Immigrant science profs may lose jobs

Academics vow to strike if Absorption Ministry cuts funds.

scientist 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
scientist 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the Immigrant Absorption Ministry mulls a NIS 1.6 billion plan to persuade Israeli professionals living abroad to return and strengthen the country's academia, a proposed cut to the same ministry's budget is threatening the jobs of some 500 science professors who immigrated here from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. The program for the Absorption of Immigrant Scientists, also known by its Hebrew acronym K'MYA, began in an effort to cope with the large number of highly trained scientists who were pouring into the country from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, assisting them with job placement in science departments across the country. But even though many of the program's members have been employed in various universities and medical facilities for the last 10-20 years, their salaries are still administered by the Absorption Ministry, which announced in July that it was cutting the program's budget by NIS 65 million over the next two years. That sum, which translates into the jobs of some 200 scientists - around 40 percent of the program's participants - would endanger the sustainability of the program as a whole. It is also dwarfed by the price tag of the latest program the ministry is considering, which aims to reverse the so-called "brain-drain" and bring back highly trained professionals who have left the country for better employment conditions abroad. While that program is set to be decided on at the end of the month, scientists employed through K'MYA have been in limbo since July regarding their careers and livelihoods, and have been given little notice as to what the future may hold. The scientists recently met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who assured them that the project would not be affected. In addition to the possibility of losing their jobs, all of the participants employed by K'MYA are now over 50 years old, which significantly dims their chances of finding new jobs in the same field and threatens to bring about the very situation K'MYA was created to prevent - the loss of highly-skilled immigrants' talents. "Either we as scientists are important to the country, or we're not, and it's time that message became clear," one of the scientists employed through K'MYA, Gregory Barshtein, told The Jerusalem Post. Outrage over the proposed cut is not limited to the scientists themselves. Ben-Gurion University Prof. Zvi Hacohen, who chairs the Coordinating Committee of the National Faculty Association, told the Post on Tuesday that the government can expect a backlash from the country's academics should the scientists lose their jobs. "The Israeli academia does not plan on stepping down from this issue," said Hacohen, who along with his colleagues has participated in a number of protests concerning the fate of K'MYA. "If the Absorption Ministry goes through with these cuts and the scientists are laid off, we will, without a doubt, go on strike." But voices within the Absorption Ministry said on Tuesday that they were on the scientists' side, and would do whatever they could to keep the program up and running. "We're doing everything to ensure that the program remains in the budget," said MK Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu), who heads the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee and sits on the Science and Technology Committee. "I am meeting with the absorption minister on Thursday and will know more about this afterward." Absorption Minister Sofa Landver also said she was fighting to keep K'MYA alive, adding that she, too, was looking to Thursday's meeting as an opportunity to clarify the situation. "Both programs - K'MYA and the return program - are important to us."