Israel acts to plug brain-drain

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
January 5, 2012 12:42

New centers of excellence aim to lure back scientists from the US and Europe.




Scientists (illustrative)

Scientists 311. (photo credit:Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Israel is known as a hotbed of high technology, the home of 10 Nobel Prize winners and thousands of cutting-edge start-up companies. But over the last decade the country has been losing some of its best scientists to the US and Europe as funding to universities dropped.

Now, Israel is determined to plug the brain-drain, and the centerpiece of its strategy was formally launched on Tuesday. The Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE) aims to lure home the country’s best talent with competitive pay and conditions while creating an innovative new framework for collaboration across traditional scientific disciplines.

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I-CORE is starting off with four centers: one dedicated to alternative energy sources, another to the molecular basis of disease, a third to cognitive science and fourth to advanced topics in computer sciences. It has a $360 million budget to cover its first five years of operations to pay salaries, buy equipment and fund research.

The number of I-CORE Centers is slated to grow to as many as 30 and lure back as many as 2,400 Israeli scientists from their labs in America and Europe. But Shlomo Ben-Tovim, the program’s senior adviser for international relations, said the emphasis is on focusing on Israel’s academic strengths rather than cutting a big scientific swathe.

“As a small country Israel cannot be the best in everything, but there are areas of science, humanities and social sciences that Israel has shown over the years it has the best of the best on a worldwide scale,” he told The Media Line. “If they don’t find right conditions to develop their talent in Israel, they will develop their talents elsewhere.”

The importance of the I-CORE for Israel’s bid to revive academic science was pointed up by the presence of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a festive launching of the center in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Israelis have had an impressive run in the Nobel competition, winning six prizes over the last decade in economics and chemistry. All seven of its universities rank among the world’s top 500 in last year’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. But behind the glory lie classrooms, labs and faculty lounges decimated by years of budget cuts.

While Israel spends more on research and development than any other major world economy, spending on university R&D has actually declined to 0.54% of gross domestic product in 2009 from 0.7% a decade ago, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development.

Benny Geiger, who is chairman of the Israel Science Foundation’s academic board and a member of I-CORE’s steering committee, recalls the frustration of trying to work with the budget constraints. The foundation could offer researchers grants of no more than the equivalent of $50,000, an amount insufficient to pay the costs of setting up and operating a lab.

“Even those who really wanted to conduct research in Israel decided not do so because they would have to sacrifice the quality of the research. We definitely lost a lot of extremely good people,” Geiger told The Media Line. I-CORE is not only going to increase funding but will also create an innovative new framework for research to be conducted, he said.

“Their recruitment package is going to be much, much, much improved by allocation from I-CORE program,” he said. “They are integrated not only to a certain university but they immediately become part of an intellectual and academic framework in their field of expertise. They will have a community that absorbs them.”

I-CORE’s computer science center, headed by Yishay Mansour of Tel Aviv University, will gather 24 senior researchers from Israel’s top universities as well as Israelis returning from positions at Microsoft Research Laboratories, Columbia and Yale Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of technology. The center will focus on the study of algorithms, which is the branch of mathematics that drives new computer technology.

Ben-Tovim said bringing researchers together is a critical element of the program because Israeli scientists traditionally have a preference for collaborating with their peers overseas than with their colleagues at home.

“There could be a researcher in Weizmann and another in the Technion who will never talk to each other,” he said, referring to two of Israel’s leading institutions, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Israel Institute of Technology. “It’s quite common in the scientific community. Your next door neighbor is a competitor while someone who is far way is a collaborator."

In addition to I-CORE, the government is committed to increasing spending at Israel’s universities and is doubling the Israel Science Foundation’s budget over the next five years. But Dan Ben-David, who teaches economics at Tel Aviv University, said the country’s universities needed to be overhauled, too.

Ben-David has researched the phenomenon of Israeli brain-drain and points to flaws in the system, such as the fact that academic salaries are the same between disciplines. That makes Israeli universities vulnerable to raids on their best talent from American institutions of higher education that award bigger pay packages to fields that are in demand and to the best scholars.

“Instead of reforming the universities and giving a lot more freedom to run universities in a way to make them more attractive, they are circumventing the universities’ problems by creating these excellence centers,” Ben-David told The Media Line. “The government is going to bring back leading scholars from abroad but have them work in conditions different from those offered in universities.”

He warned that this could create tensions between the returning scholars and those who stayed home. But Geiger said I-CORE could act as a catalyst for change at the universities.

“What I-CORE is doing is setting certain recruitment standards,” he said. “At the end of the day these will be standards universities will have to adjust to”

With reporting by Felice Friedson

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