(photo credit: Bloomberg)
America’s famous author and humorist Mark Twain said many years ago: “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
Well, everyone in Israel complains about Israel’s loss of some of its “best and brightest” scientists and researchers to other countries, and not enough is being done about that.
But one cannot just sit back and cry about this situation; rather, we must do whatever is possible not only to keep our best young minds here for the sake of our country’s future (stopping the “brain drain”), but also and especially to attract back those many brilliant scholars who have left for “greener pastures” elsewhere, particularly in the United States. We have to work towards “returning the brains.” How can we do it?
Money is a large consideration – but not the only one. At the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem we have allocated funds to attract outstanding
Israelis working at universities abroad to return home. These funds
cannot come close to matching the salaries offered by the foreign
universities, but we can offer other incentives and challenges through
special lab facilities, warm human collaboration within departments,
and opportunities to break new ground in research.
And perhaps most important of all, we can offer dedicated graduate
students – among the best in the world – for whom scientific challenge
is the primary motivation.
Let me make it clear that we are not only talking about a
Zionist-national act of bringing back talent to Israel, but also of an
actual and significant economic contribution to the state and the
university – a subject which will be discussed at our current Hebrew
University Board of Governors meeting. The fact is that the substantial
foreign research funds which outstanding returnee researchers bring
into the university not only serve to further their current research
but also contribute to our future by enabling fellowship grants and
research assistantships to young researchers working with the returning
To cite some concrete examples: A brilliant graduate of the Hebrew
University has come back as a leading brain researcher at our Faculty
of Medicine, after having left a high-salaried position at Harvard
University. We allocated $600,000 for expenses in absorbing him, but
since arriving here he has been awarded competitive research grants of
$4.35 million, $2 million of which came from the European Union.
Another researcher, in medical engineering at our Benin School of
Engineering and Computer Science, who had been in the US for more than
10 years, also gave up a choice position at Harvard and came here via a
Hebrew University allocation of $576,000. In the past three years he
has been awarded $3,788,000 in outside grants.
Another of our outstanding graduates has made an international name for
himself in the area of pain research. He, too, chose the Hebrew
University, after serving on the faculty of the Harvard University
Medical School, as a place for continuing his innovative work.
WHAT MOTIVATES these extremely talented people to come back to us,
giving up in all cases much higher salaries and infrastructure
facilities that we cannot match? Here are some of their comments: “The
desire to have an impact on Israeli science and society.”
“To break new ground in Israel; there are not many places where one gets in on the ground floor for developing new programs.”
“The warm and open-armed reception we have received from our colleagues here.”
“The willingness we have found to provide us with the means we need to develop our research.”
And, beyond all that, there is the desire to come “home,” not just for
themselves but even more importantly for the sake of their children.
What all this shows is that the Zionist ideal is not something that is
moribund, or to be regarded cynically, but rather is something that can
still be a factor – when combined with proper professional incentives –
in bringing back at least some of our very best minds.
But what of those who are still here, who have pursued advanced degrees
and are in need of finding their place in Israel? We at the Hebrew
University are proud that we are by far the leading research
institution in the state. This week we are awarding a record 346
doctoral degrees. What is to become of them? We do our utmost to absorb
the best of these new Ph.D.s into our faculties (some 50 per year), but
under present conditions, neither we nor other Israeli institutions of
higher learning can absorb great numbers of young researchers without
greatly increased financial input from the government.
As everyone knows, our human resources are this nation’s most valuable
strategic asset. But if we are to protect and develop this asset, our
elected leaders must make crucial decisions. Do they want Israel to
remain among the leading nations in terms of scientific achievement, or
be among those in the Third World? To my regret, I have yet to see the
necessary actions to lead us in the former direction.The writer is president of the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, which is currently conducting the 73rd
meeting of its Board of Governors.