Israel's academic exodus 'unparalleled'

We've lost a generation who finished their PhDs and couldn't find work, warns Prof. Dan Ben-David.

Dan Ben-David 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dan Ben-David 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A report released last week on the flight of Israel's academic researchers to the United States foretells of catastrophic consequences for the economic and defense sectors if the hemorrhaging of leading minds out of the country does not cease. "The deeper I dug, the clearer it became to me that we have developed a problem that is at a magnitude beyond anything that exists anywhere else in the developed world," Prof. Dan Ben-David, of Tel Aviv University's Center for Economic Policy Research, told The Jerusalem Post Monday. "This is a country where we depend on hi-tech which doesn't just come from private investment, but from basic research at universities," he said. "We need hi-tech to defend Sderot, to build an air force." Ben-David said higher education was being "systematically destroyed. It'll take us a generation or more to repair the damage. In this neighborhood you only get one chance." In his report, entitled "Brain Drained," Ben-David found that in 2003-2004, 24.9 percent of all Israeli academics were working in American universities. That figure put Israel in the unenviable number one position in the tally of nations with academics abroad. Canada was a distant second - just 12.2% of Canadian academics were working in the United States. Holland was in third place, with 4.3% of its researchers in the US. "Israeli scholars in America are in a class by themselves," Ben-David wrote, adding that their presence in the US was "twice the Canadian ratio and over five times the ratio in the other developed countries." Computer scientists make up the largest number of Israeli expatriates in American universities, he said in the survey, adding that they made up "a full third of the entire contingent remaining in Israel. Some of the leading American departments have no less than five to six Israelis each." Similarly, 29% of top Israeli economists have made their home in the US, the study found. The statistics for other research fields are no less grim - a tenth of Israeli physicists work in the top 40 American departments, "more than double the overall migration rate from the Netherlands, the European country with the greatest rate of academic migration to the States," Ben-David noted. One eighth of Israeli chemists have also made their way over to America, while 15% of Israeli philosophers have headed oversees. So why do they leave? One of the main reasons is an insufficient number of positions within Israel's seven main universities, Ben-David said. Some departments have shrunk by 30% over the last decade, "while the number of students had quadrupled," he told the Post. "We have lost an entire generation who finished their PhDs and couldn't find a position," he said. A second reason is the low salaries offered by Israeli universities compared with their American competitors, Ben-David said. "Everyone has their reservation price, that point where you leave the ideals and prices talk," he said. With US institutions offering hundreds of thousands of dollars, Israel can't compete with its current salary levels, Ben-David said. Those who remain in Israel are forced to spend far more time teaching than their American counterparts, leaving them less time to carry out research. "In the first two decades of this country," he said, "Israel's national security situation was much worse, immigration was much worse, it was a much poorer country, but it had vision and devoted a much larger proportion of its GDP to education, which placed us in a position to take advantage of the hi-tech revolution when it took off. Since the 1970s, that's all changed." Other factors behind the poor state of research in Israel today, Ben-David said, include a rigid state control of university departments, which have left them unable to compete for researchers, and a cut in research funds. "The US and Britain and other countries have doubled research funds over the past decade and we've reduced them," he said. "We're sticking our heads in the sand and just ignoring life." "All we have around us are enemies, basically," Ben-David said. "We have no natural resources; we can compete with our neighbors and the world only though the quality of our manpower. And we have a jewel in our crown." Four of Israel's universities were in the top 150 universities in the world, Ben-David said. He called on the state to take urgent steps to save Israel's centers of higher education. Manufacturers Association of Israel president Shraga Brosh also cited cuts in research funds as posing a major problem for Israel's economy. "Our ability to face the future is based on personnel," he said Monday. "The government reduced its research budget over the past five years, knocking NIS 5 billion off research and development at a time when other countries are increasing their budgets. We feel that our best are leaving."