Academic Achievement

In Good Company... But For How Long? Despite recent reports regarding the wave of emigration of Israeli scientists and researchers, the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, has racked up an impressive international achievement. The Technion ranks second only to Cambridge University in England in the number of European Research Council (ERC) awards granted to a single European (and countries that participate in EU programs, such as Israel) university. The Technion also ranked in the overall top ten for highest number of grants given to any single research body. This places it among the leagues of institutions such as the French Atomic Energy Commission and the Spanish National Research Council. According to an ERC publication, 16 Israeli researchers received "Starting Grants" from the ERC, which is an agency of the European Union (EU). Another seven Israelis were listed as highly likely to receive grants, if funding allows. The Israelis were among some 300 recipients chosen from over 9,300 applicants. The ERC is distributing approximately 290 million euros, an average of one million each, to the young researchers, all of whom have completed their doctorates within the last two to nine years. These accomplishments come in the wake of a recent study that found that nearly one in four Israeli academics work in the United States, a proportion that is higher than that of any other country. In "Brain Drained," published by Tel Aviv University and the Center for Economic Policy Research in London, Dan Ben-David, professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, writes that professors, and particularly natural and applied scientists, are leaving Israel for higher salaries, better employment opportunities and higher funding for research. [See The Reporter, March 18.] The situation has worsened over the past six years, as government budget cuts have resulted in a 15 percent decrease in spending per student, according to media reports. Recently, the Knesset formed a committee to suggest alternative proposals to those made by the Shochat Committee on Higher Education, which have the support of the treasury and include tuition hikes and other cost-saving measures. Technion President Yitzhak Apeloig says that the seven awards granted to researchers at the Technion, "only show how big the potential is. The talent [in Israel] is amazing." But he laments that over the last six years the Technion has lost 100 faculty positions (out of nearly 700) due to budget cuts. Thus, compared with 30 years ago, the Technion has the same number of faculty positions for twice the number of students. The brain drain, Apeloig says, is already "very evident.... The process of decline of higher education has already started.... We don't yet see the full effect." Apeloig is worried that if the situation doesn't change, "there won't be seven awards [in ten years]." Apeloig says the situation cannot be reversed " one year - it's a 10-year process. Most [academics] won't return. It's a terrible waste for a country that can only rely on human resources." Dr. Shy Shoham, who specializes in neuro-engineering at the Technion and received an ERC grant to create a retinal prosthetic for the blind, comments, "This level of funding is very rare in Israeli science." The near one million euro grant will fund the next five years of his lab's research. Shoham, however, does not see the current situation in Israeli academia as a brain drain. But as "difficulty in brain reabsorption.... Lots of Israeli academics [who attend graduate school abroad] want to come back but there is not enough room for them." He also believes that the situation is taking a positive turn, or will shortly, as professors hired in the university boom between 1948 and 1973 begin to retire, opening new positions for young faculty members.