Israel's battle to reverse the brain drain

It is said that there isn't a lab at Harvard or MIT that doesn’t have an Israeli researcher working in it.

Dr. Ilana Kolodkin-Gal,  an I-CORE recruit at Weizmann, has made major discoveries in two areas of microbiology (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
Dr. Ilana Kolodkin-Gal, an I-CORE recruit at Weizmann, has made major discoveries in two areas of microbiology
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
A SERIES of mysterious green letters and red numbers cover the whiteboard in Dr Ido Amit’s office at the Weizmann Institute of Science. The scribbles on the board are a breakthrough that could lead to a leukemia cure, he tells The Jerusalem Report.
His research into mapping the regions in the genome that produce blood cells will be published soon in a prestigious scientific journal, says Amit, who envisions a future in which physicians will tailor individualized treatments for diseases based on a person’s genetic makeup.
“We think we have solved a big piece of the puzzle of the development process of blood cells,” the soft-spoken scientist says in a matter-of-fact tone.
Amit is among a small but growing cadre of young Israeli scientists who are returning home after their post-doctoral training at prestigious institutions abroad, signaling a measure of success of government efforts to reverse the brain drain. Over 1,000 have returned in the past three years. Many more would like to return, but there are not enough positions.
It is said that there is not a lab at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that doesn’t have an Israeli researcher working in it. When scientists heralded a “whole new era” in physics in March with the detection of “primordial gravitational waves” – the first tremors of the big bang, Israeli Channel 10 television evening news had no trouble finding an expert scientist to interview.
They called the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department, Dr. Abraham Loeb, who happens to be Israeli and could explain the complicated science in plain Hebrew.
Israeli scientists who left for the US decades ago are not likely to return, but the government is hoping to lure back young scientists who are just now completing their post-doctoral studies in the US.
“The trends have changed from the past decade and we see an amazing flourishing of young scientists who want to return and great science being done by those who have recently returned.” Dr. Liat Maoz, director of the Unit for Projects in Planning and Budgeting at the Council of Higher Education (CHE) relates to The Report. She herself completed her doctorate in physics at Harvard University and chose to return to Israel. “I’m very optimistic that a lot of bright new people will come into the system. In various fields Israel is becoming a major global academic research center.”
Maoz coordinates the Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE), founded by CHE in 2010 with a total budget of NIS 675 million ($195 million) for five years.
I-CORE funds 16 research centers across scientific disciplines in universities, colleges, hospitals and research institutes. Each newresearch grant for five years. These centers have already assisted 58 returning scientists, including Amit.
“These are small numbers. I-CORE is not supposed to bring the masses,” Maoz says.
“The main object is to build conditions that the best Israeli researchers from around the world can come back and continue to do world-class research without compromising.”
After completing a post-doc, Amit didn’t bother to apply for positions in the US even though he could have easily secured a post at one of the top universities. His work has already attracted attention. In 2009, a scientific journal called his research on new regulatory circuits that control the immune system a scientific breakthrough.
“My wife said, ‘No way, forget it. After four years I want to go back.’ It didn’t cross my mind to stay in America even though you can get much more money, fame and glory,” he says. “It wasn’t a real option.” His parents live on a kibbutz and his wife’s father is a highranking officer in the Israel Air Force.
He says that had he stayed in the US, he would have had better conditions and resources, but asks, “Would I have enjoyed it more? I doubt it.”
There was no infrastructure at Weizmann’s Immunology Department for the kind of research he conducts and he had to apply for grants to set up his state-of-the-art $5 million lab. Just one piece of equipment that he needs costs $1 million. But there are advantages to being in Israel.
“Here we have very bright students who think outside the box,” he says. “Just last week, we had a publication in one of the top three science journals.”
AMIT DID his four-year post-doc at the prestigious Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a biomedical and genomic research center affiliated with MIT and Harvard. The director of the Broad likes to joke that English is the second most prevalent language in the corridors of the hallowed institution, Hebrew being the first.
