Israel's Brain Drain Unmatched in the West

Israel will lose its position as a high-tech powerhouse if it doesn't stem the massive brain drain of top academics, warns Tel Aviv University Prof. Dan Ben-David, author of a new report documenting the extent of the brain drain. "Today we are reaping the benefits of the policies enacted a generation ago when we invested in academia, but the next generation will pay the price for the short-sighted policies of today," Ben-David, director of TAU's Center for Economic Policy Research, tells The Report. In a study, entitled "Brain Drained," published by Tel Aviv University and the Center for Economic Policy Research in London, Ben-David found that nearly one in four Israeli academics is working in an American university, a proportion unmatched by any other Western country including Canada, which has some 12% of its academics employed in the US. The percentage of European academics in the United States ranged from 1.3% of Spain's graduates to 4.3% of those from the Netherlands. "Even I had no idea of the magnitude of the brain drain when I set out to do this study," Ben-David tells The Report. "It is unparalleled." He found that the problem was particularly pronounced in the fields that form the foundation of the high-tech industry, such as electronics and computer science. The main reason for the situation is that U.S. universities offer particularly high salaries to researchers who might otherwise be lured to the private sector. In the United States, a professor of electrical engineering will earn considerably more than a professor of French or philosophy. But in Israel, a uniform pay scale, enforced by the unions and supported by the Treasury, dictates salaries for all faculty, based on rank and seniority, without distinctions between disciplines. "In areas where competition is highest between public and private sector, we lose," says Ben-David, noting that a third of all Israeli computer-science faculty are now found in the top 40 U.S. computer-science departments. Ben-David calls the brain drain alarming not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of the caliber of academics leaving Israel. "We're losing top-notch people," he says. In his own field, economics, he examined the affiliations of 25 Israelis who were among the most frequently cited economists in the world (according to a French study of top journals from 1990 to 2000). Of those 25, Ben-David found that 12 were working abroad. Of the 13 that were affiliated with Israeli universities in 2000, only four were still with Israeli academic institutions today - and none of the 12 teaching abroad had returned to Israel. Besides lower salaries, Ben-David found three other reasons for the brain drain: the lack of available faculty positions in Israeli universities was the main one, followed by lack of funds for research and labs, and an archaic institutional structure. Israel's investment in higher education is unimpressive not only in comparison to other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries - where it ranks 20th out of 26 - but also in comparison to its older, poorer self. Between 1948 and 1973, Israel not only established several universities, but also managed to have nearly the same number of academics per capita as the United States, notes Ben-David. But after 1973, despite Israel's growing prosperity, that ratio steadily declined; today it is half of what it was in the 70s. During the same period, the United States has increased faculty per capita by 30% - creating a huge gap between the two countries. This reduction in faculty has occurred at the same time as the number of Israeli students who obtain academic degrees has risen by 355%. "You have to ask: Have we lost our minds?" says Ben-David. The lack of new positions available at Israeli universities has resulted in a graying faculty: nearly half (48%) are aged 55 and up, compared to 32% in the U.S., 25% in Australia and 17% in the U.K., says Ben-David. At Haifa's Technion, one of the leading institutions of high-tech training the number of faculty has increased by only one slot (from 682 to 683 positions) in over 30 years, says Ben-David. At the Hebrew University, it has fallen by 14% and at TAU by 21%. "A whole generation of young academics is stuck outside." "Today's high-tech leaders got their education from people who were at the top of their fields years ago," says Ben- David. "But who is going to teach this generation - when there are no new positions opening up and the best academics are going abroad?" Ben-David urges a serious infusion of public funding into basic research in order to stem the brain drain. Israel doesn't even have to emulate other Western countries that have been increasing basic research funding. It merely has to revert to its 'old self,' he says, noting that in 1973 the country financed 26 senior research faculty positions for each billion shekels of output produced - compared to just 8 such slots per billion shekels output in 2005. "We've seen a disturbing shift in national priorities," he says. "It is ironic, to say the least, that a country with no natural resources, which has discovered the high-tech route to raising per capita incomes, could have adopted policies that have led to such a predicament. In the very fields necessary for fueling the minds that enter the high-tech market, Israel has allowed itself to lose an unparalleled proportion of its top researchers," writes Ben-David, who attributes the trend to an endemic lack of strategic planning by successive governments. "It is not out of malice, but short-sightedness. No one is thinking beyond the edge of their nose," says the economist, who last week presented his findings to the Knesset Education Committee. Only committee chairman, MK Michael Melchior, and two other MKs - who left after five minutes - attended the session, Ben-David notes wryly.