HAIFA, Israel — In its darkest hour, October 1973, the Israeli Air Force handed a problem to one of its young engineers, Shimon Haber, then midway between a master’s and a Ph.D. at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Egyptian and Syrian armies had launched a two-front attack, jolting the Jewish state during Yom Kippur, the holiest, and usually the quietest, day of the year. Then, as Israel scrambled to fight back, it lost a frightening number of pilots and A-4 Skyhawk attack jets to the Arabs’ low-cost, portable surface-to-air missiles. What could be done?
The missiles, it turned out, were damaging the surfaces on the Skyhawk’s tail — surfaces designed to keep the aircraft stable — causing pilots to lose control. Haber devised a simple but effective solution: Extend the tailpipe to draw the heat-seeking missiles away from the control surfaces. “I didn’t sleep for three days,” Haber recalls. But in that short time, the extension was designed, manufactured and tested. Haber shared the first Israel Air Force prize.
Thirty-five years later, that combination of urgency and innovation remains a way of life in this fretful, resilient country, particularly in technology. And in few places is it practiced with more intensity than on the 13,000-student campus of the Technion, the engineering and applied-research jewel of Israel’s eight public universities.
From the Technion biomedical engineering lab where one of a new elite of scientist-engineers, Dror Seliktar, has found a way to re-grow cartilage, to the sun-drenched research park a few miles away where Microsoft, Google, Intel and Israeli startups hire the cream of Technion graduates, impatience and invention unite.
“You’ll see that there’s a feeling among the students of looking for the next new thing. . . . What’s the next bright concept?” says Amit Segev, a shaggy-haired third-year industrial engineering and management major who sounds confident of finding it.
But all is not perfect at the school that helped propel Israel to the front ranks of technological and scientific achievement. Like Israel as a whole, the Technion is making an uncomfortable adjustment from the egalitarian socialist ideals of the young Jewish state’s founders to a newly prosperous yet increasingly stratified society fused with the global economy. Having belatedly woken up to the need for fiscal sanity in order to retain its brightest citizens and attract investment, Israel is maintaining budget discipline at least partly on the back of its education system. A strike for higher pay by university lecturers throughout the country disrupted the last academic year. Struggling with several years’ worth of government budget cuts, the Technion fears that both its renowned research and its teaching quality — already uneven — are at risk. As a result, the school is being forced to innovate in new ways: in fundraising to hire more teaching staff and in efforts to improve teaching.
The nickname “Israel’s MIT” understates the Technion’s role in building, protecting and advancing this embattled country of scant natural resources that in 60 years has become a regional superpower with a per-capita domestic product rivaling Europe’s. For many years the country’s only engineering school, the Technion has produced 70 percent of Israel’s engineers, and is therefore responsible for most of its infrastructure. Technion graduate Yuval Ne’eman was an early head of defense planning and subsequently played an important role in Israel’s nuclear program. He also founded the nation’s space program. More recently, the Technion graduated Shai Agassi, the brains behind development of an electrical network for plug-in autos.
Albert Einstein, who in 1923 planted a palm tree in the courtyard of the Technion’s original building, underscored the school’s importance: “Israel can win the difficult battle for survival only by developing, painstakingly, the intelligence and expert knowledge of her young people in the field of technology.”
Innovation was integral to the young state’s development. Just as agricultural engineers learned to irrigate Israel’s parched soil, so too did military engineers find ways to compensate for a small standing army and weapons embargoes imposed by the United States in the 1950s and by France after the Six-day War of 1967. One result, which U.S. weapons-makers have learned to their chagrin, is Israel’s skill at adapting and improving military technology obtained abroad. Another is Israel’s rapid advance in information and communications technology, including all manner of computer software and wireless devices. “I like to joke that when it says, ‘Intel inside,’ it really means ‘Technion inside,’” says the school’s avuncular president, Yitzhak Apeloig.
In a land where a young soldier must improvise or risk death, using whatever equipment is at hand and sometimes with no superior officer to guide him, hierarchy and rank count for less than an individual’s training, reaction time and imagination. In such a seat-of-the-pants environment, small incubators of innovation can turn ideas into research and research into useful products — all with minimal bureaucracy.
The “next new thing” may occur in unexpected places. Going against the prevailing stream, two Technion professors, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, won the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, together with Irwin Rose of the University of California, Irvine, for their discovery of the way cells degrade protein. Hershko has offered fellow scientists a clue to his own success: Find an important subject that doesn’t interest others, and don’t ignore accidental findings, he advises. Ciechanover has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In a tribute, eight other Nobelists from around the world, following in Einstein’s long-ago footsteps, converged on the Technion for a conference last May. Their visit was, in part, a show of support for the school’s appeal for more government spending on education.
The Technion’s intellectual strength pays economic dividends for Israel, as high technology has led the way in export growth. Israel has the second-highest number of companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange after the United States and counts Warren Buffett among its growing number of foreign investors. Innovations emerging from the Technion span a range of disciplines and 18 faculties. A look at recent patents and Ph.D. abstracts shows researchers tackling the human condition from myriad directions: An electronic nose can help detect cancer. A micro-robot can crawl within cavities that have changing diameters. A new membrane offers the prospect of water desalination and purification requiring less energy.
