An Interview with Prof. Yadin Dudai



Prof. Yadin Dudai. Dean of Biology

Q: How do you see the future of biological research at the Weizmann Institute?

A: I think there will be major changes because biological research is at a turning point. We must consider restructuring the life sciences at Weizmann in order to avoid stagnation and adjust to the changing situation. In fact, we have just started doing so.

Q: Why, in your opinion, has this turning point been reached?

A: It stems from very rapid developments in the life sciences and from the sheer volume of contemporary research. Just in my own field --
the neurobiology of learning and memory -- more than 200 papers are published every week. I obviously can't read most of them, let alone the 5,000 weekly papers in biology as a whole.

Q: That is certainly a problem, but are there other factors as well?

A: Yes. Today, if you are to compete with top research groups in the life sciences, you usually need relatively large research teams supported by a very sophisticated and expensive infrastructure.

Q: What conclusions are we at the Institute to draw from this situation?

A: There are several things. First, we must carefully consider the fields in which we are to specialize and in which we might be able to make an important or even unique contribution. We must go into those fields in depth and avoid jumping from one trendy project to another. Second, we must carefully choose the leaders of research groups. And finally, we must have a satisfactory infrastructure in terms of state-or-the-art technology and services. This costs a lot of money. In parallel, we may have to cut down the overall number of topics on which we work.

Q: What criteria should be applied in deciding on which topics to forego?

A: There are areas of biological research -- like the study of particular oncogenes, growth regulation factors and some facets of brain research -- where we are definitely at the cutting edge. There are others where we are not, and some of the latter may have to be abandoned, however difficult this may be. In general, I would like people to think that some very important topics in biological research are particularly associated with Weizmann Institute.

Q: Does that mean that Institute scientists will have less freedom of choice, that they will be told what to investigate?

A: I don't think that is a problem. Generally speaking, excellent scientists choose excellent projects. But when we are selecting new personnel or contemplating investment in new equipment, we may wish to consider the need to create a critical mass in a particular field. Moreover, we may decide to limit the number of groups and give more resources to certain ones.

Q: You yourself are working on one of the subjects receiving ever more emphasis at the Institute, namely brain research. What are your goals?

A: The objective of my research is to contribute to an understanding of the processes of learning and memory. Specifically, I am interested in the events that take place in our brain during learning and a few minutes afterwards, when short-term memory becomes consolidated into long-term memory.

Q: Where brain research is concerned, do we have any advantages over other institutions?

Our mutidisciplinary character is certainly an advantage, because the brain can best be understood by studying it with the combined insights of biology, mathematics, physics and chemistry. In addition, we have a number of top scientist doing brain research. This has helped us to excel in topics like imaging the living brain and elucidating the biological correlates of higher brain function, particularly perception and memory.

Q: Despite the mutidisciplinary character of brain research here, isn't biology the dominant discipline in that field, as it is, indeed, in the Institute as a whole?

Yes, since over 50 percent of Institute research is in biology. But even so, we don't cover everything; for example, we do nothing or next to nothing in classic areas like zoology and whole-animal physiology.

Q: Apart from the balance of disciplines, how do you feel about the balance between basic and applied research?

A: I feel that we should devote almost all our energy to basic research. I'm happy if something of economic importance emerges as a by-product of that research, but I don't think that we should decide to investigate some subject just because it is of interest to industry and will attract its support.

Q: You may not have as strong links with industry as do many scientists, but you do have closer links with the press than your colleagues. Didn't you -- albeit a good many years ago -- work as a journalist yourself?

Yes I did, and perhaps that strengthens my desire to make science understandable to the public. Though some of my friends would disagree, I personally believe that if scientists can't explain what they are doing to laymen, then they may not understand it themselves.

Q: Do scientists also have special responsibilities in the educational system?

A: I think they should devote some time to education, even at the elementary school level. As things stand, I'm afraid most kids don't acquire a basic knowledge of science in school. And most important, they are not exposed to the scientific methodology that will be crucial for making decisions in the 21st century.

Q: If youngsters become interested in science and decide to become scientists, will they find jobs? Indeed, will all the Russian immigrant scientists find work?

A: Very good scientists, the top two to five percent, will find work in institutions of higher learning, while some of the others will get jobs in industry, depending on how far and in what direction it expands. But I think that it is the responsibility of government and industry alike to create more employment opportunities, because investment in the scientific community is investment in the strength and well-being of our society. In addition, there should be an expansion of colleges, both because this will mean more teaching positions and because those colleges are needed to accommodate, among others, some of the immigrant students.

If all these things are done, most science graduates will find their niche.

Prof. Dudai holds the Sara and Michael Sela Chair of Neurobiology.