That Israelis Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt – two of the three professors who
won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday – live abroad tainted the sweet
sense of pride many Israelis tasted upon the announcement with a bitter
With all the investments the country makes in education, why
is it unable to keep its talents in the country? they wondered.
from being a source of ruffled pride, the increasing phenomenon of Israeli
“brain drain” has taken a toll on the economy.
“Israel doesn’t have many
advantages over other countries. The main thing that we have is human
capital,” said Ayal Kimhi, an economics professor at the Hebrew University and a
deputy director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
numerous studies linking human capital to economic growth, he laments, “we don’t
keep the best of our people.”
According to a December survey from the
Central Bureau of Statistics, 4.9 percent of all the people who earned academic
degrees in Israel from 1985 to 2005 were living abroad for over three years as
Though the precise economic effects are difficult to quantify,
the deleterious effects of brain drain seem clear in two ways.
when academics leave, there are fewer adept teachers to educate the next
generation, and less people to carry out groundbreaking research.
by the Taub center this week found that “Israel’s academic brain drain to the
United States is unparalleled, with 29 Israeli scholars in the US for every 100
remaining at home.”
According to the study, a major part of the problem
is that despite the increase in educated, qualified people, the number of
positions remains limited, leaving skilled academics to search
“The government prefers to expand community colleges because
they’re cheaper to maintain, but then you don’t get research, which is in
universities,” said Kimhi.
Though one possible solution is increasing
costs for students to fund more professors, Kimhi warns that could push less
welloff students out of the market, leaving them with fewer
The other way brain drain hits the economy is that skilled
people who leave the country go on to make good of their talents in other
countries’ private firms.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics,
the drain level is considerably higher for PhD-holders and doctors (10.5% and
Those skilled in math and sciences had a
“substantially higher” rate of leaving (3.7 times) than humanities and social
Tellingly, “the highest percentage of degree
recipients staying abroad three years or more was found among graduates of the
Weizmann Institute of Science (17.8%).” Warshel and Levitt were among them,
taking their research to the University of Southern California and Stanford
University School of Medicine, respectively.
“Israel doesn’t give a lot,
and that’s why people are leaving. This is a result of pettiness,
small-mindedness and people who can’t think big,” Levitt’s spouse, Rinat,
explained on Thursday.
Warshel’s wife, Tamar, said her husband didn’t
receive tenure in Israel, “and that’s why we had to leave.”
view, most of the people who go to the US dream of coming back to Israel but
have difficulty finding comparable jobs.
“They realize that nobody is
waiting for them with open arms,” he said.
Whereas the United States
lures talented international students with good jobs, ultimately benefiting from
a “brain gain,” Israel’s demographic ethos prevents it from capitalizing the
same way. Programs to bring top students from China and India to study for a few
years are aimed at increasing business ties when the students go back, not
integrating them into the job market.
There is some hope, yet. In 2011,
the Council for Higher Education launched Israeli Centers of Research Excellence
(I-CORE), a $360 million initiative to promote research in Israel. That same
year, 6.7% of those with medical degrees or PhDs in math and engineering
returned to Israel.
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Reuters contributed to this report.