The not so funny punch line is that about 29 percent of Israeli scientists do their research in the US and in Europe, the highest rate of brain drain in the West, and one the government is struggling to reverse. This is an increase over the figures just four years ago when there were 25 Israeli academics working in the United States for every 100 in Israel, according to a report recently published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
Israelis have no problem getting positions at top universities in the US. “Israelis have a fantastic reputation. They are considered among the best students and are much in demand,” says Israeli Prof. Nahum Sonenberg, who heads a research lab at McGill University in Montreal, where he discovered important mechanisms that control the development of proteins in human cells. In 1979, afterhe and his wife purchased 220-volt electrical appliances in preparation for their return to Israel, but his alma mater, the Weizmann Institute, didn’t offer him a tenure track position. The couple headed to Montreal for what they hoped would be a temporary sojourn.
”You think to stay only a year or two and do some good science and get a better position in Israel, but inertia takes over,” he says.
Sonenberg, 67, will return to Israel this May to receive the prestigious Wolf Prize.
About one out of three Wolf Prize laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine have gone on to receive the Nobel.
“I don’t think there is a lab at MIT or Harvard that doesn’t have an Israeli,” says Shmuel Hess, co-founder of BioAbroad, a private, non-profit organization that aims to connect the expatriate Israeli scientific community with industry, academia and the health care system in Israel. With 1,100 members and 18 regional centers in the US, BioAbroad organizes holiday activities for homesick expatriates, conferences, and employment fairs, and offers travel grants for job interviews.
SCHRAGA SCHWARTZ, 32, is one of the Israelis at the Broad Institute now in the last year of his four-year post-doctoral in molecular biology. Having just published a paper in a prestigious scientific journal, he is optimistic that he will be able to get a tenuretrack position at an Israeli university and a lab of his own to continue his research in chemical modification in RNA.
Every two weeks, he attends a forum of about 20 Israeli biology post-docs at Harvard and MIT, who discuss their research.
Recently, he flew, all expenses paid, to a large scientific conference in Eilat. His flight, as well as the transportation expenses of 45 other Israeli post-docs, was paid for by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (IASH), one of the organizations trying to bring Israeli scientists back home. Besides attending lectures, the post-docs networked and met with presidents of Israeli universities.
“It was a great opportunity to form ties for when I apply for a job in Israel and I’ll apply all over the place,” he says.
For all the good will and efforts to bring back its young scientists, Israeli academia is too small. “We don’t have room for everyone,” says Prof. Israel Bar-Joseph, vice president of resource development at the Weizmann Institute. “At the end of the day, more go abroad than can return.”
One of the lucky ones is Lilac Amirav, who did her post-doctoral work at Berkeley.
She has her own lab at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology as part of I-CORE’s Solar Fuel Consortium, where she is using nanotechnology to research ways to create new, renewable fuel.
Of the scientists who have returned to Israel in recent years, about 100 are in the field of nanotechnology, according to the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative, which held its fourth annual international conference in Tel Aviv, in late March.
Amirav and her husband, also a scientist, felt that if they had stayed in the US any longer, it would have become permanent. “After a certain time you want to establish roots,” she says. “What changed for us was when I got pregnant and our first son was born. We knew we want to raise him in Israel with his grandparents, uncles and in our culture. I have many friends who are struggling with the same situation. They really want to go back to Israel but they also really want to do research.”
There is a list of 2,600 Israeli scientists working abroad interested in returning, who have registered online at the IASH Contact Center. The Center, established in 2007, collects up-to-date information on available positions to send by e-mail to researchers in the relevant professional fields.
Other countries suffer brain drain, but for Israel it can be an existential threat, witness the importance of scientific breakthrough in missile defense technology, such as Iron Dome, which has been protecting citizens from missiles launched from Gaza.
Israeli academicians have long been warning that the serious attrition could erode the intellectual and creative culture that has catapulted the country to the cutting edge of hi-tech and science. They claim that the success of Israeli scientists, who have won six Nobel Prizes in the last decade, is a testament to the strong education of the early years when Israel built top-notch universities that competed with the world’s finest.
