Israeli Company's E.U. Funding Under Scrutiny

The Natural History Museum in London is under fire for its scientific cooperation with an Israeli cosmetics company located in the occupied West Bank. On Tuesday, The Independent newspaper published a letter from 21 prominent intellectuals, including scientists, musicians, authors, and film directors, calling on the museum to end its collaboration with Ahava/Dead Sea Laboratories (DSL). The company is a participant in a European Union-funded project studying the environmental and health risks of synthetic nanoparticles.

The Natural History Museum coordinates the €5.19 million 4-year project, called NanoReTox, which started in 2008 and involves 12 participants from eight different countries.

Ahava's headquarters are officially in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, but its laboratories and factory are located in Mitzpe Shalem, a Jewish settlement on the banks of the Dead Sea, about 10 kilometers north of the Green Line, which marks the internationally-recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The United Nations and the International Court of Justice have said that Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal. Israel disputes that characterization. "There's an attempt to normalize the presence in the occupied territories," says Malcolm Levitt, a chemist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom who helped write the letter. "We hope that sufficient awareness … would encourage pressure to rise in Israel to change its policy."

Although the project will end in November, the letter writers say it's an issue still worth raising. "The main reason for doing it was to warn other people" who might be considering working with the company, says Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London, who signed the letter. He says the mistake was made in Brussels, where officials approved the company as eligible to receive funding. "I think they should just be a bit more careful," he says. "Plainly this company is operating out of an illegal settlement."

The Natural History Museum's science director, Ian Owens, said in a statement that the project's coordinator linked up with Ahava through the European Commission's partner-finding scheme after searching for experts in certain kinds of nanoparticle analysis. He said the museum has no plans to terminate the project.

Ahava/DSL is involved in two other projects funded by Framework Programme 7, the main source of E.U. research funding. Last summer, research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn responded to a query from the European Parliament about the company's involvement in projects by saying that the company "is formally established within the borders of the internationally recognised State of Israel," so that it meets the commission's participation criteria. E.U. rules don't stipulate that the research has to be carried out where the company is formally established, she added.

Jonathan Rosenhead, an emeritus professor of operational research at the London School of Economics who helped organize the letter, says he spoke with commission officials last year who were "clearly unaware" that the company had its operations in a settlement. "My guess and hope is that they tighten up their procedures" for the next major funding program, called Horizon 2020, which will start in 2014. A commission official says "the commission is currently scrutinizing options" to evaluate participants in Horizon 2020.