Israel needs its brains back

We complain, but what are we doing about it?

June 6, 2010 05:09
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

Lab 311. (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 scientists.

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.

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