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Israeli Universities Do More With Less

On the out-sized output of institutions that run on budgets a fraction the size of their US counterparts

Around the world, universities market their unique ability to advance human progress. They create knowledge, drive innovation, and build human capital necessary to power strong economies and enlightened societies. After nearly two decades in the field of higher education – including many years at two of America’s highest regarded institutions – I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, time and again, that there is no better way to stretch a philanthropic dollar than to invest it in a university. Yet, since taking over the as the Executive Vice President of the American Technion society a year ago, I’ve seen something else: when it comes to investing in Israeli universities, the return is not only extraordinary, it’s astronomical.

The difference rests largely in mindset. Just like many of the country’s other institutions, Israeli universities have a truly different way of thinking differently. At campuses like the Technion, you find a unique commitment to nurturing the freedom to imagine, the space to think differently, and the determination to attain what’s been previously dismissed as impossible – all at a fraction of the cost of universities in the U.S. and Western Europe. As my Israeli colleagues like to say, they figure out how to do “more with less.”

Take, for example, the Technion Faculty of Medicine, where world-renowned researchers are joining forces with teams from diverse engineering disciplines to help combat cancer, one of the most complex and devastating diseases on the face of the planet. Their unique approach – and close connection to the nearby Rambam Medical Center – allows breakthroughs discovered in the lab to be applied directly to the clinical world by the very people conducting the research. They have already help produce dozens of game-changing advances – like Velcade, a drug that draws on the Nobel Prize winning research of Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover – and has saved countless cancer patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

The Technion’s operating budget is a fraction in size of an equivalent university in the U.S. The difference is found not only in the lower costs of faculty and staff salaries, or in the price of facilities construction and upkeep, but in the way that the entire system operates. Like so much in Israel, these innovative practices evolved out of necessity. Faculty members often share ways that they manage with lower budgets than their international counterparts, without sacrificing research quality. They have developed a rigorous method for eliminating inefficiencies, carefully avoiding unnecessary and costly experiments. They consistently review their work to ensure they are making the most of every research dollar.

The innovative practices found in Israel have created exceptional opportunities for those looking to maximize the return on their philanthropic investments that educate people and support research. Undergraduate tuition at the Technion costs a few thousand dollars – less than a tenth of what it costs to get educated at a private American school. As a result, economists estimate that every dollar invested in the education of a Technion student creates three to six dollars in economic impact across Israel and around the world, while providing untold benefits in terms of knowledge, innovations, jobs, and cures. With an annual R & D budget of less than $100 million, the Technion spends far less than leading American universities like Johns Hopkins ($2.1 billion), Duke ($1 billion), Stanford ($900 million), or MIT ($824 million). Yet, the Technion goes head-to-head with these same Universities in international rankings, technology patents, and research breakthroughs. For instance, a recent survey ranked the Technion the world’s sixth most innovative research university.

The “more for less” principle extends to universities across the State of Israel, which – according to a recent international survey – ranks second in the world in computer science research, fourth in space science research, and sixth in life sciences research – despite being a tiny nation with only 8 million people – and operating with a fraction of the total funds dedicated to research than other countries much lower on the list.

A recent study found that every R & D dollar spent by Israeli universities generated 52 percent more patent applications than American universities and 84 percent more patent applications than UK universities. By the same measure, Israeli universities generated double the number of license agreements as Japanese and British universities – and 10 times the number of license agreements as American universities.

While Israeli institutions of higher education have shown an uncanny ability to squeeze the most out of their budgets, their successes have not come without significant, sustained support from the Israeli government – and philanthropists inside and outside of the country. The American Technion Society, for instance, has provided more than $2 billion in support for the Technion, over the past several decades. Unfortunately, in recent years, as Israel has emerged as an educational and research powerhouse, budget constraints have forced the Israeli government to periodically cut back on University R&D funding – which is the foundation for its success at home and great contributions abroad.

As global social entrepreneurs seek solutions to great challenges – on issues from climate change to cancer – Israeli universities are primed to offer an extraordinary return on the investments made by governments and philanthropists. Let’s hope that the future brings a doubling down on Israel’s unique brand of innovation – a proven mindset for extraordinary success.

About the Author
Jeffrey Richard is the Executive Vice President of the American Technion Society.