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The world financial crisis has given Israeli universities a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to begin reversing the brain drain, the exodus of skilled academics to higher-paying positions in Europe and the United States, according to Tel Aviv University economics Prof. Dan Ben-David.
"This is the sort of opportunity that comes around every 60 years or so," Ben-David said on Monday, explaining that many choice universities abroad had instituted hiring freezes due to the dismal economic situation, so the playing field has opened up for luring Israeli academics back home.
"I can't remember the last time there was a hiring freeze of this magnitude," he continued. "But I guess in every dark cloud, there's an opportunity."
Ben-David's comments come after an announcement by the Finance Ministry and the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee that 104 Israeli scientists had returned from overseas positions during the 2008-2009 academic year, and had already been reabsorbed into new positions created at the country's seven universities.
Salary levels were not the deciding factor for leading academics in returning to Israel; the highest priority of Israeli scientists overseas was maintaining their research infrastructure and being able to continue their work unabated once they returned, the committee said.
Based on that conclusion, most of the NIS 95 million budgeted for the project - taken from the additional NIS 500m. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert committed to the higher education system in October - was allocated to improve the universities' research facilities.
Ninety new university positions were created to cope with the influx, compared with just eight new positions created last year. During the 2007-08 academic year, only 28 scientists returned to Israel, and only eight of them had held senior posts in foreign universities; the rest were post-doctoral researchers.
This year, the proportions are reversed, as 90 of the returning scientists held senior posts, and only a few were post-doctoral researchers. Some of the scientists coming back to Israel have worked for 10 to 25 years in impressive institutions such as Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and New York University.
The Planning and Budgeting Committee also said that although this was a one-time program, it intends to fight for further investment in bringing scientists home, and that it is seeking a similar amount of money or more for next year.
And while the ability of the government to induce the returning academics to leave behind such prestigious positions was a step in the right direction, others said that more needed to be done to seize on the opportunity.
"We have to continue efforts to make the transition easier for academics who want to return," Ran Canetti, a former a researcher at IBM Laboratories and lecturer at MIT, who returned to Israel in August to begin work at Tel Aviv University's School of Computer Science said Tuesday. "There's still a lot we can do as far as raising salaries and reducing teaching hours.
"Sure we want them to come back, but we also want them to stay," Canetti continued. "And deciding to return is one decision, but deciding to stay is a decision you have to make every day."
Ben-David also emphasized the need to continue with the initiative, adding that the window of opportunity would not remain open forever.
"Half of [TAU's] senior faculty is over 55 years old, and in 10 years, they'll be gone, they'll be forced to retire," he explained. "So now is the time to begin filling that gap. We can just go shopping in America right now... but we can't wait until the last minute.
"The fruit is ripe," he continued. "But now we need to pick it! No one else is picking right now. The universities need to create more positions, create better conditions, and basically get their act together."