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Prof. Rafael Reif

A day at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with its 17th president


Date: October 16, 2018
Prof. Rafael Reif (left) and Prof. Daniel Zajfman

Prof. Rafael Reif (left) and Prof. Daniel Zajfman

Prof. Rafael Reif is the 17th President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He previously served as MIT’s provost, from 2005 to 2012. He received a degree in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela, and earned his doctorate in the same field from Stanford University.

Q   What has been the value for MIT in its relationship with the Weizmann Institute over the years, and what are your hopes and expectations moving into the future?

A    MIT’s relationship with Weizmann has been remarkably productive. More than 40 years ago, MIT professors Ron Rivest and Leonard Adleman partnered with Weizmann’s Adi Shamir to develop the RSA cryptosystem, the first public-key cryptosystem. In the 1980s, Shafi Goldwasser—who holds appointments at both of our institutions—joined Weizmann’s Oded Goldreich and MIT’s Silvio Micali to develop the gold standard for enabling secure Internet transactions. Their research is widely recognized as revolutionizing the science of cryptography, and it earned Professors Goldwasser and Micali the Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of computing. And MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds and Machines partners with the Weizmann Institute.

The agreement we just signed [through a gift from Sami and Tova Sagol] marks the start of an exciting new era of collaboration that I believe will benefit both institutions’ students and faculty, and society at large.

Q    Why are international collaborations important in science?

A     When leading scientific and technical institutions partner with colleagues and supporters around the world, it allows each group to use its distinctive strengths to help make an impact on big, urgent global challenges—challenges that no individual, institution, or country can address on its own.

Q    What is one field of research that you see taking off in a big way and changing society in the coming years?

A    Although it sometimes feels like artificial intelligence is everywhere we look, its foundations are, in fact, relatively old. If we want to achieve the kind of breakthroughs that will revolutionize the field of AI, it’s going to take new science. Just imagine if the next giant leap in artificial intelligence comes from the root of intelligence itself: the human brain. That’s how big we need to think to generate new knowledge in this area, as well as enable its practical impact.

Q    Why is philanthropy important for advancing science?

A    Venture capital funding works wonderfully for concepts and companies with the potential to reach market profitability quickly. But very understandably, investors want a quick return on their investment. They don’t want to wait a decade or more to be rewarded.

Philanthropists are looking for a return on their investment too, of course, but a different kind of return, and on a different timeline. Research in “tough tech” fields—energy, human health, climate and clean water, for example—requires patience. Philanthropy gives our researchers many things they need—staff, space, equipment—but I think the greatest thing it provides is time. Time to explore. To test. To take risks. And to see where a line of inquiry leads without thinking about financial returns.

Q    What role should MIT—and scientific research institutions more broadly—play in advancing science literacy among the public and at the government level? Is there an urgency today to advance the public understanding of science, and if so why?

A    Let me answer your second question first, and with an emphatic “Yes”! At a time when enthusiasm for innovation remains high, and rightly so, I worry that support for scientific discovery is waning. Basic research is slow, painstaking, and rigorous. But it is critical for a healthy, productive, and prosperous society. We must do more to communicate its importance. Given our rich tradition of engagement with our respective federal governments, I do believe that institutions like MIT and Weizmann have a special role to play in advancing scientific literacy. I spend a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., talking with lawmakers and federal officials. I firmly believe that science and technology can provide answers to some of society’s most challenging problems, as well as provide the foundations for the future.

Q    Israel and America are both countries of immigrants that rely on the strength of human brain power, and so education is a high priority in both places. As an immigrant to America, can you reflect on your own experience?

A    This is an issue that means a great deal to me, both personally and professionally.  My parents fled Eastern Europe for South America in the late 1930s to escape the Holocaust. They stressed to my brothers and me the value of hard work and education. My third brother, Isaac, was the first in our family to go to high school and then college, and his example showed me that I might be able to do the same.

During my time at MIT—close to four decades—I have witnessed the magnetic strength of the U.S., attracting some of the world’s smartest and most talented young people. More than 40 percent of our graduate students and faculty were born outside of the U.S. That mix of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is critical. It helps us to educate our students to be global problem solvers, and it enriches our campus.

I am living proof of the power of education: No matter where you come from, educational opportunity—paired with hard work and dedication—can transform a young person’s life. Now, with the great honor of leading MIT, I feel a deep responsibility to ensure that our campus—and our country—continues to attract and welcome some of the world’s finest minds.