Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Member Blog: David Zilberman

On receiving the Wolf Prize and on the scholar as an intellectual athlete

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | June 24, 2019

On May 30 I received the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in Jerusalem. It is considered the “Nobel Prize” of agriculture and mathematics. Many of the Wolf Prize laureates in Medicine and Chemistry go on to receive the Nobel Prize. I was honored and humbled to get the prize – especially because I am the first economist, the second Israeli, and the third recipient from Berkeley to receive the award in agriculture. The competition is international with the award given by the Israeli President of the Knesset.

The Wolf Prize was established by Ricardo Wolf to complement the Nobel Prize by adding awards in important fields like agriculture, arts, and mathematics, which were not covered by the Nobel. Wolf was a German Jew who emigrated to Cuba and was a successful inventor, with significant earnings from patents in the steel production process. He provided financial support to Fidel Castro, then became the Cuban Ambassador to Israel, and finally an Israeli citizen.

I won the award for my interdisciplinary research approach, integrating biophysical considerations with the economic models of agricultural systems. My collaborative efforts lead to the development of methods to predict the impacts of the adoption of water conservation and pest-control technologies, to design incentives for agricultural conservation activities, and to improve biofuel and biotechnology policies.

I was excited to accept the prize in the city where I was born and still have a large family. Receiving the award in the Knesset from the Israeli President, who is no Trump or Netanyahu but rather admired for his civility and integrity (and a distant relative of mine), made the whole experience even better. I had a posse joining me too – my wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law (I really thank Davina’s parents for taking care of the kids so that she could make it), my nominator, friends, mentors, and collaborators (Jill McCluskey, Richard Just, Gordon Rausser, Tom Reardon, and Dick Beahrs) and my friend from grade school (Shlomo Nezer). I arrived in Israel with Leorah a week before the award ceremony and the visit was full of highlights. I was touched watching my cousins and uncles clapping when we arrived in Jerusalem and enjoyed meeting old friends at a reception on the beach in Tel Aviv. I was thrilled to participate in a class reunion at my high school, Lyada. At the time I had resented the uncompromising commitment to excellence of our high school, but without it, I probably would not be receiving a Wolf Prize. The building of our high school has hardly changed in 53 years – but we ourselves all surely looked different. One of the benefits of teaching at the university is that you mingle with students and you don’t realize that you’ve aged.

The Wolf Prize festivities included a tour of Jerusalem, and fortunately, Moshe Safadie, who won the Wolf Prize in Architecture, designed the Mamila area linking the old and new parts of Jerusalem.  We could not have found a better guide of the city. He invited us to his house in the old city, which offers a spectacular view of the holy sites, as you can see. We also met with young scholars, where each of us presented our life’s work, and I was amazed and humbled by the accomplishments of the other laureates. Their discoveries may allow for improved control of obesity, reductions in the costs of drug manufacturing, and better quantification of the behavior of complex systems with random elements.

The award ceremony was amazing. The Knesset sits at the top of a hill and has a beautiful view of the city. The ceremony was short and sweet.  For the first time in my life, I wore a tuxedo. They showed a video clip of each of us when we were introduced, we received the award from the Israeli President, and then gave a short acceptance speech. I had the feeling of participating in an academic Oscar ceremony. I was so glad that my family and friends were at the event since we have all shared this journey. I believe it takes a village (family, friends, and collaborators) to nurture long-term achievement.

To receive the Wolf Prize meant needing to skip the NBA Finals. Tom Reardon, who I introduced to the fun of the NBA recently, told me, “Now you are the MVP!” This made me think about the parallel between sports and scholarship. I realized that I’m actually like an athlete – not in a popular sport, but in the pursuit of excellence in research. We are, to a large extent, both the players and the audience of our ‘sport.’ At times, it is lonely because people outside our area of work cannot relate to what we are doing. The Wolf Prize, for me, was a public affirmation of achievement. It was really enjoyable that my children, who decry my incompetence as a driver and user of high tech, were able to see that in some areas I am a star.

There is an old Jewish saying that “the jealousy of scholars increases wisdom.” I do not believe that I possess Kobe Bryant’s “killer instinct” when writing papers – when I write my papers, I do not compete explicitly against other scholars, but rather against frontier of knowledge. My aim is to make novel and meaningful contributions. Adam Smith showed that competition among firms can enhance social welfare, and the same is true about scholars. But we know that mismanaged markets can fail, and in the same way, ruthless competition among scholars without honesty, disclosure of information, acknowledgment of others’ contributions, and care can be a detriment.

We didn’t ignore the social challenges related to practicing good science during the Wolf Prize events. In our discussions with other scientists, especially young ones, we emphasized the moral responsibility of scientists and the need to adhere to procedures and mechanisms that will lead to peace, sustainability, and prosperity. The Wolf Prize aspires towards the recognition of scientific and artistic excellence and the attainment of social good.

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