The power to influence

A world leader in research of lasers and optics, Israel Prize winner Prof. Mordechai Segev discusses how better to invest in education, reversing the ‘brain drain’ and why he plans to stay in Israel

New technion 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
New technion 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Mordechai Segev is not your average physics professor. In the early morning hours he arrives at his lab in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, wearing his trade- mark Israeli brown sandals and shorts. Utterly dedicated to his research, Segev is also a devoted family man and a father figure to his students.
When not enthusiastically pursuing his research in the field of optics and lasers, you can find him hiking in the Galilee with his students or cheering on his son at his basketball game.
The announcement in January by Education Minister Shai Piron that Segev had won the Israel Prize came as quite a surprise to the professor, who views the award as an opportunity to influence decision makers and improve Israeli research and academia.
The Israel Prize committee wrote in its decision, “Prof. Segev is a pioneering physicist in the field of optics and lasers. His innovative contributions are a source of inspiration and his scientific work is quoted in thousands of scientific articles.”
Born in Romania in 1958, Segev made aliya at the age of three. Upon arriving in the country, his family lived in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in lower Haifa for three years, after which they were evacuated to “improved housing units” in Naveh Sha’anan in South Tel Aviv. Segev’s father earned a living as a cobbler and his mother worked as a nanny and while they did not have much money, his parents instilled in him the values and importance of education.
Following his discharge from army service as an officer, Segev was accepted to the Technion where he diligently pursued his academic studies, graduating with a PhD in electrical engineering and a post-doc offer from Caltech University in the US. Following his studies, Segev accepted a professorship at Princeton University, where he rose through the ranks from assistant professor to full professor within four and a half years, breaking the local record at his department. He taught and carried out research at Princeton for several years until ultimately deciding to return to Israel and to the Physics Department at the Technion in 1998.
Since then, Segev has received nearly every prestigious international award in the field of lasers and optics for his innovative research. In 2009 the Technion honored him with the highest academic status, distinguished professor; his students have gone on to become professors at some of the most prestigious universities in the world.
The Israel Prize laureate sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his research, the state of Israeli academia and even politics.
Tell me how you found out that you were the winner for this year’s prize.
I was hosting two donors from Australia who came here to visit my lab, and in the middle of showing them around, while looking at some experiments, I received a phone call. Usually on such occasions I don’t answer calls from unidentified numbers, but the number called and called and I became impatient so I answered the phone, quite rudely even, I would say.
The person on the phone said, “The education minister would like to speak to you. Is it okay if I transfer him?” I said, “No, we are in the middle of a tour for two very important people and I really don’t have the time right now. You can call back in another two hours.” She replied that it was really important and it would only take up two minutes of my time. I said okay and asked one of my students to continue the tour as I stepped outside to take the call.
Shai Piron came on the line and said, ‘Prof. Segev, I am really happy to tell you that you’ve won the Israel Prize.’ I knew that I was nominated but I did not expect to win, so I wanted to make sure that it was really him and not someone from Eretz Nehederet [the popular satire show]. I started asking him questions which he answered and I realized it was probably him.
I still wanted to make 100 percent sure, so I made a phone call to the president of the Technion, Prof. Peretz Lavie, and I told him, “I just received a phone call from someone claiming to be the education minister. Do you mind calling the office of the minister and making sure this is real?” Peretz said yes, and he did, and five minutes later he called and said it was real.
In the past few years, you have won the most prestigious prizes in your field, both in the US and in Europe. How does receiving the Israel Prize compare?
This award in Israel is a big deal for me because it’s recognition at home, and you automatically become famous, well, quasi famous [laughs].
Together with this comes the ability to actually influence some decisions, and this is really the important part. You gain a little bit of power to influence decision makers, which will help improve the status of research and higher education in Israel.
This has been done by people that have won the Nobel Prize, for example by Dan Shechtman [for chemistry in 2011] and Aaron Ciechanover [in 2013], who really capitalized on the momentum they had after receiving the Nobel Prize.
They were able to get the government to invest more in higher education and research, and both of them had a very positive influence on where we are today.
I am already thinking of ways to influence decisions right here within the Technion. To invest in different directions and teams; because it is not only about me, it is about my team, my students, my post-docs and excellent colleagues with whom I have great interactions. It is not only my distinction, but that of all the good people around me that invested a lot of time and talents.
You turned down a position at one of the most prestigious universities in the US to come back to Israel. Why? Do you ever regret this decision?
I’ll start from your second question, and the answer is no. I have had many opportunities to go back to the US, not only to Princeton where I was, but to several other universities that tried to recruit me.
The reason for this is simple, it has two sides.
The first is ideological – I am a Zionist. I think that this is our country and we have no other. The second one is that I wanted to raise Israeli kids.
I see what is happening in America, and I really love America – although I have only one citizenship: Israeli – I think it is a great place, but I see that families simply break apart. Because after the kids finish college you see them twice a year. Needless to say, raising kids in Israel is important to me; it means they will share my culture and I will be able to speak to them and relate to them.
On top of all this I simply enjoy living in Israel; most of the time living in Israel is really great.
It is no secret that there have been budget cuts across the board and especially towards university funding. Professors and Israel’s top students are leaving the country to pursue careers abroad. Israel is experiencing a “brain drain.” How have you personally experienced these effects during your time at the Technion?
Let me start by saying that Israel should remain an open country. I’d like to have people that like to live here, and love being Israelis. In my view, the people that complain all the time, I have no problem at all if they leave. Israel is a place you should want to live in and you should appreciate the fact that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, a highly cultural and pluralistic society.
Regarding the “brain drain,” part of this was caused by stupid actions of previous administrations and university presidents – and I will be very specific. In 2001, Israel was in an economic crisis, so at that time government budgets were cut by 20% and universities were required to cut their budgets and staff accordingly. By 2004, the economy had improved, but we had shrunk by 20% and the hiring freeze remained, which essentially brought forward two things.
First, there was an entire generation of professors that we could not accept, since the cuts remained until 2008. A large part of the brain drain was that we simply couldn’t offer academic positions; which is a shame because some of the best researchers are now professors in top US universities.
The second part is that because our numbers were cut, we find ourselves in a very unusual situation in which the ratio between professors and students went down to something like 1 to 22-23. If you compare this to MIT or Caltech, they would have a ratio of 1 to 1012.
In the Technion right now, our long-term goal is to reach 1 to 18. In the Western world, we are the country with the worst ratio.
This situation arose, not because young people didn’t want to come back to Israel, but because we had budget cuts for two years and after that we should have increased the number of positions, but the governments at that time did not, and the presidents of universities should have threatened to shut down the universities unless the government returned their budgets and allowed them to hire; but they did not do it. So this phenomenon was forced on us and we suffered from a lack of leadership.
In 2007, professors went on strike and the main reason for the strike was salaries, but the other part of the strike, which I personally would have been much happier had it been the main goal, was to increase the number of academic positions.
Eventually we won the battle, and in 2009 we started to return to a situation where we could begin to hire and fill the 20% slots that were cut. The big picture is, optimally if we had an unlimited budget, to double the staff, and only by doing this we will reach a ratio that is acceptable by the top 20 American universities, which is where we want to be.
We need to maintain the high quality of faculty, but increasing the numbers will also help us in starting new projects, new directions, new ideas and so forth.
I must say, though, that in the past four years the government has become much more helpful and offers more support. Today the situation is improving considerably and there is a lot to say in favor of the past two governments led by [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu. I think on education he did well. He could do more, he should do more, but the situation is improving.
I want to give specific compliments on this to [previous education minister] Gideon Sa’ar and [chairman of the Higher Education Council’s Planning and Budget Committee] Manuel Trajtenberg, who worked hard to improve the situation.
One should keep in mind that the reason the Israeli economy is strong is because we are a hi-tech country, and we are a hi-tech country because we have strong universities.
If I go back to the brain drain issue, many young people prefer to go abroad because of the salaries. One should also keep in mind that Israel will never be like Germany, for example, because a large part of our budget goes towards defense, which people during peacetime often take for granted. Salaries here will never be like in the US or Western Europe, and that is the price you pay for living in Israel. Those that don’t want to be here, let them go abroad.
Israeli professors often urge their students to pursue graduate and post-graduate degrees abroad prior to applying for academic positions. Doesn’t this scenario represent an internal undervaluing of Israeli universities?
Absolutely not. I have post-docs, one did his PhD at Princeton and the other at Caltech... The internationalism of science is extremely important.... It is very important to go and work under the guidance of an accomplished researcher... so you can gain knowledge when you come back to Israel. This is why we send our students abroad.
Science today is driven not by individual discoveries, but by collaborations between scientists from different fields and expertise. How does this come to play in the Israeli academic system?
I think practically every scientist in Israeli universities has collaborators abroad. Today it is much easier to collaborate, and I think the most important collaborations are between two or three people. Those are usually the most efficient, and many great things develop from this.
I have collaborators in the US, Germany, France, and in quite a few other places, including Taiwan. Usually, at least in my experience, collaboration doesn’t start on the basis of interests. There needs to be some match of personalities that you can trust in one another.
I think in terms of collaborations here, we in Israel collaborate as much as any other country in the Western world, perhaps even more – because we know each other much better.
How can we fight academic boycotts against Israel, attempts at which seem to be on the rise?
We should fight the boycotts and give that a very high priority. But I must say there was never a boycott in the fields of science and technology. The boycotts are usually in the liberal arts and the social sciences, and not in engineering or exact sciences.
I have never felt this threat in any way. I have participated in many conferences and given keynote and plenary talks, and there were never any issues. Nobody ever said anything or had a sign against me. I personally never suffered any problems, though I think we should keep an eye on this and fight every incidence of this as it arises.
Where do you see Israeli academia in the next 10 years?
There are major fluctuations depending on the leadership in the government, and of course I realize that one never knows what to expect in Israel. If another war develops, budgets will be cut and we can face another economic crisis.
It is very difficult to extrapolate, but if I look on average, right now things are on the rise, and hopefully they will continue to improve. Currently we have a charter to expand the universities and bring in young people, and part of this is because university presidents have realized that this should be their top priority – even at times of budget cuts. There are many things to correct, but overall the situation is improving, and we should keep on pushing and educating our students.
Where do you see yourself? What’s next for you? For me, research is an adventure, a discovery that you make on a daily basis. I am interested in many directions and I have been working on multiple projects and new things are happening all the time. It is really exciting and adventurous. I think what I will continue to do is to enjoy science.
I would like to continue doing exactly what I am doing right now, just focusing on my research, and I will be happy with that because it is what I love to do.
[Jokingly] So, politics is not in your future?
No, but I would like to take the opportunity to make one very important political statement: I would like to strengthen the words of Dan Shechtman after he won the Nobel Prize. In Israel every child in elementary school should study mathematics and sciences by law. A school that does not teach mathematics to every child at a sufficiently high level, that we have come to expect today, not only should not receive funding by the government, but in my view the parents of that child should be responsible by law to make sure their child receives proper education.
I am not against teaching religion, I am all for it, but it cannot come at the expense of mathematics. If parents do not want to send their children to a school that teaches science and mathematics, that parent should be brought to trial. What is happening now is that there is a sizable part of our society where the parents pretty much push their children into a direction that will ensure a life of poverty because they do not have the basic knowledge and skills that are taught in elementary school. This is bad and it must be changed by law.