring other scientists with me, and to also visit Jordan and Egypt to discuss joint collaborations in the region. In Jordan in particular, there were positive signals about meeting scientists there. That idea rapidly changed due to the current situation with Iraq, and I ended up coming on my own on a private visit upon an invitation from Hebrew University. The British government felt that they couldn’t be telling nationals to leave the region on one hand, and sponsor a visit of scientists on the other hand,” Greenfield said.

“There have been some contacts between Israeli scientists and scientists from Jordan and Egypt, but there are great difficulties because of the situation. For me, it’s not how many there are, but getting them publicized to show that Israel is not isolated. While politicians and diplomats are facing regional difficulties, it’s important to show that scientific contact goes on.”

Despite the threat of impending war with Iraq and the implications for Israel, Greenfield, who sits on the council of the Weizmann Institute and the board of the Israel-British Business Council, didn’t hesitate to make the visit, and expressed no fear about being range of Iraqi Scuds.

“I had no apprehensions about coming here, and feel very strongly that people like me should be coming here. With the wave of worldwide terror over the last couple years between Bali, Moscow, the Twin Towers, one can’t guarantee being safe anywhere. I figure that as long as I don’t do something crazy like hitchhike through Ramallah, that I’m fine. The world is no longer a safe place, but I refuse to live under the shadow of terror. The best revenge against terrorists is to travel and not be afraid.”