The Weizmann Institute of Science and the Cooperation with Germany

The successful German-Israeli science collaboration would be inconceivable without the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. In 1959, the Institute invited the first delegation of German academics to Israel. This visit was a milestone, helping to establish diplomatic relations between these countries 50 years ago this year. One of the mainstays of the cooperation is the Minerva Foundation, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society.

Author: Ulla Thiede/ Translation: Ruth Morris

A six-month research sojourn in the Israeli Negev desert for a taste of life abroad was the trigger for Nadine Töpfer. Armed with her doctorate, the biophysicist from Potsdam wanted to return to Israel at all costs: "I pulled out all the stops". Since October 2014, this postdoctoral student has been researching secondary plant metabolism at the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. Töpfer is engaged in computer-based biology, which is still a young specialist discipline with many of its publications emanating from Israel.

Thousands of German and Israeli academics and doctoral students have followed Nadine Töpfer’s path over the past 50 years: They joined one of partner countries’ research institutions for a few weeks, months, or years, acquainting themselves with new approaches in their specific domains, sharing collegial expertise and engaging in cultural encounters. The WIS has played a pioneering role in respect of this exchange, because the first delegation of German scientists visited Israel in 1959 in response to its invitation.

The Max Planck Society (MPG) visitors regarded themselves as bridge builders. Eleven years after the proclamation of the State of Israel, there was still considerable resistance to cooperation with the Germans, in whose extermination camps millions of Jews had been murdered during the Second World War. The president of the MPG, Otto Hahn, led the German delegation. The 70-year-old chemist and Nobel Prize laureate was a credible partner for his Jewish hosts, because he had supported Jews in National Socialist Germany and saved the lives of some of them.

Once the ice was broken, the collaboration slowly got underway with Lorenz Krüger the first German scientist to start a research sojourn in Israel in 1961. Three years later, thus before the assumption of diplomatic relations in 1965, the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel put their research collaboration on a solid foundation with the Minerva agreement. Currently, the Minerva Foundation, a subsidiary of the MPG, maintains close relations with all six universities in Israel and with the WIS.

The Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) has, to date, spent about 282 million Euro on funding. Over the decades, the BMBF arranged further cooperation with Israel: The interministerial collaboration in which the Israeli partner ministries participate, started in 1973. The German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF) began its work in 1986 and has since then spent 225 million Euro on funding. The German-Israeli Project ooperation began in 1997. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem’s Martin Buber Society trust fund, which was founded in 2009, is this academic collaboration’s most recent pillar.

Christine Stollberg is a physicist at the WIS, following in Lorenz Krüger’s footsteps who, as a German pioneer, also practiced physics here. Stollberg's supervising mentor in Jena had maintained contact with Rehovot since the 1990s and made her aware of the research opportunities there. Her former research group in Jena builds spectrometers for Stollberg's team at the WIS. She is attempting to accelerate the free electrons in a plasma for her doctoral thesis. Her objective: "To assemble a waveguide for high intensity lasers." She mentioned this could lead to a future cancer treatment method.

The beginnings of the WIS can be traced to before the State of Israel’s founding. Its history is closely connected with Chaim Weizmann, who was later Israel's first president. Weizmann was a major force in the Zionist movement, a chemist by profession, and devoted himself to setting up a research institute in Palestine. Israel and Rebecca Sieff, a British couple, provided the funding. In memory of their son, they called research facility the "Daniel Sieff Research Institute" in 1934. Weizmann became its first president and, on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1949, it was renamed the "Weizmann Institute".

Currently the WIS comprises five faculties, namely Mathematics and Informatics, Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Biology, and has a personnel of 2500. It is one of the leading research institutions in the world. Teaching is also an important component at WIS: The Feinberg Graduate School offers master's and doctoral degrees and has more than 1000 students. The research and teaching are done in English, but Nadine Töpfer reports that it is possible to learn Hebrew in a course offered on the campus.

The Immunologist Alexander Mildner is thrilled by the large spatial proximity on the 120-hectare site in Rehovot: "It makes the scientific cooperation so very easy." He researched a white blood corpuscle cell type for over four years at the WIS and now does research at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, visiting Israel for three months every year. He admires the way knowledge at the WIS is not only shared by means of internal departmental lectures, but also in joint sessions for all members of the institute. 

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," declares Daniel Zajfman, president of the WIS. He also applies this phrase to the German-Israeli collaboration. "Knowledge is based on a whole structure of education, culture, belief systems, and, of course, personal networks and the community. Even if everyone brings the same knowledge to the table, the sum of this knowledge creates something new," Zajfman surmises. He also serves on the MPG’s senate.

The Minerva Foundation constantly finances around 80 research projects at the WIS, 2,330 in total since the beginning of the cooperation. In addition, there are 50 scholarships annually and the financing of the Minerva centres, where interdisciplinary top level research is conducted. These are regularly subjected to a committee’s supervision. In 2015, Israeli universities had about 20 Minerva centres, with an additional three at the WIS. These science networks not only undertake research on natural sciences, but also on legal sciences and the humanities.

Whoever has visited Israel once, will always return. This was also Kornelius Kupczik’s experience. His specialist field is evolutionary anthropology. This researcher from Leipzig University has kept contact with his colleagues in Rehovot since 2007. At the crossroads of civilisations where, according to new insights, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens crossed paths 55,000 years ago, Kupczik finds fossils and artifacts for his research. Kupczik was involved in the setting up of the "Max Planck Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology" with one foothold in Leipzig and another in Rehovot. In Israel, the experts are using radiocarbon dating method to determine the age of the fossils and artifacts. "Why do so many of the found human fossils lack their wisdom teeth?," is one of Kupczik’s questions. The solution to this mystery may be found in Israel.