Brain drain

Dr. Dan Ben-David envisages the fall of Israel's ivory tower.

October 17, 2007 22:40
Brain drain

DAN BEN-DAVID 88. (photo credit: )


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The country's universities are slowly emptying of their finest minds. The budget cuts of the past six years have meant that for every two scholars who retire, only one is accepted into the ranks of university faculty, while the very best academic minds are fleeing to the US and the UK like, well, rats from a sinking ship. A bad analogy? Another example of the local pastime of exaggerated worrying? Not according to figures published recently by Dr. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University, which show that economics researchers are leaving at ever-increasing speeds. With one of the highest market values outside academia of any academic discipline, economists are the canary in the coal mine of the brain drain - and the clue to what awaits the rest of Israeli academia if the trend is not reversed completely and soon. Economic research here began at the top of the world. By 1970, barely two decades after the founding of the state, Israel "was among the most productive countries in the European area," reads the introduction to Ben-David's paper titled "Soaring Minds: The Flight of Israel's Economists," published earlier this summer by TAU and the prestigious Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) in London. Local economists were prolific. A comparison of 600 academic institutions in Europe and Israel for the years 1971-2000 (Combes and Linnemer, 2002), showed that with 1/14 the number of researchers as in the UK, Israeli economists had almost one-fifth as many published pages. They fared even better in comparison with France - 10 percent the number of economists published 40% as much material. And it was high-quality stuff, the research shows. In eight "blue-ribbon" journals at the top of the field, the vastly outnumbered Israelis published 49% as many pages as those published by UK economists and fully 85% as much as the French. So, while the Americans reigned supreme in the field - and continue to do so - Israelis were second, publishing 2.5 times as much quality-weighted (that is, oft-cited) material per researcher as the next-best country, the UK. For the top eight journals, that figure shot up to almost seven-fold. As Ben-David puts it, "We weren't just No. 1; we were in a league of our own outside the US." Then something happened. Sometime in the latter half of the 1990s, something started to go wrong. The seven-to-one triumph over the Brits slowly dropped to four-to-one, and it's continuing to fall. "They got better," Ben-David explains, "but we also got worse." During that period, Israel started witnessing a small but growing flight of its finest minds as universities were increasingly unable to offer the merit-based advancement these researchers craved or the salaries they were offered elsewhere. SINCE MOST of the brain drain worldwide goes to the US, an examination of the situation of Israeli academics in America can provide a clue to the severity, in international comparison, of the situation. The figures are staggering. Across all academic fields, Israel has a higher percentage of its researchers, 24.9%, living in America than any other country. The next-highest, Canada, has 12.2%. And Canada itself is an exception, with the next in line, the Netherlands, with 4.3% and Italy with 4.2%. Worse, Ben-David's figures represent the lowest possible count for Israeli researchers living abroad. "Israeli academics" includes not just the universities, but the thousands who teach and work in dozens of small colleges. Second, an Israeli researcher in the US who also holds American citizenship - by no means an unusual situation - is not counted. Statistics can be misleading. Perhaps more Israeli academics are in America because there are more Israeli academics in the first place. Unfortunately, Ben-David's findings also give figures that correct for the population size of the sending country, and here Israel is once again the unfortunate leader in this export. For every 100,000 Israelis, 22.7 of them are academic researchers in the US. The next in line are Koreans with 15.1, and Canadians at 12.7. At a distant third come a string of First World countries such as Australia (6.0), the UK (5.2) and Italy (4.0), followed by the last group of developing countries, such as Poland (2.4), Turkey (1.8) and China (1.1). That is, major First World powers whose education officials are deeply concerned with their own brain drain to the US - it is currently a major political issue all over Europe - are dealing with a problem that is, by population count, about one-quarter the magnitude of Israel's. And here, suggestions for stemming the bleeding have only just begun to enter the public debate. Note that Israel leads by a similar amount both in the percentage of US-based scholars to the country's general number of academics, and in scholars per home country population. This shows that it has a comparable number of academics per capita as the countries being compared. In both scales, the problem is immense. Ben-David also provides a more personal breakdown of the problem. Of the top 13 most-cited economists during the 1990s, half have left Israeli academia in just three years. The two top-ranked economists, Elhanan Helpman and Oded Galor, have accepted lucrative positions at Harvard and Brown. Alex Cukierman, in fourth place, has retired. Manuel Trachtenberg, No. 7, is now an economic advisor in the Prime Minister's Office. No. 8, Daniel Tsiddon, has left academia for a top post at Bank Leumi. Shmuel Kandel, in 11th place, has died, and Ehud Lehrer, Ariel