Ministry budget cuts threaten immigrant scientists' jobs

'We're afraid that people are going to be thrown out into the street.

scientist 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
scientist 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Dr. Gregory Barshtein made aliya from Moscow in 1990, the then-33-year-old was told his impressive background in biochemistry would be enough to land him a prestigious job in academia. And while that was true - Dr. Barshtein, now 52, has been working at the Hebrew University for 18 years - he and hundreds of other scientists who arrived en masse from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s are now embroiled in a fight for their livelihoods, as the Treasury is trying to push through large budget cuts to the very program that was started to assist them. "We're in the crosshairs of a political game here," Barshtein told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "And while we have to fight for our budget every year, something has always worked out. This year, the cuts are so deep, we're afraid the money just won't be there. We're afraid that people are going to be thrown out into the street." The severity of the situation led Barshtein and some 200 of his colleagues to protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday afternoon, where they were met by opposition leader Tzipi Livni and MK Rachel Adato, both of Kadima. The lawmakers expressed support for their cause. The protesters - all of them science researchers at universities and colleges - are part of an Absorption Ministry program called Absorption of Immigrant Scientists, or K'MAY, its Hebrew acronym, which began in an effort to cope with the highly trained scientists who were pouring into the country from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, and to ensure that their talents would not go to waste. The program assisted the then-new immigrants with job placement in an array of science departments across the country, and even though many of the program's members have been employed now for 10-20 years, their paychecks still come through the Absorption Ministry. "Even professors get their money from the government," Barshtein said. "But they get theirs from the Budgeting and Planning Committee [of the Council for Higher Education] - the Treasury's not trying to cut that." But the Treasury is trying to cut the Absorption Ministry's budget, which means that now, nearly two-decades after Absorption of Immigrant Scientists's inception and years of shaky, but continued success, the prospect looms that these immigrants' talents will be allowed to slip away. "Every year the Treasury wants to cut the program's budget by 5 or 6 percent," Barshtein said. "But this year they're trying to cut it by more than 30%, and if that goes through, between 160 and 170 people are going to lose their jobs, and more will follow." He explained that the most serious problem facing him and his colleagues - all of whom are over 50 - was that if they were forced to leave their jobs, finding new ones would be nearly impossible. "Who would take us?" he asked. "Most universities don't take on people over 40, and we're more than 10 years past that." Adato told the Post that she shared Barshtein's concerns, and was prepared to fight vigorously for the program throughout the upcoming days of budget negotiations in the Knesset. "This is the most valuable thing to our country - the Jewish mind," she said. "And we're just going to throw it away? Tell them to go to America? It's absurd. I spoke about this issue in the Knesset plenum today, and I'm hopeful that we will find the funds to save this program - be it from the Absorption Ministry's budget or the science budget or elsewhere." "The Absorption Ministry is also spending tons of money trying to bring back Israelis who have left the country," Adato continued. "Why don't we spend that on these people? They're already here." She also expressed confidence that Livni would continue to support the program as well. "As the former absorption minister, she knows the issue well," Adato said. Barshtein, on the other hand, remained skeptical Wednesday evening, as he told the Post, "I hope they can save it, but I don't want to keep fighting for my job year after year. Either we as scientists are important to the country, or we're not, and it's time that message became clear."•