There is talk of a lost decade up until 2010, in which the number of colleges and students increased dramatically, but budgets decreased in absolute terms and retiring professors were not replaced. The country’s top universities have fewer senior faculty positions today than they did four decades ago, according to the Taub Center report. Since 1973, the number of students per professor has more than doubled, and universities have increasingly outsourced the teaching to non-research, external lecturers.
But things are not all gloom and doom, at least not according to Prof. Bar-Joseph.
“When we talk about brain drain, you hear a tone of despair and sadness. We hear in the news about the good old days when Ada Yonath and other Nobel Prize winners did their science and that those days are over, and we are doomed to mediocrity,” he tells The Report in an interview in his office at the Weizmann Institute’s campus in Rehovot.
“The bottom line is that an amazing thing is happening in Israel. There is a new generation of scientists who are excellent, better exposed to state-of-the art science, and come from the best places equipped with skills and knowhow.
If I look at the young generation that have entered the gates of the Weizmann Institute, they are amazing. We have outstanding people and the results will come.”
One of those outstanding young scientists is Dr. Ilana Kolodkin-Gal. The assistant professor is busy at her computer applying for a yet another research grant when interrupted by a reporter. Young Israeli scientists get 10 times more grants from the European Research Council than their European counterparts. While the European success rate is six out of 100 who apply, the Israeli success rate is 60 percent. Israel is the third country in the number of grants in absolute numbers. Only Great Britain and Germany receive more.
KOLODKIN-GAL, 33, also a new I-CORE recruit, has already made major discoveries in two areas of microbiology, identifying key factors in the process of programmed cell death that can cause bacteria to selfdestruct.
Her studies have shown that bacteria appear to exhibit previously unsuspected levels of group behavior, “something like a kibbutz,” and she has four patents to her name.
She did her post-doc at Harvard. Duringher last year, she received an offer from Rockefeller University in New York without even applying and asked her professor to politely decline in her name.
Staying in the US was not an option.
“I was committed to Israel. I feel that science is a mission if it’s done in Israel where I can raise future generations of young scientists. In the US, it would not mean as much to me,” she says.
The Weizmann Institute has recruited 80 young scientists in the past seven years, virtually replacing a third of the 250-member academic staff.
“Each of those people who have joined us had a competing offer from leading places; I’m talking Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech,” says Bar-Joseph. “The world is becoming flat and the competition for talent is intense.
Those people did not choose us as a last resort. The party is not over. We are building an even a nicer party with great scientists who are better trained and better equipped. At the Weizmann Institute, we try to pick the best and the brightest.”
It doesn’t always work and Weizmann officials are the first to admit that they made mistakes in the past.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to call last October to congratulate the two Israeli winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, he had to dial long distance. The two professors, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, had done their groundbreaking research at the Weizmann Institute but had long since departed for the US. Warshel wasn’t offered a position some 40 years ago.
“It was a wrong decision, a failure of the system,” says Bar-Joseph. “He didn’t get tenure, and he had to leave. But let’s look at the good news. The work for which they got the Nobel Prize is work they did here.
Since no scientific discovery is done in a vacuum, they worked under their mentor and others. We are doing Nobel Prizequality research here.”
Warshel and his co-winner, Michael Levitt, visited Israel together recently and appeared before a Knesset Education Committee.
“Science is international,” Warshel told members of the committee. “You can’t do things anymore the way things were done in the kibbutz when those who left to study had to commit to returning two years for every year of education.”
Levitt, who left a tenured position at the Weizmann Institute to teach at Stanford University, agreed. “Israel is a bit like a small child who wants to do things his way,” he said. “It’s about time that we understand that we are part of the world and we can see Israel’s presence in the whole world as something positive.”
That may be the case, but undoubtedly Netanyahu would prefer his next congratulatory call to an Israeli Nobel laureate to be a local call.