Weizmann: A matter of character

Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science produces high-quality multidisciplinary research by placing bets on people, not projects.

"People are chosen by their quality, not by their project or field," said Irit Sagi, Maurizio Pontecorvo professorial chair in the department of structural biology. "We put more emphasis on needing to characterize the person."

The institute begins following the careers of researchers when they are in graduate school and continues doing so through mandatory postdocs abroad. As a result, the Weizmann is already familiar with a candidate before he or she submits a CV.

"We have only five major universities, so more or less everybody knows each other," Sagi said.

CVs are assigned to a department. The institute comprises five faculties in biology; biochemistry; chemistry; physics; and mathematics and computer science.

Each faculty is further divided into departments. For example, the biology faculty is divided into five departments for biological regulation, immunology, molecular cell biology, neurobiology and veterinary resources.

After the CVs are assigned to a department, "there are interviews, and we hear two lectures at least. We try also to socialize with him or her," Sagi said.

Candidates are then asked to write 2-4 pages describing their vision, a summary of their achievements and what they plan to do in the next five years. The achievements must include 2-3 published papers.

Sagi said Weizmann also seeks advice on applications "from external experts."

She said this personal approach to recruiting, and the rigor of the review, are crucial at Weizmann, where investigators are expected to remain a long time.

"In the U.S., to get promoted you have to move from university to university. Here, you hire someone and expect them to get tenure and then lead the field," she noted.

However, these high-impact investigators are expected to bring in their own money through external grants, which more often than not still may fall into the traditional project-based systems.

Weizmann provides startup funding for new investigators for three years, after which a PI is expected to compete outside for grants. However, Sagi noted the institute will provide funding for early stage ideas that would not likely fare well in a traditional peer-reviewed competition for funds.

She added that the president and the administration encourage scientists to pursue high risk research.

The institute's annual budget is about $200 million. About a third comes from the Israeli government, with the remainder from research grants, royalties and donations.

- Susan Schaeffer