The debilitating brain drain

Israel must find a way to ensure that its brightest minds remain at home

Students at Tel Aviv University 370 (photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
Students at Tel Aviv University 370
(photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
Israel has been losing its best and brightest brains for years. Yet, no one seems to care much.
A report published in December by the Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that many highly skilled professionals are leaving Israel, and more than one in every seven Israelis with doctorates in science or engineering is living abroad. The CBS study shows that 5 percent of the total number of Israelis who graduated from university during the period 1985 to 2005, or some 18,025 individuals, have been living abroad for three years or more.
Furthermore, according to the study, of Israel’s seven research universities, the Weizmann Institute of Science has the most graduates going abroad – more than one in every six. The problem is especially acute in the field of mathematics. Facing a growing shortage of capable math instructors, the CBS study finds that one out of every six individuals with a math degree lives abroad.
“The figures confirm a long-recognized phenomenon of an Israeli brain drain of scientists and engineers, even as the country boasts of world-leading universities and an outsized high-technology industry,” noted the Haaretz daily.
I, too, have many academic friends and acquaintances who live and work abroad, either because no jobs were open for them in Israel, or because they were unable to scale the lofty heights required to gain one of a small handful of tenured slots. Their wisdom, creativity and knowledge are lost to Israel – in many cases, forever. I once surveyed graduates of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and, among other questions, asked my subjects to sum up their careers in only six words. “Israel didn’t care. Now US citizen,” was one poignant response that I’ve never forgotten.
Outgoing Science Minister Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz cites government programs that try to lure home Israeli researchers. But official figures show these so-called brain-gain programs have brought only 200 researchers back to the country in recent years, along with 100 foreigners. Moreover, looming budget cuts threaten to kill even this minimal program.
Brain drain now swamps brain gain.
Brain drain is a worldwide phenomenon.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, for the 48 lessdeveloped countries, on average, one college graduate in five emigrates, simply because they lack opportunities at home. For six of the same 48 nations, there are more highlyskilled nationals living abroad than at home.
Israel, however, is not a less-developed country. It should be able to keep most of its brains at home, like America and Europe. But apparently it cannot. The question is, why? In today’s globalized world, there are two powerful forces that propel educated Israelis to emigrate – Push and Pull. While ‘Push’ is the growing difficulty for middle-class families to find well-paying jobs, pay the bills, make a good living, and buy a home, ‘Pull’ is the perceived attractiveness of living in America, in particular, where the shortage of talented people provides well-educated Israelis with opportunities that are not available at home. Both Push and Pull serve as powerful forces drawing educated Israelis to foreign pastures.
In December, the Meida Shivuki market research company conducted a survey for Haaretz on emigration in which a random sample of respondents were asked the following question: “If you could, would you live in another country?” A disturbingly high proportion, 37 percent, answered yes, with the highest number of these respondents coming from the prime work ages, 30-49. The survey also showed that a far higher proportion of secular respondents seek to emigrate – 44 percent, compared with only 19 percent of the religious respondents. From a political perspective, left-wingers seek emigration far more than right-wingers – 54 percent, as opposed to 26 percent.
The main reason for wanting to emigrate, according to the study, is the difficulty of making a living in Israel, with 55 percent of the respondents citing this as their reason.
What keeps people here? For nearly half, it is simply family.
Many governments, including Israel’s, do not seem to understand that in a global world, talent and creativity are footloose. If educated people are not given the conditions they seek at home – to live and work and raise their families in dignity – they will go elsewhere.
Israel has gained immensely from the brain gain of one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union during the years 1990-1999. According to a study by Sarit Cohen of Bar-Ilan University and Chang-Tai Hsieh from Princeton University, 60 percent of the Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived in Israel between 1989 and 1990 were college educated, twice the proportion of college-educated Israelis. From 1990 to 1993, their study notes, “57,000 [Russian immigrants] had worked as engineers and 12,000 as medical doctors; in contrast, there were only 30,000 engineers and 15,000 medical doctors in Israel in 1989.”
That brain gain was a one-time stroke of luck. Many of the brain-gain Russian-speaking engineers and doctors are now retiring, and many of the educated Israelis who could replace them are going abroad.
An old World War I song asks, “How ’ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” Nearly a century later, that song is again very apt. How will we keep our best and brightest at home, in Israel, once they’ve seen the world and what it offers? I see this as one of the major challenges of the new coalition government now taking shape following the elections for the 19th Knesset.
The brain drain was not addressed at all in the election campaigns. It is time it found a place high on the agenda, right alongside the budget deficit and the Iranian nukes. We must find ways to make the blue-and-white pastures of Israel as appealing as the green ones of Boston and Silicon Valley.
I came to Israel with my new bride in 1967, just days after earning my PhD in economics from Princeton. True, we were committed Zionists; but the thing that has kept us here is what I call the “blue pastures Zionism” – the simple fact that Israel is the very best place in the world to work and to raise a family, to fulfill our Jewish heritage, and to find meaning in life. When you believe that and experience it, distant pastures are not greener and have no appeal compared to blue-and-white ones.
The surest way to end brain drain is to make life in Israel, in all its aspects, rewarding, meaningful, socially just and vibrant.
When I see bright young people rushing for the exits in Spain and in Greece, in the face of desperate unemployment, I see social damage that will take decades to repair. The classic case is Ireland, a nation of four million people, with an estimated 80 million ethnic Irish located abroad, simply because for generations, young Irish headed for ships bound abroad after finishing high school. At home, there were no jobs.
The Meida Shivuki survey also asked the respondents: “Do you think your children will have a better or worse future than you [in Israel]?” Some 58 percent answered the same or worse. This is unacceptable. It is up to each one of us to help ensure that our children and grandchildren have a better future.
That alone will ensure they stay.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion.