What I learned

Prof. Daniel Zajfman President, Weizmann Institute of Science

Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute, was born in Belgium and made aliyah to Israel at age 20, going straight to studies in the Technion. “I went to study engineering, because I spent most of my childhood in my father’s plant. I knew how to solder before I learned to read. I continued in physics because I wanted a deeper understanding of the things happening around me.” For 15 years, up to age 46, Zajfman conducted a career as a respected atomic physicist at Weizmann and part of that time, department head. And then he received a surprising offer — to be president of the Weizmann Institute. He accepted the offer because “I live for challenges; when I don’t have any, I get very bored.” In the six years in which he had served as Institute president, Zajfman has dedicated much of his time to stemming the brain drain and bringing researchers back to Israel (and to the Institute), as well as to broadening access to science among youth and the general public. Last year, the Weizmann Institute was ranked by the magazine The Scientist as the best place to work in academia outside the US. The Institute has 250 research groups, 1,150 masters’ and doctoral students, and 300 postdoctoral fellows. The Institute’s annual budget is 1.2 billion shekels.

“When I first arrived in Israel, I found myself in an open society that handed a lot of responsibility to young people. I was a 17-year-old tourist and this attracted me. I intuitively understood that this place offered great opportunities, and that people like me could flourish in its atmosphere. I decided that Israel was the place for me — a decision I am still happy with today.

“IQ is just a number — the question is what you do with it. I measure people by what they do with their gifts. Everyone is familiar with the “know-it-all” type, and there is something very Israeli in this trait that we associate with our national “chutzpah.” The contribution of these people to society is relatively small because, while they can answer every question in their field, they have trouble with real endeavor. I like to say that there are no geniuses, only mothers of geniuses.

“I look for three things in a person — knowledge, curiosity and passion. These three ingredients are what make the dish stand out. Whoever has knowledge without curiosity or passion is unable to accomplish new things. Whoever has curiosity but lacks knowledge is dangerous: This is the person who lights a field on fire without any idea of the consequences. Whoever has curiosity and knowledge but lacks passion will soon find himself worn out, without the spunk to stand up to the opposition. Only a combination of all three can be a recipe for success.

“There are no geniuses. There are only mothers of geniuses”

“An organization must be in constant motion. When I took over, I found a system that was stuck more or less in place because: ‘If it was successful until now, we need to keep going in the same direction.’ But that system needed airing out. Some level of friction was necessary to keep everyone on their toes. A certain amount of insecurity and pressure causes all of us to work better. Successful organizations are built on a combination of hard work and constant motion.

“I see myself as a marathon runner. This entire Institute builds itself on thinking 30 years into the future. We need to plan now for the long haul. That sort of long-term thinking should apply to any area — business as well as politics.

“Everything I know about management I learned in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. I was born in Belgium and received a Zionist upbringing. I was bored in school and so I spent hours in the movement. I joined as a kid, and over the years grew up to be a group leader. The things I learned then still serve me today: the ins and outs of group dynamics, how to get people involved, how to set appropriate goals and achieve them.

“It is easier to complain than it is to state exactly what you need. People come to me and complain: I don’t have this or that. I ask them to explain exactly what is needed for them to go forward, and I’ve discovered that it is often difficult for people to define what it is they are missing. The minute the obstacle becomes clear, it is my job as administrator to clear it from the path. I look at the working system in search of those things that are lacking; seeking things we can change in order to improve it. Taking part in the process of improvement is a great pleasure.

“Ego drives people toward excellence. An ego is generally seen as something negative, but it is also what pushes people to succeed. A good manager knows how to work with the egos of those under him, instead of fighting them.

“The aesthetics of the workplace are no less important than the work that goes on there. It is essential that a workplace be beautiful and its facilities amenable. The Weizmann Institute is truly a nice place to work.

“I am a socialist when it comes to job security. People who have not had the privilege of higher education are those who most need job security. The more the job is quantifiable — how many screws you screwed in today — the more you should receive support from the system. Contract workers can actually be skilled professionals who earn decent wages; they don’t necessarily come from the weaker strata of society. On the other hand, the cleaners at the Institute are our full employees, as are some of the guards.

“Job security in the academic sphere allows intellectual freedom. The job of the academic is to invent the next big thing, to be the innovative person whose new ideas may seem outlandish now, but will have an impact a hundred years from now. So tenure is crucial. It took Ada Yonath 30 years for her research to be recognized. If her output had been judged on a yearly basis, she would have been fired long ago. Looking at it from the opposite side, one can’t force a person to be productive — researchers have been known to dry up. The organization must then know how to redirect him or her in ways that can reignite their passion.

“In our efforts to return scientists to Israel, our rule is to give support to the person rather than to the field. To continue holding our lead in the world of research, we have to attract the best. But while an American institution can choose the most brilliant candidates from among 7 billion people, those who come to us belong to the small pool of those with a connection to the country — Israelis or Jews. Who else would want to live here? The solution is to find the brilliant ones and nurture them so that they will attract others in their wake, as opposed to choosing a field and then hiring people to fill it. This strategy has proven itself.

“The pie is limited, and so we choose to divide our piece among younger people. The process of retiring begins at age 67 or 70, when researchers can still keep an office and a computer, but do not receive a research budget or lab. I understand their frustration, but the reasoning is simple: Science is not so much an undertaking as a way of seeing the world. A young, brilliant researcher sees thing differently from one who has already been there. If the current petitions to the Supreme Court to repeal the mandatory retirement age for academics are passed, we will, of course, uphold the law.

“Politics harms academics. The high academic standards that we have enjoyed in Israel until now are due to our independence. In recent years, politics has entered the academic system and stirred things up. The role of the university is not to do what the state wants at this exact moment, but to provide for its needs 30 years down the line; that is why independence is so vital. I am prepared to give a report in any place, to let anyone go through the accounts with a fine-toothed comb, but that system should never have the right to tell us what to do. I am not optimistic because the minute that politicians find someplace where they can exert their authority, they normally don’t back down. Education minister Gideon Saar is an expert at this type of progressive interference. “I have never worked a day in my life. That has been my luck. I was amazed that they agreed to pay me for doing what I so enjoy. People fail in choosing a profession when they chase the image or the pose. I suggest getting rid of the pose. Ask yourself what you love to do — and then do it.”

By Tali Heruti-Sover

Translation provided by Weizmann Institute of Science