‘We Must Learn to Fail’: Germany’s Largest Scientific Research Institute Comes to Israel

The president of the Helmholtz Association tells Haaretz why his people are opening an office in the Startup Nation

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The Helmholtz research laboratory in Dresden, 2014.
The Helmholtz research laboratory in Dresden, 2014.Credit: Oliver Killig / HZDR
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

BERLIN – In an industrial park on the outskirts of Berlin sits a particle accelerator with the cute name of Bessy II. The Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation isn’t used for creating collisions between subatomic particles to reveal the secrets of the universe. Instead, the electrons scurrying around its storage rings at incredible speed are used to study materials on their atomic level.

So, unlike accelerators dozens of kilometers long – such as the famous one at CERN in Switzerland – the Bessy II ring is only the size of a football stadium. Scientists from all over the world can submit requests for time to use the synchrotron; they bring a sample of the advanced materials they’re developing.

Bessy II is located in one of the 18 research centers belonging to the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s largest scientific research organization, which employs tens of thousands of scientists. Its annual budget is almost 5 billion euros.

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One reason for Helmholtz’s enormous budget is that its scientists have the responsibility to run, maintain and develop large scientific projects in Germany including satellites, particle accelerators and nuclear reactors (even though such reactors are being taken out of service in Germany).

From conversations with senior scientists at three of Helmholtz’s centers in Germany – Berlin, Dresden and Heidelberg – their goal is quite clear: to offer research scientists from all over the world the possibility of using Helmholtz’s scientific infrastructure for the good of mankind.

The scope of Helmholtz’s facilities are breathtaking. For example, the managers of the synchrotron in Berlin discovered a serious limitation facing scientists who wanted to use the device.

To begin with, scientists from somewhere around the world submit a request and receive a few hours to examine the new material they’ve developed. They sit in their lab and develop the samples, hoping the materials survive the flight to Germany.

Then they test them in the synchrotron, return home with the data and discover that most of the samples failed. To continue with the research, they have to submit another request for time on the synchrotron and wait for months for another opportunity.

Researchers at the Helmholtz center in Dresden. Credit: Oliver Killig / HZDR

Build it next door

To solve this problem, Bessy’s managers decided to build a lab next to the accelerator, where scientists could bring their equipment, connect it to the existing infrastructure and cultivate and examine their samples on site.

In a different case, at the Helmholtz center in Dresden, researchers decided to try to study the earth’s magnetic field in a new way. Planetary magnetism is created by the rotation of liquid metals inside the planet. To discover how this works exactly, the scientists wanted to see what happens when eight tons of liquid sodium are spun around inside a tank. The problem: Liquid sodium is extremely flammable.

So they spent millions on a new building where they could conduct the experiment. What will they do with the facility after they finish the experiment? Dr. André Giesecke, who is leading the research project, says he’s certain that other scientists from around the world will find uses for the facility.

Now this institute is opening an office in Tel Aviv, headed by the former director general of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Billy Shapira. Until now, Helmholtz had only three offices outside Germany: one in Brussels for coordinating research in the European Union; one in Moscow to make it easier to do climate research, much of it done in Siberia; and one in Beijing, because China represents the future of science.

So why did Helmholtz then opt for Israel?

“We would like to team up stronger with this fascinating startup nation,” Helmholtz’s president, Prof. Otmar Wiestler, told Haaretz, adding that his institute’s scientists have a large number of projects with Israeli scientists – whether personal or on an institutional basis.

Wiestler previously ran Helmholtz’s German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, which has been cooperating with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot for more than 40 years – Germany’s oldest project for international scientific cooperation. After Wiestler was appointed to head the entire Helmholtz organization, he decided to institutionalize the relationship with Israel at the association’s 17 other research centers too.

Wiestler says Israel and Germany have mutual interests on a number of major topics such as the biomedical industry, climate, energy, aviation and space research. One issue that stood out in the conversation with Wiestler is Israel’s prowess in information processing and information technology.

“Helmholtz is an organization which produces enormous amounts of research data. We generate complex research data, more than any other organization in Europe,” he said.

“One of the important future tasks in front of us is to exploit all the new tools of information technology and information processing all the way up to deep learning, machine learning, artificial intelligence and quantum computing to extract new knowledge from the incredible wealth of data.”

The key to motivation

Above all, Wiestler’s comments clearly express a deep respect for Israel’s culture of innovation – along with a peek at one of German society’s main difficulties in tackling the challenges of the present era: a fear of failure.

The guest of honor at the organization’s annual event this time was the Weizmann Institute’s president, Prof. Daniel Zajfman. In his lecture, Zajfman spoke about science motivated by curiosity and the importance of providing an opportunity for failure to be able to achieve the next breakthroughs. Wiestler agrees with Zajfman completely and says – even if many others don’t agree – that German scientists are afraid of failure.

According to Wiestler, the problem is in the stage after the scientific breakthrough – turning it into something practical. This is particularly important to an institution such as Helmholtz that receives its funding from the German taxpayer in order to chalk up achievements at that final level.

“This is what the public expects from us. That is a problem in the German culture,” a fear of failure that prevents the rise of a startup culture, Wiestler says.

“People decide to establish their own company and fail; that’s something that’s difficult to recover from in the German system. I know this is entirely different in Israel, and by the way also in the U.S.,” he adds.

“If you talk to people who have been very successful, they often report that they had terrible failures in the beginning, but this was even stronger motivation to go on. This is something that we must learn in Germany.”

Haaretz science writer Asaf Ronel was the guest of the Helmholtz Association.

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