Weizmann Institute head slams local industry

By STELLA KORIN-LIEBER
April 20, 2011 22:18

Prof. Daniel Zajfman urges Israeli businesses to invest in long-term research.

3 minute read.



Technion University

Technion University. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“The business world demands rapid success. The TASE tomorrow, reports in a week. I live in ranges of 20 years,” Weizmann Institute of Science President Professor Daniel Zajfman told Globes in an interview this week.

“On the other hand, as an institute, I create the most expensive thing for businesses – the people, the Ph.D. students who leave here,” he said. “And 90% of them go to industry and drive the ideas that may ultimately enrich other people, but not the scientists themselves. We raise people who create the technical, engineering, and scientific ability that this country has. It isn’t created in the businesses.”

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The businesses are the beneficiaries? Exactly. So I want to see this connection, in which the men of economics and business understand our role. I cannot give them a solution to today’s problems, but the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, and the universities give them the sources for tomorrow. It appears that it isn’t really clear to them what we do, and regrettably I’m not sure that they care.”

What would you like to happen, in practical terms? For industry to invest in long-term research too. That’s its role, in my opinion.

For example, our students. Every student who comes here – undergraduate and graduate students – we award them scholarships. A student studies at the Weizmann Institute for 7-8 years and has to live on something if we want them to reach a level that industry will say, ‘Wow! What people!’ “They are 30 years old or older, they served in the army, they have families and children. They chose the hard road.

I think companies, especially those that are going to benefit and exploit – in the best sense of the word – the brains of these people, should create a support system for the institutions that are creating this rare human capital.”

Please speak more plainly.

I want to tell you – the businessmen and economic leaders – that if you’re talking about contribution to society, take into account the option of participating in scholarships. Award scholarships in fields that interest you. First of all foster curiosity about what we do, and then everything will flow as it should.”

ZAIJFMAN, 52, was elected president of the Weizmann Institute when he was just 46. A particle physicist, he studies atomic and molecular physics, with an emphasis on molecular breakup via electron or photon interactions.

“I think that the public should know what science is,” said Zajfman. “The public finance’s 30% of the Weizmann Institute’s budget, and I think that the public should know what we do with its money.”

We thought that you are lab rats, but you now want to be involved in society. Does that mean that society can also intervene in your ivory tower? I’ll be blunt: The ivory tower should be one way. The importance and strength of the ivory tower is its research independence.

The scientific researcher should work on what interests him. The public should not affect what the researcher does. I oppose that. I oppose government or other parties attempts to direct this. Our country isn’t a bad place at all in this regard. We have a lot of freedom here, even more than in Europe.

The greatest discoveries in science were not made by trying to solve a known problem. The laser wasn’t invented so we could listen to music on a CD. X-rays weren’t discovered to make photographs. The Internet wasn’t invented because someone wanted to buy tickets online. The discoveries happened because we used a human feature – natural curiosity – which animals lack.

This is the main engine. This curiosity is critical for science and humanity.

Is a researcher’s curiosity about a particular subject justification for investing public money in it? It’s not a sufficient justification, but it’s a wise justification. A researcher needs three things to do something right: knowledge, curiosity, and heat.

Without them, it won’t work. Open research is important. When we review the quality of a researcher and research, we don’t examine whether it will have an effect, or if it will be applied in few months or years, or whether he will create a patent that will cure cancer. The test is whether he is doing something interesting, valuable, and of quality.

Who decides? The Weizmann Institute’s administration? The global scientific community, of which the Weizmann Institute’s administration is a part, decides.


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