Rubinstein and Eddie Dekel, Nos. 5, 6 and 12, divide their teaching time between two tenured positions at Tel Aviv University and universities in the US. Only four of the 13 top-ranked economists have remained full-time in Israeli academia. WHAT IS driving them away? A massive and growing salary gap is certainly part of the story. According to figures drawn from salary and GDP data, the years 1996-2006 saw a massive growth in the already-huge wage gap between academic economists in the US and in Israel. In 1996, full and associate professors in the US earned more than 150% of the salaries of their Israeli counterparts (in 2005 dollars adjusted to purchasing power parity). The untenured post of assistant professor, comparable to "lecturer" in Israel, earned just over 160% of an Israeli salary at the same rank. Then, over 10 years, American full professors' real salaries rose by 15.7%, while their Israeli colleagues saw a real drop of 1.6%, and the gap was even higher for associate professors. Among junior faculty, it was the highest, with the Americans earning 23.6% more in real terms, while the Israelis earned 1.3% less. So, by 2006, full and associate professors made about 1.8 times their Israeli counterparts in real terms (again, adjusted for PPP, which in most cases increases the value of Israeli salaries). America's junior faculty now earn more than double their Israeli colleagues. Worse still, the gap presented here is for the average across Israeli and American academia. At the top universities, where the brain drain is worse and more damaging, the salary gap is even bigger. But the technicalities of the growing salary gap don't tell the whole story. Ben-David sought to discover the gap not just in salaries - however adjusted - but the real change in quality of life the numbers represented. What were academic economists giving up by remaining in Israel? The economic indicator of GDP per capita serves as a measure of the quality of life, indicating what slice of the economic pie a citizen lives on. In 1996, Israeli academic economists earned 2.7 times the GDP per capita, the standard salary in the economy. For their American counterparts it was 2.8. Then their standard of living dropped precipitously in comparison to their American colleagues. By 2006, it had dropped to 2.3, while the Americans' remained steady at 2.8. But at the same time, the GDP per capita in the US had grown by 26.4% and in Israel by just 15.1%. Not only were Americans earning more of the pie at the end of the decade, the American pie had grown much faster. They were earning a higher percentage of a faster-growing economy. It isn't that living here makes you less wealthy than living in the US - that is true across most professions. Rather, it is that the gap is growing at breakneck speed, leading at first to a trickle, and now a flood of the country's most brilliant who go in search of both salaries and research funds. While American academic economists can afford to send their children to the best universities, Israeli economists, if they remain in academia, can have trouble saving for a comfortable retirement. BUT IT isn't just the money. Israel's gridlocked academic hierarchy, which due to union contracts must reward first by seniority and by merit a distant second, has led many of the best researchers to seek the seniority they deserve at an institution that will give it to them. Fully 40% of Israel's full or associate professors rank in the bottom third of its economists, according to worldwide citation indices. One-quarter of lecturers and senior lecturers, some of them untenured, rank above these professors in research impact - measured by citations - but are not advanced within the system. So they go abroad to keep from losing a decade of their careers in a system that doesn't offer the promise of reasonable advancement. The final result, Ben-David writes, "when its leading researchers opt for American universities" is that "the top Israeli economics departments have had to choose between two problematic options: lowering the quality threshold" for new faculty - "a move that will be difficult to overcome for decades thereafter - or becoming increasingly reliant on adjunct and visiting lecturers who are not a part of the permanent staffs. The choice thus far has been the latter." This has led to a growing teaching staff of external faculty that work full-time "in the private and public sectors and [use] the teaching positions to supplement their incomes. Hence, not only is there a decline in the number of top economics researchers, the next generation of students is increasingly being taught and supervised by individuals who are not at the forefront of the economic science. Their exposure to state-of-the art ideas, theories and findings is becoming more and more limited. In other words, academic economics in Israel's research universities is less in danger of total collapse than it is of sliding into a mediocrity trap from which it will become extremely difficult to emerge." As the CEPR brief on Ben-David's article explains, "The elimination of [Israel] from the international research envelope in the future has become a realistic possibility that will impact not only the State of Israel, which stands to lose the most, but the profession in general. This article provides a snapshot of an implosion in progress. It also provides a case study that is important for other countries to understand as some steadily advance toward the Israeli scenario." So is Israeli higher education a slowly sinking ship? For a growing number of economists around the world, Israel's academic "implosion in progress" is already worthy of international study.

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