A critical issue for meeting the energy challenge is: Who will do the relevant basic research? This question is critical because decades of neglect and lack of interest and resources have severely shrunk the pool of scientists with the training to enable them to tackle fundamental research issues. In an attempt to break the pattern in which few students are attracted to the field because of a dearth of funding and of top researchers, Weizmann researcher David Cahen initiated the idea of a conference – one he termed an ”experiment.”
Cahen, together with colleagues from two other Israeli universities who share his concern, convinced the Batsheva de Rothschild Foundation to provide the bulk of the funding, which was supplemented by support from the Safed Foundation, the Institute’s AERI, Bar Ilan University and the Technion. They then selected 24 of the nation’s top students in the physical, life and engineering sciences who were in their final year of Ph.D. studies and invited them to spend five days with 20 Israeli and foreign senior experts in various aspects of alternative energy research – from the very basic to the very practical. (Weizmann Board of Governors member, Yehuda Bronicki, an industrialist, was one of the experts.) The conference, called ”Alternative, Sustainable Energy Options,” took place in a small hotel on an isolated Galilee hillside. Several of the students, most of whom were interested in the subject but had little or no alternative energy experience, admitted they thought the conference would be a ”pleasant week in a nice location.”
What they found was an intensive week of presentations by experts in everything from fundamentals to engineering, followed by small-group sessions on systematic, innovative thinking approaches that led to dynamic discussions and brainstorming, along with focused tutoring sessions in the senior scientists’ areas of expertise. The students themselves proposed the topics and led the discussions for the closing sessions of the conference.
Said one student: ”The seminar allowed us to form our own opinions about directions for fruitful avenues of research for possible new approaches to alternative energy.” The three conference organizers were optimistic: ”How large a new cadre of energy researchers will develop as a result of the meeting remains to be seen, but it seems very possible that its first seeds were planted on a beautiful, peaceful Galilee mountainside.”
Prof. David Cahen’s research is supported by the Nancy and Stephen Grand Research Center for Sensors and Security; Mr. Yehuda Bronicki, Israel; and Mr. and Mrs. Yossie Hollander, Israel. Prof. Cahen is the incumbent of the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Professorial Chair in Energy Research.