Head to Head / Weizmann President Daniel Zajfman, Why Is It Fun to Work at the Institute?

Zajfman, professor of particle physics, explains why the government's demands for increased bureaucracy could ruin administrative culture he claims supports creativity of institute's scientists.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot was ranked by the New York-based magazine The Scientist this week as the best academic institution for life science researchers to work for outside the United States. Weizmann Institute president Daniel Zajfman, a professor of particle physics, explains what makes for such a good atmosphere there, and why the government's demands for increased bureaucracy could ruin the administrative culture that he says supports the creativity of the institute's scientists.

Daniel Zajfman, why is it fun to work at the Weizmann Institute?

Daniel Zajfman
Alon Ron

We invest enormous effort in the way we function, to make it terribly fun to work here. We are a scientific institution; we are primarily looking for people with breakthrough ideas who think outside the box. We have learned that the only way to do this is to create a supportive atmosphere. If the administration respects the people who work here, it will really be a lot of fun for them.

How do you create a supportive atmosphere?

We guard freedom. There are several ways to conduct research: one is to stay focused on the goal - to decide, for example, that you focus on cancer or energy research. But I can't be the one deciding what's important. I can decide whether the people are right, but even if there's a large budget, it won't help if I don't allow them to work the way they want, on what they want. You can see this in young scientists, many of whom we've brought back from places like MIT and Harvard. It isn't enough to give them money. You must invest in these people so they'll understand that they shouldn't make any compromises when they come here. You must grant them freedom in research.

What do you do to protect their freedom?

Administrative flexibility is the most important. You can determine the framework, but the more flexible it is and the more it bends in accordance with the scientists' demands, the more they will develop. When we see a scientist's curiosity, we bend over backwards to move with him. We don't create a framework and force everyone to remain within it. There is one researcher here who is interested in scientific approaches to archaeology. Archaeology is not a proper science and doesn't fit any of the institute's areas, but we give him the conditions to develop his research in archaeology. This year we are establishing a new center, on the link between science, the humanities and the social sciences. People here are working on neurobiology, but are beginning to touch on psychology and speak in a completely different language than that of science. Such a center will allow development in these directions.

Aren't you concerned about losing the Weizmann Institute's standing as a science institute?

I won't hire a historian to work at the Weizmann Institute, although I love historians and read a lot of history. What we understand is science. As long as certain areas come from science and border on it, that's fine. If scientific research takes us naturally in the direction of psychology or archaeology, the administration must suit itself to this. It may be that one of the reasons for our success is that all the administrators are active scientists. I am an active scientist and not an administrator, and my true feelings are with science.

Academia in general, and particularly in Israel, is known as a very competitive place. Isn't this enough to sully the atmosphere?

Competition makes people do better. It's an important element. I won't say that sometimes this doesn't have a darker side, and people express it in one way or another, but we reach a balance. There is a tremendous amount of cooperation; don't forget that half the scientists live on the grounds. That creates a community. Everyone here leads a group and isn't in competition with the other guy in the hallway. I don't want to say that there's no competition, but we manage to create an atmosphere in which competition is unnatural, and to discover what is natural as much as possible.

The Scottish university in sixth place in the rankings of The Scientist was mentioned favorably for its traditional weekends that allow the researchers to drink, dance and relax. Do you hold such social gatherings at the Weizmann Institute too?

We don't have any social events, but since half the scientists live on the grounds, there are endless meetings. The physicist's children play in the same sandbox as the chemist's kids, and this creates endless fertile links among the scientists - and not only them. The workers, technicians, engineers and gardeners are partners in the effort here. Many people have told me that when they enter the gate to the institute they leave their Israeli sarcasm behind.

So there isn't any point in asking whether the Israeli character contributes to the pleasant atmosphere you describe?

Yes and no. In the past I ran a science institute in Germany. What we do here from the point of view of administrative flexibility is incomprehensible there. It's a matter of a kind of thinking, and there I had to educate people that laws are written by people and people can change them. On the other hand, there are a lot of questions about the way people approach each other in Israeli society, such as the lack of respect.

If the rankings had been compiled 20 years ago, what do you think the results would have been?

The culture was built-in, from the beginning. I have been in this job since 2006 and I inherited a wonderful place. The people who preceded me did extraordinary work. They knew what they were doing. I am the pilot of those who built this Boeing 747. They built a glorious place with a very interesting and unusual inner mechanism.

Describe it.

The place is complex. It's hard for me to point to one particular thing out of context. But one thing that we don't have, and I think it's a good thing, are committees. We have an administrative culture in which decisions are made by people, without protocols.

So in essence there is no democracy or transparency?

This is not a public company. Is Intel democratic? We want it to be well-run and for people to make decisions. If we left the decisions to committees, we would encourage politicization and bureaucracy.

Is there room for improvement?

We came out No. 1 in the survey, but I don't think that's enough. It is an indication of the past, not the future. The balance we've created is beginning to shift in my opinion, and I'm beginning to feel that the institute's independence is beginning to crack. The [Council for Higher Education's] planning and budgeting committee, the Finance Ministry and other government offices are starting to make administrative demands that are out of place. I say that we're not a factory. We must protect our freedom.

How are the demands of the planning and budgeting committee endangering the institute's freedom?

In recent years it has interfered in administrative questions such as how we choose our president, how many committees we operate, how we invest and so on. The institute receives funding [from the government], and they want what's best for the state. But this is a dangerous trend. It puts us into a box and damages the freedom that is critical to our success. You can invest dollars, but without such freedom, it's worthless. They think they're doing the right thing because they are bringing in oversight, but it may be that this will cause nothing but damage. I am opposed to this.

Do you have a chance of winning this fight?

I don't know if I have a chance. I am simply standing on my feet. I am really fighting this. People come with good intentions; it's not that they want to destroy the place. But people must understand. If you don't work here and don't understand how science is done, then what's your problem here? If we want the scientists to be exceptional, the framework must be exceptional. Transparency, reports and so on create rules, and they are dangerous rules. It doesn't look this way from the outside, but this is the situation. Organizational structure is created over time, but it can be destroyed very quickly.