A science enigma in Israel

Dan Schechtman
Nobel Laureate Dr. Dan Shechtman discovered quasicrystals when he was on a sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University. — Photo: R. Prasad

Israel may be a small country, but it has produced ten Nobel Laureates, of which four are for Chemistry. Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize last year for chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals. Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, where Prof. Shechtman works, is the first and smallest university in the country.

“It has [produced] three Nobel Laureates in Chemistry,” he said to The Hindu during an interaction with journalists at the recently concluded 62nd Nobel Laureates Meeting, dedicated to physics, from July 1 to July 7 2012 at Lindau, Germany.

Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, two years before Prof. Shechtman’s achievement.

Despite being a small country, how has it managed to produce so many Laureates? “I don’t know the answer,” he said frankly. “I think we do good work. I think we encourage young talented people to go to science.”

Though he was at a loss to pinpoint the reasons, he did shed some light on what may be the factors facilitating his country’s success. “We have very good scientists in Israel. We publish many papers in many reputed journals,” he noted.

But one of the distinguishing factors that emerged is the way the scientists interact with their counterparts based in other countries. “We are encouraged to travel to other laboratories in the world,” he said.

Building contacts

To facilitate this interaction, very vital for science, scientists are allowed to avail a sabbatical for periods extending up to 6 to 7 years. “Every summer, if you want to go and work somewhere, they allow you [to go]. So we have many contacts in the world,” he revealed.

In fact, it was while Prof. Shechtman was on a sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University and working with the National Bureau of Standards in 1982 that he discovered the existence of quasicrystals.

Liberal funding

Availability of liberal funding is another critical factor. Scientists have several sources of funding to turn to — industrial, defence, government and binational funding. The binational funding comes from binational agreements — Israel-Germany, Israel-United States, Israel-England and others.

Another contributing factor is that the government does not fund universities directly. Instead, it provides fund to intermediate bodies, which in turn fund the universities. “So the government is not directly involved. We [are in touch with] the intermediate bodies and it is excellent,” he underlined.

“A good scientist who writes a good project proposal has a good chance of securing funding,” he said. “In my department, there are 16 faculty members and everyone has a nice chunk of research funds.”

According to him everybody communicates with everybody else in Israel. “Communication is good for science. People need to talk,” he said. “All these don’t answer your question [of how a small country is able to produce so many Nobel Laureates]. I understand that. I don’t know what the reason is.”

But there are challenges. “There are many scientists who cannot find jobs in Israel,” he said. “Israel is a start-up country. Everybody thinks of starting a start-up. The number of start-ups in the country is enormous. The spirit of entrepreneurship is fantastic.”

Eighteen students from India participated in the Nobel Laureates Meeting at Lindau. The German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) sponsored their visit.

(This Correspondent was one of the two journalists from India who participated in the 62nd Nobel Laureates Meeting at Lindau, Germany, at the invitation of the German Research Foundation (DFG) Bonn.)

Published in The Hindu on July 12, 2012