An Interview with Prof. Itamar Procaccia


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Prof. Itamar Procaccia, Dean of chemistry

Q: We began primarily as an institute of chemistry because that was Chaim Weizmann's field, but emphasis on this field seems to have declined over the years. What is the situation today?

A: Chemistry, here and elsewhere is on the upswing and now plays a key role in every branch of science. For example, it is, to a large extent, the basis of the life sciences.

Q: What about the interaction on campus between chemists and people who do research in other disciplines?

A: It is extremely close. There is a great deal of collaboration, facilitated by the interdisciplinary character of the Institute. Moreover, nobody blinks an eye at the fact that we have people working with us in our laboratories who earned their degrees in fields like physics or biology.

Q: How about the Chemistry Faculty's contribution to improving the quality of life?

A: Our environmental research and our work on solar energy will improve the quality of life and, hopefully, help correct the layman's view that chemists, and the chemicals they produce, are primarily responsible for pollution. Chemicals can, of course, cause pollution, but they also have a key role to play in cleaning up the environment.

Q: Does the establishment of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research indicate that the Weizmann Institute is putting new emphasis on this sphere?

A: Absolutely. Not only its establishment, but also its rapid expansion. It started with just one professor, the late Prof. Mordekai Magaritz, and -- if present plans are realized -- will eventually have 12.

Q: Chemists are apt to need very expensive instruments which the Weizmann Institute can't afford. Doesn't this force at least some of them to carry out most of their research abroad?

A: Much to my regret, this is all too often the case because without modern instrumentation a scientist can't hold his won in an increasingly competitive field.

Q: What's so bad about chemists from the Institute working in overseas labs?

A: It means we are likely to lose credit for the achievements of our scientists. That was happening, for instance, in the case of Prof. Ada Yonath, whose work in structural biology is of the highest possible caliber. Now, fortunately, we have made it possible for her group to make most of their preliminary measurements here.

Q: How was the Institute able to provide Yonath's group with the equipment it required?

A: Through massive funding from the Kimmelman Center for new equipment and laboratories.

Q: But can you do the same thing for every research group on the campus?

A: Of course not. We have to decide on priorities, to put all our eggs in a limited number of baskets since we don't have enough for all our baskets.

Q: In your faculty, as in the Institute as a whole, there now seems to be more emphasis on applied research than there used to be. Is that a good thing?

A: This is a world-wide trend because of the decline in government funding for basic research. But the boundaries between pure and applied research have become so blurred that it probably makes more sense to talk about good, mediocre or bad research.

Q: How should the Institute relate to people who concentrate on applied research?

A: I think it should encourage them and, where justified, promote them. If we don't we'll lose wonderful scientists who could add to our prestige in many fields.

Q: How would you evaluate Israel's position in international science?

A: Much more prestigious than one would expect. It's amazing, for instance, to see how prominent a role Israeli scientists play at international conferences. Sometimes, when you see the impact of Israeli scientists, students and postdocs, you get the impression that Israel is the size of China. This is why overseas researchers visiting this country for the first time are often shocked by the country's small size.

In the final analysis, I think our standing in the world of science depends on us. We are certainly big enough in terms of intellect, ambition and commitment to make our mark in the international arena.

Q: Aren't you overlooking the special problems that we face in this country?

A: It's true that we have serious political troubles, that our salary scales are low by international standards and that, all too often, our government fails to commit itself to intellectual excellence. But I don't think these problems are insurmountable.

Q: Has the Institute itself attained prominence in various spheres of chemistry?

A: In the past we were very strong in fields like polymers, polyelectrolytes and catalysis, and at present we have superb groups, for example in structural biology and crystallography, materials and interfaces, and chemical physics.

Q: Haven't we also made a name for ourselves in research on chaos, your own field?

A: Yes. I think that it is fair to say that our work has been well received.

Q: Is chaos research simply in fashion, or is it really a key to our understanding of nature?

A: Both, I would say. It has been very fashionable in the last couple of decades, but it is also essential to understanding complex behavior in both space and time. For example, it helps us analyze the behavior of storms, the origins of the universe and various aspects of the social sciences -- including economics.

Q: If we achieve good relations with our Arab neighbors, is there room for cooperation with them where chemistry is concerned?

A: In some fields -- like exploiting solar energy and the resources of the Dead Sea -- there certainly is. But I don't think that there is much scope for cooperation where basic research is concerned. In that sphere our chemists and other scientists will, I would assume, still probably prefer to go on collaborating with their colleagues in Europe, North America and the Far East.

Q: What about technological and industrial collaboration with the Arabs?

A: That could and should take place. There is much to be gained, for instance, by linking our electricity and telecommunication networks, and by having our chemical industries work together.

Q: Finally is the Chemistry Faculty getting its fair share of Feinberg Graduate School students?

A: Absolutely. Moreover, those young scientists are among the best in the world. When they graduate, leading overseas laboratories are pleased to have them as post-docs.

Q: That is all very well, but what opportunities do they have afterwards, back in Israel?

A: Then they face the challenge of finding secure positions here in Israel.