Nobel wins highlight costs of Israel’s top academics seeking greener pastures abroad

Greater financial opportunities lure away Israel's best; "Israel doesn’t give a lot, and that’s why people are leaving."

Nobel Prize Chemistry winners (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nobel Prize Chemistry winners
(photo credit: Courtesy)
That Israelis Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt – two of the three professors who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday – live abroad tainted the sweet sense of pride many Israelis tasted upon the announcement with a bitter aftertaste.
With all the investments the country makes in education, why is it unable to keep its talents in the country? they wondered.
Aside from being a source of ruffled pride, the increasing phenomenon of Israeli “brain drain” has taken a toll on the economy.
“Israel doesn’t have many advantages over other countries. The main thing that we have is human capital,” said Ayal Kimhi, an economics professor at the Hebrew University and a deputy director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
Despite numerous studies linking human capital to economic growth, he laments, “we don’t keep the best of our people.”
According to a December survey from the Central Bureau of Statistics, 4.9 percent of all the people who earned academic degrees in Israel from 1985 to 2005 were living abroad for over three years as of 2011.
Though the precise economic effects are difficult to quantify, the deleterious effects of brain drain seem clear in two ways.
For one, when academics leave, there are fewer adept teachers to educate the next generation, and less people to carry out groundbreaking research.
A study by the Taub center this week found that “Israel’s academic brain drain to the United States is unparalleled, with 29 Israeli scholars in the US for every 100 remaining at home.”
According to the study, a major part of the problem is that despite the increase in educated, qualified people, the number of positions remains limited, leaving skilled academics to search abroad.
“The government prefers to expand community colleges because they’re cheaper to maintain, but then you don’t get research, which is in universities,” said Kimhi.
Though one possible solution is increasing costs for students to fund more professors, Kimhi warns that could push less welloff students out of the market, leaving them with fewer prospects.
The other way brain drain hits the economy is that skilled people who leave the country go on to make good of their talents in other countries’ private firms.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the drain level is considerably higher for PhD-holders and doctors (10.5% and 7.2%, respectively).
Those skilled in math and sciences had a “substantially higher” rate of leaving (3.7 times) than humanities and social sciences students.
Tellingly, “the highest percentage of degree recipients staying abroad three years or more was found among graduates of the Weizmann Institute of Science (17.8%).” Warshel and Levitt were among them, taking their research to the University of Southern California and Stanford University School of Medicine, respectively.
“Israel doesn’t give a lot, and that’s why people are leaving. This is a result of pettiness, small-mindedness and people who can’t think big,” Levitt’s spouse, Rinat, explained on Thursday.
Warshel’s wife, Tamar, said her husband didn’t receive tenure in Israel, “and that’s why we had to leave.”
In Kimhi’s view, most of the people who go to the US dream of coming back to Israel but have difficulty finding comparable jobs.
“They realize that nobody is waiting for them with open arms,” he said.
Whereas the United States lures talented international students with good jobs, ultimately benefiting from a “brain gain,” Israel’s demographic ethos prevents it from capitalizing the same way. Programs to bring top students from China and India to study for a few years are aimed at increasing business ties when the students go back, not integrating them into the job market.
There is some hope, yet. In 2011, the Council for Higher Education launched Israeli Centers of Research Excellence (I-CORE), a $360 million initiative to promote research in Israel. That same year, 6.7% of those with medical degrees or PhDs in math and engineering returned to Israel.Reuters contributed to this report.