Scientists here collaborate with top schools in the United States and Europe. It was while conducting research at the California Institute of Technology, for example, that Technion chemical engineer Hossam Haick worked on artificial noses — actually, nanometric sensors — that can sniff out cancer.
No longer Israel’s only engineering school, the Technion can now leave the basics to others, says Haber, who is now dean of students. “Before, Technion had to supply engineers in all facets — maintenance, design. Now we can focus more on science. . . . We don’t have to teach our students nuts and bolts anymore. We want to teach them the most advanced things.”
President Apeloig, no less impatient or imaginative than a student looking for the next bright concept, wants to intensify significantly the effort already under way to break down barriers between disciplines. The Technion recognized decades ago the added value that a medical faculty and an engineering school could bring to each other. The vision was not widely shared by other universities, but is today reaping rewards in research and in the technological skills acquired by medical students.
Now, Apeloig encourages even more cross-fertilization — neurologists collaborating with chemical and electrical engineers, for instance. He also envisions a day not far off when nanotechnology can fit a year’s worth of human knowledge in a sugar-cube size space, and he wants his graduate students to be ready, skilled and able to function in a variety of fields.
“The idea is to educate a new generation of scientists, engineers, whatever you want to call them — I mean, this is starting to lose meaning — which will feel equally comfortable with the world of engineering, micro-electronics and the world, let’s say, of the life sciences: biology, chemistry and so forth,” Apeloig says.
It takes a tough school to produce this kind of graduate. Most students enter the Technion with added maturity gained during compulsory military service. Third-year electrical engineering major Yael Wizel arrived as an Air Force officer, having served as an in-flight electronics specialist. She hopes eventually to run a factory that offers the world “something from Israel.”
Some students are scared away by the rigorous image, says Paul Feigin, senior executive vice president: “Kids today don’t want tough.” Scholastically, the school doesn’t grant any “discounts,” as Amit Segev put it — not even during war. In 2006, as Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas sent rockets raining down on northern Israel — one landed close to campus — and students and faculty sought safety in interior “safe rooms,” the Technion still insisted that students complete their exams.
Even in this stiff-upper-lip atmosphere, the grit shown by Karnit Goldwasser stands out. Her husband Ehud — like her, a Technion graduate student — was one of two Army reservists whose capture by Hezbollah near the Israel-Lebanon border precipitated the 2006 conflict. While his fate remained unknown, she kept studying and working on her thesis. She received a master’s in civil engineering in early summer, graduating with honors. Weeks later, in a grim exchange of live prisoners and remains between Israel and the Lebanese militants, came confirmation that Ehud was dead.
If the work can be a grind, the campus itself is appealing, nestled among hills in this well-tended port city of outdoor cafes and spectacular Mediterranean views. On Wednesday afternoons, rock music enlivens a central plaza as students loll in the sun. Manicured lanes brightened with flowers and shaded walkways enclose impressive modern architecture. The place doesn’t seem short of money. Like Israel itself, the Technion benefits hugely from American (and in the Technion’s case, Canadian) generosity. The American Technion Society, with 21 offices, has raised more than $1.3 billion, contributing to many of the school’s cutting-edge research centers.
Recognizing the commercial potential of its research, the Technion has also become expert at negotiating intellectual-property contracts with corporations and linking researchers with sources of venture capital to create start-ups.
Still, as an Israeli public institution, the Technion can’t escape the problems roiling education today, including growing evidence of a decline in secondary school education that places a heavier burden on universities. Government budget cuts mean Feigin now struggles to find ways to maintain teaching quality in the face of a shrinking teaching staff and bigger classes. “We’re cutting where it really hurts,” says the wiry, affable Australian. Beyond raising money for buildings and equipment, the school is asking donors to pay for more teachers and teaching assistants.
Changes are afoot in the engineering curriculum, now frontloaded with math, physics and chemistry, to make it more attractive. A first-year design course is being tried out. Freshly minted graduate Elihai Maicas says bluntly: “In general the teaching level is very low.” Nonetheless, adds Maicas, “a professor can be a very bad lecturer for years, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.” Lecturers have access to a teaching training center, but aren’t required to use it, he notes.
“There are some teachers who are not teaching well,” Feigin acknowledges. “I think we need to increase the awareness of the importance of teaching.” Meanwhile, talented faculty are being lured abroad by higher salaries and better research facilities.
Some fear that the drive for knowledge that built a nation is in peril. “To my sorrow, I see a great danger looming before the universities in Israel,” Ciechanover told last May’s gathering of Nobel laureates. “We are declining.” But for the time being at least, the luster of a Technion degree still shines. “As a Technion graduate, I can apply to most of the high-tech companies in Israel,” Maicas says. Already working part-time as a chip designer at Intel, “I will probably continue work at Intel for a few years and then check other interesting possibilities.”
Mark Matthews is the managing editor of Prism.