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November 30, 1984 - Image 51

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-11-30

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

An interview with Professor Michael
Sela, President of the Weizmann In-
stitute of Science, on the occasion of
the Institute's 50th anniversary.



The next

QUESTION: Reflecting on the his-
tory of the Institute — and even of
science in general it appears that,
periodically international research
• efforts seem to gravitate or concen-
trate on what might be called a "hot
science." There was a time when
cheniistry took centre stage, then phy-
sics; today everyone is animated by
molecular biology. Which area of
. science do you think will come to the
fore in the years ahead? And if there
is such an area, will the Weizmann
Institute be prepared to move in its
direction, in the same way as it has
been able to shift research emphasis
-_, over the past 50 years?
Of course no institution can easily
or with certainty predict which will
be the upcoming "hot" areas of
research. What we can do, though, is
try to keep moving into various fron-
tier areas so that when a specific "hot
science" emerges, management will
be in a position to judge whether
posed by diffiCult-to-control parasi-
body fluids, such as blood or urine,
work in that field is possible - or not.
tic infections. Here the design of
to what is present in cells. That
I'll give you three examples, in two
synthetic vaccines might be particu-
would include indentification and
of which the Weizmann Institute was
larly useful, although the use of
quantification of membrane recep-
"with it," and in one of which we
synthetic antigens to provide protec-
tors and proteins in the cytoplasm
were less so.
tion against viral and bacterial dis-
and nucleus.
When molecular biology entered
eases is also promising.
Di) you think it will be necessary io
"centre stage" the Institute was
redefine the role, goals and structure
While the Institute was not a
ready to pursuethe topic. Not that
pioneer in molecular genetics (also
of the Institute to suit new research
we consciously decided to edge away
known as genetic engineering), to-
interests as they crop up or will it
from classical biology and bioche-
day at least a dozen vigorous Insti-
simply be a matter of spotting trends
mistry, but rather that scientists like
tute groups work in this area. Prob-
and trying to adjust to them on an
Aharon and Ephraim Katzir had just
ably the most interesting aspect of
ad hoc" basis?
started to deal with extremely excit-
I'm glad _you asked this question,
this whole field is the work being
ing problems in biology and bioche-
done on campus in the analysis of
because, in fact, we are in the middle
mistry, the study of which later be-
oncogenes, the genetic elements
of exactly this kind of rethinking and
came known as molecular biology. A
known to induce cancer in man and
restructuring. Our greatest recent
similar thing happened later when
animals. It now appears that all the
innovation has been the creation of
attention began to be focused on
genetic information responsible for
centres - intellectual rathe'r than
cancer research. When this occur-
cancer is within us, not introduced
physical amalgamations - designed
red, we realized that the Institute
from the outside via infection. Even
to bring together scientists from
had , considerable strength in this
oncogenic viruses don't bring any. different departments and faculties
sphere and could make significant
new information but rather activate
to work on problems of common and
or change information inside our
related interest.
On the other hand I must admit
own dormant genes or, alternative-
Today I think we may have
that when the energy crisis struck in
ly, transfer oncogenes from one indi-
reached the stage. in which certain
1973. we didn't have much energy
physical and administrative renova-
vidual to a second. The Institute's
research going at the Institute. This
long experience in immunology
tions might be in place: We should
has been totally corrected since.
helps us to make contributions in this
perhaps consider cloSing down some
As to the upcoming areas likely to
departments and opening new ones.
achieve major importance at the
Finally, I predict breakthroughs in
Two Institute committees are work-
Institute in the future, I would think
both cancer diagnostics and therapy.
ing On this question. In parallel, I've
that within the next 50 years interdis-
In diagnostics the field will shift from
appointed a group, headed by Prof.
ciplinary collaboration between our
the examination of what is present in
Ephraim Katzir,.who- together with
theoretical mathematicians and our
77. 771
theoretical biologists might be one
such area. This kind of alliance
might, for example, make major
contributions to our understanding
of artificial intelligence and also help
us gain greater insights into the
mechanism of natural intelligence.
In physics, future interest here is
likely to concentrate both on the
tiniest and the largest of objects. As
far as the largest is concerned, some
of our astrophysicists may develop
new theories regarding the forces
operating to keep the universe and
its constituent bodies in motion and
the way in which the cosmos was
formed. In regard to the very smal-
lest of things, I think that Prof. Haim
Harari's still unproved theory about
the "Rishon" being the tiniest unit in
the universe is likely to go on pro-
voking discussion.
I also expect, revolutionary new
developments in the area that lies
between physics and chemistry and
is known as materials science. We
have some beginnings here, but I
hope we will develop a strong mate-
rials science department within the
next 10 years.
As far as biology is concerned, I
suspect that the greatest excitement .
will involve the area of neurobiolo-
gy, in which we already are very
active. We are also capable, I be-
lieve, of meeting the challenges still
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is welcomed by Prof Sela.


