The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a non-profit that funds original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics through programs like the Sloan Research Fellowships for young scientists and scholars, and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. As VP and program director, Doron Weber decides who gets many of those grants. He talked to us about his decision-making process, his messy workspace, supporting marginalized creators, and how he reads so many screenplays.
Location: New York, NY
Current Gig: Vice President and Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
One word that best describes how you work: Cross-Disciplinary
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: IBM Thinkpad
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was born on a kibbutz in Israel, grew up in New York City, attended Brown University in Rhode Island and spent my 20s in Europe, studying French and Latin literature at the Sorbonne in Paris and English literature as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and writing for a solitary year on the Isle of Skye, before settling back in New York City.
Although all my early training was in the arts, I published a couple of books in the medical and scientific arena, worked at The Rockefeller University, a Nobel-studded biomedical research institute, and gradually drifted into science and the Sloan Foundation, where my signature Public Understanding of Science and Technology program is about connecting the “two cultures” of science and the arts. Science and art are, of course, just two sides of the same human impulse to understand and meaningfully describe the world around us and inside us.
At Sloan, I help commission, develop, produce and disseminate an array of culture-defining products — including Pulitzer Prize-winning books, Peabody-winning radio and podcasts, Emmy-winning television, Oscar-winning films, Tony-winning theatre and pioneering new media – that seek to illuminate and humanize science for the lay public. It’s kind of a dream job which I basically redefined to fulfil the Foundation’s core mission of research and education in science and technology while addressing society’s need to integrate fundamental advances in science with our common humanist culture.
Weber with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story executive producer Susan Sarandon, actress and producer Diane Kruger, director Alex Dean, patent attorney Patricia Rogowski, and UCLA Associate Professor and electrical engineer Danijela Cabric at the 2017 Tribeca Film FestivalPhoto: Kathi Littwin
Take us through a recent workday.
I run a non-profit multi-media company for science, where I function both as CEO and the head of every division as well as the grunt who reviews every submission and gives notes, so it’s a hands-on, high volume business. I read proposals that come over the transom and proposals I’ve solicited or that I’ve agreed to consider. If I’m interested I’ll give very detailed notes and work with the applicant to get their submission into the best possible shape.
Sometimes they’re near-perfect on first draft, which is awesome, but mostly they require a lot of back and forth, sometimes over many months, even years.
I probably read several hundred screenplays, plays, teleplays and book proposals every year. By now I’m my own focus group and I just need to read my internal audience meter for a decision. In some cases, I need to do additional research and then I consult with relevant scientists, engineers and mathematicians in their fields to ensure accuracy. I have about 20 institutional partners in film and television who send me their semi-finalist choices, and then we deliberate face to face or on conference calls with their respective juries and committees.
For the book program, I am the first reader and screener and if they pass my smell test, I pass them on to my book committee. In the theatre program, I sit around a table several times a year with theatre professionals and scientists, and we hammer it out. I screen dozens of films and TV shows in various stages of production and I attend many staged readings of plays and screenplays that we are developing. I also represent the Foundation at various festivals and events and seminars and explain our mission to different audiences.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Smartphone, of course, and apps like Vimeo are very useful for screening the many films and TV shows I have to watch. YouTube for just about anything, as long as it’s targeted. Dropbox for the massive, unwieldy files people send me. Book proposals and science projects I prefer to read in hard copy, but I will use my iPad for screenplays, plays and teleplays, where I can turn the pages fast. I’ve used Oculus headsets for some VR projects and Google Cardboard for some new gaming projects.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Creative chaos. I work on many proposals at one time and I like to let things grow on me, so my desk and cabinets and shelves are overrun with projects in every medium and I give them time to emit signals and beckon me back. Or not. But this way, I keep things alive and seek invisible connections between them.
