Global Agenda: Battle of the brains

It is impolite, politically incorrect and socially unacceptable to refer to brilliant scientists as an excess product sold to the highest bidder.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
November 1, 2013 04:05
4 minute read.
A MARKETS GLOBAL-C graph

A MARKETS GLOBAL-C graph 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Israel is faced by a fearsome new threat: the “brain drain.” The smartest people in the country, tenured professors and those with the potential to be prominent academics or researchers and developers in “cutting-edge industries,” are fleeing in droves, thereby weakening – possibly fatally – Israel’s hi-tech sectors and the science that underlies them.

That, at least, is the impression that many people have, both in Israel and around the world. Supposedly convincing proof of the seriousness of this threat is to be found in the number of former Israelis who have won Nobel prizes over the years, including this year. These people, now ensconced in America’s elite universities, could have been in Israeli institutions, and, according to the fashionable criticism, that’s where they should have been and would have been had Israeli governments done their job and been focused on the country’s long-term interests.

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This kind of stuff makes for good copy and is particularly attractive to supposedly “quality” newspapers. Nevertheless, it is arrant twaddle, and, were it not for the sad fact that supposedly serious people take at face value what they read in supposedly serious publications, it could be ignored – or, better, replaced with a discussion about the real issues concerning “brains.” Two aspects in particular of this “new threat to Israel” need to be understood correctly: first, that there is nothing new about it; and second, that there is nothing uniquely Israeli about it.

Let’s start the discussion from a very different perspective.

Since the interwar years when, first, the United States emerged as the richest and most powerful country in the world and, second, Germany and Britain ceased to be the intellectual and scientific centers of the world, while the USSR imposed severe constraints on intellectual freedom and academic inquiry, the “big brains” in almost every discipline have been drawn to the American institutions of learning and research. Their combination of financial, intellectual and cultural resources is overwhelmingly attractive, and the US has retained its attractiveness through the entire postwar period, despite the recovery of Europe, the rise of Japan and then China and the demise of the USSR and rebirth of Russia.

Consequently, today’s Nobel and other prize-winning scientists tend to have done their work in America. They may – and do – hail from Germany, Britain, France or countries in Asia, but they have spent most or all of their academic and professional careers in the US. This, in turn, has for many years generated concern and even anguish in all the affected countries. Long before the current crisis, government and academic leaders in countries from Holland and Italy to Singapore and Taiwan – along with their “quality” media – were wringing their hands over the “brain drain” that their countries were suffering.

Like Singapore, Taiwan and many others, Israel was born into this American-dominated world and has never known any other environment. That has not stopped Israel (or, say, Taiwan) from building centers of academic excellence or becoming a leading center of the technology-oriented post-industrial world. This achievement has itself resulted from government policies pursued over several decades that – despite the pressing needs stemming from existential security threats, or perhaps because of them – have enabled Israel (and Taiwan) to become rich and successful economies and highly educated societies.

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Since American domination is a given, the real question has been how to survive and thrive in the world as it is, rather than indulge in desirable fantasies. The response has been to forge strong links, eventually even partnerships, between specific institutions in Israel and their American peers, with these efforts typically led by individuals in these institutions and, at another level, between the governments of the countries.

That Israel has generated an exceptional number of outstanding “brains” in many fields has, on the one hand, provided a rationale and incentive for major American entities to link with much smaller Israeli ones and, on the other, has created an excess of qualified people for the number of academic and corporate positions available. This excess has been exported, and, usually, it is the cream of the crop that has been purchased by the foreigners.

Of course, it is impolite, politically incorrect and socially unacceptable to refer to brilliant scientists as an excess product sold to the highest bidder. But the economic reality is as it is. Fortunately for Israel, its exported brains tend to remain in contact with their alma maters and the wider Israeli academic and scientific community – and indeed it is these people who often foster the inter-institutional links noted above.

Even more fortunately, the many brainy people not sold are also major assets – and some of them win Nobel prizes, too.

That is the state of play as it has developed over the past century. Today, however, higher education globally is undergoing a technological revolution that may well result in a much flatter playing field. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is actually getting its act together and launching the most systematic and coordinated program yet attempted to persuade Israeli academics and scientists working overseas (read America) to return home. So not only is all not yet lost, but the future is actually quite bright.

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