Coming home: reversing Israel’s brain drain

Israel’s best and brightest academics are migrating at an alarming rate; a concerted effort must be made to make them stay.

Students at Tel Aviv University 370 (photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
Students at Tel Aviv University 370
(photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
It’s no secret that Israel has more PhD’s per capita than any other country, Jews have won a highly disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes over the years and that Israel is a high-tech powerhouse. But a less familiar and increasing phenomenon in Israel is “brain drain,” the emigration of Israeli academics in all fields to European countries and the United States. Israel’s brain drain is particularly alarming because the rate at which professors migrate from Israel is four to six times higher than the migration from other developed countries.
Last May, Holocaust survivor and Jewish philanthropist Marcel Adams donated $1 million in scholarships to young Israeli scientists who returned to Israel following their studies at renowned institutions of higher education abroad. Adams, 92, made his gift to counter this “brain drain” that has resulted in an estimated one-quarter of Israeli scientists leaving Israel to work in the Diaspora.
But the flight of Israeli academics is not limited to the natural sciences. Scholars in social sciences as well as the humanities are also leaving Israel for higher-paying jobs in fields including political science, history, literature, communications, statistics, linguistics, and Middle Eastern studies.
One component of this phenomenon is the aging population of professors in Israel. For instance, highly educated professionals who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990swho make up a solid proportion of Israel’s scientists are getting up in age. Nearly half (48 percent) of Israeli professors are aged 55 and up, compared to 32%in the US, 25% in Australia, and 17% in the United Kingdom.
Despite these worrying trends, there are initiatives working to reverse them, as well as others that are currently in the development stages. A program called Gvahim, for example, is a non-governmental organization whose motto is “helping highly qualified olim fulfill their professional goals in Israel.” Since 2006, Gvahim has helped more than 600 olim and potential olim find employment or begin start-ups.
Other innovative and larger-scale approaches are endeavors at the national level being funded by Israeli governmental organizations. Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE), funded by the Education Ministry, established four centers last year.Each are dedicated to a different scientific quest and have the intention to lure Israeli scientists back to Israel from the US and Europe. Focus on alternative energy sources, curing the molecular basis of disease, cognitive science, and advanced topics in computer science, the centers are just the beginning of the Education Ministry’s plans to build thirty such centers for top-notch research.
I-CORE’s $360 million budget will cover the first five years of operations,salaries, the purchase of equipment and funding of research. To add to I-CORE’s plans, the Israeli government pledged to increase spending at Israeli universities and is doubling the Israel Science Foundation’s budget from the last year, in 2011, until 2016. But by the end of 2011, only fifteen Israeli researchers had returned home and reestablished their careers within the framework of one of the new I-CORE centers.
These government programs may have witnessed limited success at attracting Israeli scientists back to Israel, but according to Dan Ben-David, who has studied Israel’s “brain drain” phenomenon, the Israeli university system is in need of a major renovation. For instance, the salaries of Israeli professors is the same across the board, which means that American institutions of higher learning can entice the top Israeli scholars to the US with their larger salary packages for those in fields that are in high demand.
Among the projects that are still in the works and that will indubitably respond to what Ben-David has called for is Shalem College, the country’s first liberal arts institution of higher learning set to open next fall. Years in the making, this college will train young Jews to be knowledgeable and passionate about philosophy, history, politics, and culture of the Jewish people as well as that of Western civilization. The students will, in the words of Shalem Center Vice President Daniel Gordis, “foster a culture of debate coupled with pervasive civility, restoring the discourse that was at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, and the passionate conversation that was once at the heart of Zionism, to the very core of Israel’s future intellectual, political, professional, social, and cultural leadership.” Indeed, Harvard research fellow Dr. Ilai Saltzman wrote last year, “The intellectual foundations of Israeli society have always been based not only on scientific research, but on our broad education in the liberal arts as well.”
The Jewish people have faced and overcome challenges in years past and the State of Israel can – with programs that have the resources of I-CORE, the ingenuity of Shalem College, the compassion of Marcel Adams, and creativity of Gvahim – turn the “brain drain” into a “brain gain” and emerge stronger than ever.
The writer graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in sociology and has advanced training in multi-track diplomacy and conflict transformation from the University of Maryland. Lisa has worked for the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Diarna, which digitally maps Middle East and North African Jewish history