Academia: an ivory tower or a lighthouse?

Much has happened in the State of Israel since the dramatic press conference of January 31, 2017, in which Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav breeched the Supreme Court directive and exposed the classified “Professors’ Report” (also known as the “Keinan Report”) that recommended emptying the 12,000-ton liquid ammonia tank located in a densely populated area in Haifa Bay.[1] The past year has seen more than 1000 newspaper articles on the ammonia affair, hundreds of TV and radio discussions, public debates, rallies and mass demonstrations of angry citizens, and the story is far from over.[2] All three levels of the Israeli court system – the Haifa Magistrate Court, the District Court and the Supreme Court – have decided decommissioning of the old ammonia tank and banning marine imports of bulk liquid ammonia to Israel.

Many organisations became involved, including associations of workers, manufacturers, engineers, students, municipalities, non-profit organisations, political parties and eight government ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office. It has been a remarkable demonstration that a group of ten university professors who refused to take any compensation for their efforts, who possessed neither financial nor political power, could win an asymmetrical war against very powerful entities. Thus, it is not too surprising that at least four academic programmes of law and public policy in the Israeli higher education system have already included the ammonia affair in their curricula. It is important to remember that this crusade against the ammonia threat never reflected any antagonism to the chemical industry. On the contrary, recognizing their indispensable contribution to the national economy, the professors repeatedly highlighted the environmentally responsible operation that characterizes most of the Israeli chemical companies.

This affair poses fundamental questions for every student and faculty member in any academic system worldwide. Do academics bear any responsibility for what is going on in their country? Are they exempt from being involved in state affairs? Is it their duty to intervene in state affairs? Do they have any power to influence state affairs?

To answer these questions, one should define the specific characteristics of academia that differentiate it from the political establishment

To answer these questions, one should define the specific characteristics of academia that differentiate it from the political establishment. In my view, the never-ending conflict between the academic and political communities represents a clash of civilizations on many levels: independence vs pandering to interest groups; curiosity vs indifference; long-term vs short-term memory; enlightenment vs conformism; imagination vs box ticking; perseverance vs frenzy and capriciousness; critical thinking vs obedience to authority; quantitative vs qualitative thinking; logical vs emotional reasoning. And the judges in all courts indeed understood and appreciated the differences and so did major parts of the public and media.

There is also a significant personal component in this story, which began in 2014 with my own understanding of the magnitude of the threat, and my frustration at not being able to convey these findings to the media and to the general public. It was not until mid-2016 that an opportunity to join forces with the Haifa Municipality was created, which led to efficient cooperation with other entities, including academia, non-profit organisations, the general public, the media and the court system. Obviously, a short article cannot cover the many aspects of this story, including legal issues, economy, technology, political and public affairs, society, security, and so on. It is my hope that my book, which addresses most of these issues, will be completed before the end of this year.


Ehud Keinan
The Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

EuCheMS at the EC circular economy mission to Columbia

EuCheMS was part of the Circular Economy Mission, which took place in Colombia on 16 – 19 October 2017. The delegation was led by the Director General for the Environment of the European Commission, Mr Daniel Calleja, and included almost 70 representatives from European companies, agencies, research centers and associations. Circular Economy Missions are high-level political and business meetings outside the EU aimed at communicating and promoting sustainable and resource-efficient policies worldwide. Europe is particularly interested in consolidating links with Colombia, in an effort to support the ongoing reconciliation process after decades of conflicts. The process is opening great opportunities for green development, in a country with plentiful natural resources. The main part of the mission took place in Medellin, a modern and quickly growing metropolis, far away from the old cliché of sanctuary for drug traffickers. The EU delegation met the municipal and regional authorities, which are promoting policies for sustainable development and can take advantage of experience and best practice in Europe. B2B meetings with companies and associations opened up new possibilities of cooperation across the Atlantic. We visited the facilities of the company collecting municipal waste in Medellin and saw the progress made on circular economy practices in Colombia. A very stimulating event at EAFIT University gave us the opportunity to meet several young entrepreneurs who have implemented brilliant recycling ideas in urban areas, spreading the concept of circular economy with great environmental, economic and social benefit.

The mission to Colombia was the follow-up of similar events in Chile, China and South Africa. These missions are strengthening the link between EuCheMS and the European Commission on the circular economy, an area on which we wish to expand activities and increase visibility in the years to come.

Nicola Armaroli
EuCheMS delegate to EC circular economy mission to Colombia