Similarly my desktop computer usually has hundreds of files open simultaneously because I keep multiple proposals and possibilities in play. I’m instinctive and super-analytical so I make many fast decisions but I also have great faith in unconscious processes, so I like to let things germinate and percolate until the answer becomes clear.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
Deadlines are my best shortcut or spur to action. I need to feel their breath on my neck.
Regarding the massive number of screenplays I’m constantly reviewing, I like to read them on aeroplanes. I fly a lot and an airline seat is a very effective work space where you’re strapped in with few distractions. I’ll stuff a dozen scripts into my luggage, then tear through them in mid-air — I read every single page of every single script — before writing my comments on the cover, saving that one slender title page and leaving behind the 119 other text pages. So when I get off the plane, I feel much lighter with a sense of accomplishment.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I have one part-time assistant who’s been with me for 20 years and knows me better than I know myself, and one full-time associate who is only allowed to stay for three years, but I’ve had three and they have all been terrific. I hire really smart, energetic and ambitious people and tell them that in addition to all the other work I heap on them, their job is to bug me constantly about schedules and deadlines.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Daily to-do lists, calendars, weekly meetings, strategic planner, pleading associate. Emails I don’t handle instantly, I often forward to my associate for bringing back at our weekly meeting. We operate on a quarterly board meeting cycle, so I send out quarterly updates/highlights that don’t just inform others; it’s my way of keeping track of the extraordinary volume of media products we generate every quarter.
What’s your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
My least favourite thing is having to tell people no, which I have to do 95 per cent of the time. I try to be as quick and direct as I can, so they can move on to another funder. Once I got in trouble for rejecting something too quickly because it made it look as if I hadn’t give it enough consideration. But I had; you usually know right away. I’m sure I’ve made a lot of people disappointed and angry. It comes with the territory and you just have to suck it up.
How do you recharge or take a break from work?
I go get coffee in the kitchen and socialise with colleagues. Or sometimes during lunch or after work I go to the gym and swim or run or bike, anything to give my brain a break, and just stare dumbly at those cable news shows.
What’s your favourite side project?
I’m a writer who has published four books and written others, so I generally have a book or at least a book review or an article I’m working on. Right now I’m deciding between a new nonfiction book my agent isn’t crazy about, reworking a spy novel I wrote years ago, or embarking on an ambitious new work of historical fiction.
What are you currently reading, or what’s something you’d recommend?
I’m reading a few books at once. The Alan Turing biography, The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. It was the basis of the film The Imitation Game, which we supported via a grant to the Tribeca Film Institute in 2014, and it’s about a visionary mathematician who both foresaw and began to invent the world of computers and machine intelligence we are now living through.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Jay-Z.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Fate helps a man if his courage is good.
Weber with 48 scientists participating in the “Hidden No More” leadership project, at a screening of the Sloan-supported documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Photo: Getty Images for Film Independent
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
This has been a watershed year for the role of women in society, and not coincidentally many works about women scientists that we have long championed have or are about to come out, including: Hidden Figures, a story about African-American women mathematicians and engineers at NASA we supported with a book grant in 2014; film and TV grants for BOMBSHELL: The Hedy Lamarr Story, about the technological pioneer responsible for cell phones and wi-fi, and an upcoming mini-series about Lamarr; Black Hole Apocalypse, the first-ever NOVA hosted by a woman scientist (cosmologist Janna Levin); and Photograph 51, a play starring Nicole Kidman as X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin we hope to turn into a screenplay.
We have also supported many other books, plays and films about extraordinary women scientists such as Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, Mary Claire King, Katie Wright and more.
At the same time, we are living through a particularly polarised and even dangerous moment in our history, and as someone who specialises in finding common ground between two cultures who often speak in two seemingly different, mutually exclusive languages, I think we must all rise above our own narrow affiliations and try to understand each other better. Americans are by and large a very decent people, regardless of who they voted for, and like scientists and artists, we must recognise and embrace our shared humanity.
This interview has been lightly edited, and some links have been added.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Nick.