'I expect revolutionary new
scientific developments'
Professor Michael Sela,
President of the
Weizmann Institute,
in this special interview.



eight young tenured scientists = will
try and see where the Institute and
the Feinberg Graduate School
should go if they are to meet the
needs of the country in the years
ahead. I hope to have recommenda-
lions from this committee within a
year or two.

How are Institute scientists prepar-
ing themselves for these netv chat-

As new challenges arise resear-
chers may have to change their fields
of interest. One example: the move
of some of our biochemists and
physical chemists . into neurobiology
and the • behavioural sciences. More
dramatically, people have . • shifted
from chemistry to biology, from che-
mistry to physics, from physics to
chemistry. Take for instance Prof.
Henryk Eisenberg, an expert in po-
lymer chemistry for many years, who.
started off focusing almost exclusive-
ly on studies of non-biological synth-
etic polymers. Then he moved to
biological polymers, on to More
complex biological structures, and
finally to the .structure of genes and
chromosomes. Such changes take
place all the time. This doesn't mean
that whenever something new turns
up, we suddenly jump into the thick

of it. Not at all. SometimeS- we can
and do; sometimes we can't and
therefore don't. However, over the
years, the Institute has been char-
acterized by a dynamic spirit of in-
novation and change rather than by
restraints of intellectual conservat-
Does the fact that the Institute isn't a
university mean that it is freer to Move
in new 'directions?
Yes. We are not only able to move
more easily in new directions; it is
also essential that we do so.
A question as to w science of
human behaviour. Man advances
scientifically and technologically, but
basic human nature remains un-
touched, or largely so. Despite
mans many achievements, war, pre-
judice and other ills all remain; .sonic'
are even exacerbated by scientific
progress. What, if anything, can
working scientists do about this?
First of all, they must and do
demonstrate concern. • But I'm not -
sure whether scientists, as such, have
the right to demand veto powers
over the uses to which their discover-
ies are put. In any case, whatever the
end results, researchers must go on
with their research. Moreover, if you
look at the 'situation dispassionately,
I think you will find that despite the
many negative consequences of
modern scientific and - technological
developments - including even more
lethal weapons of war, acid rain, air
pollution, etc. - on balance, science
has done far more good than harm to
civilization ; if only because more
people enjoy long and reasonably
comfortable lives than ever before.
Problems remain, but I am confi-
dent that in time most of them will be
Can one justify the Israeli ,govern=
ment's continuing outlay of huge
,funds to finance the Weizmann Insti-
tute (among other such institutions)
at a time when the country pees .vudi
dire economic problems
I'm certainly the last person to
stake the Weizmann Institute's right
to exist On the basis of its contribu-
tions to the country's economy.
However, in fact, the Institute and
Israel's other centres of higher learn-
ing not only help to set and preserve
Israel's scientific and cultural stan-
dards, but also contribute in con-
crete terms to economic develop-
One of the reasons that Israel's
citizens enjoy a higher standard of
living than do those of -many other
young states is because - when Israel
was established, we already had a
network of universities and research
centres; we already had local scien-
tific and technological know-how.
I'd like to point out that two of
Israel's well-known high technology
companies, Scitex (manufacturing
computer-based lithographic sys-
tems) in Herzliya and Makhteshim
(manufacturing a variety of chemic-
als) in Ramat Hovav, exist in part
thanks to Weizmann Institute
-trained research and development
people and to Institute-developed
technology. Between them they ex-
port products worth close to $100-
million a year, while our owncurrent
budget is about $65-million a year.
Nonetheless, we cannot limit
ourselves to research that may pro-
vide economic pay-offs. This would
cripple the Institute.
In any case, the surest way to
guarantee that there will not he a
pay off is to ignore basic research,
upon which economic achievement
ultimately depends.

Prof Sela holds the W. Garfield
.West on Chair of Immunology. Prof
Henryk Eisenberg, the William and
Lee A brahmowitz Chair of
Macromolecular Biophysics, and Prof
Katzir, the' Theodore R. Racoosub
Chair of Biophysics.-

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