The ISF was established under the auspices of the Israel Academy as a small Basic Research Fund (BRF), with a modest seed allocation of U.S. $ 0.2 million. For the next 15 years, the BRF’s annual budget remained relatively small, reaching a mere U.S. $ 3.1 million in 1987. In comparison, each of Israel’s binational granting programs with the U.S. and Germany, founded at about the same time, had budgets many times larger. The idea that Israel needed a major national science foundation was a long time coming.
In 1986, the Academy, under the leadership of its then President, Prof. Joshua Jortner, issued a landmark report, Scientific Research Activity in Israel, documenting the emerging crisis in Israel’s science base and calling for increased national support. In a remarkable spirit of cooperation, the Academy, the government of Israel, and the international donor community joined forces to tackle the problem. The C. H. Revson Foundation, contributed $5 million to catalyze matching funds for a new Endowment Fund for Basic Research, and the Israel Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) began to vastly increase its annual allocation. Within a single decade, the BRF budget increased tenfold.
Marking this fundamental shift was the reconstitution of the BRF as the ISF in 1992. Since 1995, the ISF has functioned as an independent nonprofit organization, with the Israel Academy’s administrative support.
Approximately 96% of its budget currently comes from the PBC, with the remainder consisting of direct donations, prizes, designated funds, and various funds managed by the Academy.
The ISF is now Israel’s predominant source of competitive grants for basic research, accounting for about two thirds of all such awards distributed annually. It evaluates and selects basic research proposals from the fields of exact sciences and technology, life sciences and medicine, and the humanities and social sciences. The competitive selection process is based on scientific excellence and merit and comprises both professional review committees and peer-review assessment.
The ISF’s annual budget of around U.S. $ 142 million funds:
• Approximately 1,670 personal research grants provided to scientists in academia and other research institutions.
• 21 Focal Initiatives in Research in Science and Technology (FIRST) programs, supporting studies characterized as “high risk/high gain” in all areas, including original and innovative research directions that are not extensions of conventional research approaches; breakthrough research with the potential to open new horizons; projects aimed at developing new research concepts essentially different from those present in the field and that have the potential to change conventional perceptions of the area; and new techniques or technologies set to overcome critical barriers in the relevant research area.
• Nine research centers.
• The purchase of advanced research equipment.
• Publications in the humanities.
• International research seminars.
• Programs designed to advance specific research topics, including basic and clinical research on neurodegenerative, nervous system, and genetic diseases, biomedical research on juvenile (Type I) diabetes, clinical studies in hospitals, and alternative energy sources for transportation vehicles.
In addition, the ISF oversees the Israeli Centers of Research Excellence (I-CORE), a joint government-PBC initiative aimed at strengthening research excellence in Israel by establishing vital research infrastructure and promoting the addition of new scientists to Israel’s higher-education institutes. I-CORE’s annual budget is around U.S. $ 380 million. In the first four years since its 2010 founding, its steering committee authorized the establishment of 16 centers of excellence.
The ISF has increased Israel’s participation in international programs by, for example, joining two ERA-NET projects, taking part in Global Research Council (GRC) discussions, becoming a member of the new joint project between the Israel Academy and the Chinese National Academy of Life Sciences, which started operating in 2013, and a similar program with India, launched in 2014.