A Vision of a Scientific Superpower

A society where academics are active partners in running the country is a better society, and can bring prosperity for the State of Israel.

Ehud Gazit
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Ehud Gazit

It is still hard to write about Prof. Ephraim Katzir in the past tense. Very few people kept their wits and deep desire for science at such an advanced age and in such a difficult physical condition. I vividly recall our talks in his last few months, in which he evinced amazing expertise in cutting-edge scientific developments in nanotechnology and brain science, and astounded me with his clear and precise insights.

It is said of the sages that "as they age, their wisdom grows," and Katzir was truly a scholar who grew in wisdom.

But that is just one aspect of his complex personality: A scientific genius who labored for the defense of the State of Israel far from the ivory tower; a man who lost his beloved brother Aharon in a terror attack, yet remained committed to peace; a man who outgrew his socialist adolescence and founded Israel's defense and biotechnology industries; an outstanding researcher who was at home in the world's most prestigious scientific institutions, as well as in the ORT Braude Academic College of Engineering in Carmiel; and finally, a true academic who answered the prime minster's call and became a president and statesman.

One of Katzir's most special and impressive traits was his ability to blend vision and action. He viewed the Zionist enterprise and the establishment of the State of Israel as the central mission of scientists and researchers. Even though scientific research was his main pursuit and a cornerstone of his identity, he understood the importance of integrating science into the country's institutions and government. As a military man he served as commander of the scientific corps. He invented the post of chief scientist in government ministries, served as the Defense Ministry's chief scientist and was involved in establishing the National Council for Research and Development.

Ephraim and Aharon Katzir also understood the importance of maintaining an intimate and ongoing relationship not only with the state's institutions and government ministries, but also with the political echelon. They were in direct and close contact with politicians, and did not hesitate to engage in party activism. Aharon Katzir was instrumental in drawing up the platform for Rafi during the 1965 Knesset elections, in which the party called for the "scientification" of the State of Israel, due to its lack of natural resources but wealth of human capital. Despite the contributions of such great minds, Rafi won only 10 Knesset seats and found itself in the opposition - and well before its time scientification was reduced to a pragmatic ideology best known in history books.

What aspects of Katzir's legacy can we implement today? The most important thing is to understand that the scientist's role is serving the public. As important and fascinating as it may be, science is only part of an academic's job. Our role as scientists is to be at the forefront of Israeli achievement in every realm: education, research, industry, policy and security.

We must pass the scientific knowledge we are developing on to society and industry. A society where academics are active partners in running the country is a better society, and can bring prosperity for the State of Israel.

Prof. Ehud Gazit is the vice president of research and development at Tel Aviv University and chairman of its Nano-Biology department.