Israel neglects its oil fields

Reduced allocations to our universities threaten the country's continued growth.

oil 88 (photo credit:)
oil 88
(photo credit: )
The government's increasing neglect of one of its greatest assets - hi-tech researchers and professors - reminds me of Aesop's fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. But the modern, real-life version has a different moral. In the ancient story, a farmer and his wife, impatient with just one golden egg each day, cut the magic goose open to grab the riches that surely lay inside. When they see that the insides of the slain goose are like any other, they realize their greed has ended their good fortune. In Israel, where government allocations toward higher education have shrunk by 20 percent in the last five years, the golden goose is threatened by lack of sustenance. The surge of the country's hi-tech industry began with the immigration of thousands of talented engineers and scientists from the former Soviet Union, South Africa and the United States who spurred technological innovation. The momentum continued as graduates of the country's major scientific universities further established the country's position as a global technology leader. Today, technology is by far the fastest growing sector of the economy, more than 70 Israeli high-tech companies are listed on Nasdaq, and the success of the industry has fueled a booming economy and an exceptionally robust shekel. So what is the country doing to insure one of its most important strengths? Very little. The withering of academic positions and dearth of research labs have prompted an alarming and well-documented brain drain. According to Dan Ben-David, director of Tel Aviv University's Center for Economic Policy Research, 24.9 percent of Israel's academics are working at American universities. The proportion jumps to one-third in the computer science field. By comparison, neighboring Canada has just 12.9% of its academics working in the US; the UK, 2.1%. Amazingly, woefully non-competitive salaries for university teachers and researchers (pay is 150% to 180% higher in the US) would be overlooked by many academics whose Zionist zeal would call them back home if only there were openings. So hundreds of technological standouts - passionate about both Israel and their work - are watching and waiting. They just want a job to come home to. The failure of the Finance Ministry to heed the urging of the Education Ministry carries obvious ramifications: fewer scientific role models for university students, fewer superbly trained graduates, fewer scientific breakthroughs in areas that include global problems as critical as water shortages and oil dependence. The preventable erosion of the country's hi-tech prowess is especially frustrating because, as pointed out by columnist Tom Friedman, Israel's universities are its oil fields. But while oil fields have finite reserves, a university's capacity to continue fueling growth is boundless. Among the country's achievements in its first 60 years, the emergence of its hi-tech industry as an engine for its economy and a prominent contributor to worldwide quality of life is particularly remarkable. Scientific imagination and determination created that golden goose, but now it is endangered by a lack of economic vision, political cooperation and financial support. The golden goose desperately needs to be fed. The writer is chairman of the International Board of Tel Aviv University.