I’ve recently came across a paper written by Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir, Israel’s 4th president and a successful scientist who was a driver of the modern OCS (Office of the Chief Scientist) through his Committee’s findings in 1968. Back then, scientific research was the closest thing to today’s tech startups – it was capital intensive since equipment was very expensive and it consisted of high levels of intelectual property and international relations with foreign markets. His paper, titled “My Contributions to Science and Society” (pdf file), tells Katzir’s story in as an autobiography intricately enlaced in the story of the state of Israel, from its inception as a pre-independence to a flourishing democracy in the middle east with a thriving economy, when the paper was written in 2005. The paper not only inspired me, but also gave me context to how much has Israel accomplished in so little time as well as a sense of proportion – things aren’t so bad for us after all. While I recommend printing and reading the entire doc, below I’ve quoted some of the sections I found particularly inspiring as well as my conclusion in the bottom of this post.
Katzir grew alongside the state of Israel:
Not too many of my scientific colleagues have lived, as I have, through the birth pangs of a new state or felt the need to throw themselves into a lifestyle that is critical for their own survival and their nation’s future. If this sounds dramatic, it is no more and no less than what it was like to be a scientist in the emerging and newly established State of Israel for the larger part of the 20th century when the local Jewish population and many Zionists living abroad were devoting all their energies to achieving statehood and then building and protecting the new state after its creation in 1948. Perhaps I may therefore be forgiven if these reflections on my scientific activities are inextricably interwoven with recollections of my life outside science. I have participated in the most significant events in my country during the historic period of its emergence and development as a dynamic new state. At the same time, I have derived enormous pleasure and fulfillment from my chosen path of research and teaching in the life sciences.
Having a clear mission in life, Katzir had a compass and criteria to make personal and professional decisions:
Thus, while still a student, I had already formed quite a clear idea of my goals in life. I would do what I could to help establish the State of Israel and contribute to its security and its social and economic development. In addition, I would attempt to do some original research while at the same time playing my part in raising a new generation of Israeli scientists and helping to create the physical and intellectual conditions in which science and technology could flourish in this region.
As a scientist and a teacher, I have always thought it important to make young people aware of the achievements of modern science and technology and their relevance for everyday life… Having received such inspiring guidance from my own teachers and motivated by my strong desire to help educate young Israeli scientists, I was more than ready to invest time and effort in nurturing these gifted young people. As a result, instead of concentrating strictly on my own specific research interests, I found myself moving in a number of directions, exploring different (though related) ideas with my students. My aim was to guide each one into an area that would enable him or her to tackle specific problems in my laboratory and eventually form independ- ent research groups. Some of my students went on to achieve remarkable success. Our collaborations would often continue even after they had left my team and begun work in other disciplines.
As I became more involved in science, I increasingly felt that the academic community had a moral duty to participate in matters of public concern. Because of this sense of obligation, as well as my lifetime involvement with social activities in Israel, in 1966 I accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to head a committee charged with advising the government on the organization of its future activities in science and technology. An important result of our work was the appointment, in several government ministries, of Chief Scientists charged with promoting applied research in governmental institutions, in institutes of higher learning, and in industry itself. Our recommendations prompted a marked increase in coop- eration between these three sectors. They also led to a dramatic increase in government spending on applied research, leading to a surge in innovative science-based activities, espe- cially in high technology industry and space research. In May, 1973, I became the fourth President of the State of Israel and embarked on one of the most interesting periods of my life…
I have always thought of Israel as a pilot plant state in which dedicated people can explore all kinds of imaginative and creative possibilities aimed at improving society and the state. I feel certain that in the years to come we will continue to operate as a testing ground, drawing on the fruits of science and technology to determine the best and most satisfying ways of living in a country geared to the future. The highest standards of health care, educational practice, and cultural and recreational facilities will flow from research and development in the natural sciences, as well as in automation, computer science, information technology, communication, transportation, and biotechnology. I believe it is possible to create such a pilot plant state by encouraging the development of science-based high technology industry and agriculture. Once it gains momentum, this core of activity will contribute significantly to the economic growth and prosperity of the country. In this pilot plant state, I would like to see a free, pluralistic society, a democracy whose citizens live by the rule of law, and a welfare state in which public services are efficiently handled. Great emphasis will be laid on excellence in science and research, literature, and the arts, thus enriching the intellectual and cultural life of every citizen.
We Jews are eternal optimists. We have always believed, even in the depths of our despair, that the Messiah will come, even if he tarries a little. I am sure that ultimately we will create our model society geared for life in the twenty-first century and founded on the great moral and ethical tenets that we have held sacred since ancient times.
Ephraim Katzir passed away on the 31st of May, 2009. His vision and achievements in progressing science in Israel are still making an impact today. When my MBA course started at London Business School, one of our first assignments was to write a eulogy, trying to imagine what would people say about us when we’re gone. We, the Israeli startup community, should also think about it, get inspired, come up with a vision but remember to stay humble, like the late Ephraim Katzir.