Israel must bring its scientists back home - opinion

Israel's economy loses out on NIS 2.4 billion every year by not having their scientists return home as opposed to working abroad.

 THE CHEMISTRY building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba: The total GDP potential lost due to scientists who have left Israel is a market failure estimated at billions of shekels per year, says the writer.  (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
THE CHEMISTRY building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba: The total GDP potential lost due to scientists who have left Israel is a market failure estimated at billions of shekels per year, says the writer.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)

Israel is globally renowned for its advanced research, mainly due to a creative and thriving scientific community and to significant and R&D-focused governmental support.

Yet, for years, the state has been facing a problem that it has been unable to effectively cope with the fact that many of the Israeli scientists who complete their post-doctorate abroad choose not to return to Israel after completing their research and training.

The current reality of declining investments, hi-tech dismissals and the sense of instability, both in the economy and the state, contribute another “accelerant” to their decision to remain abroad and further prosper there, or at least makes the decision to return to Israel more difficult.

Why do Israeli scientists work abroad instead of back at home?

One of the main reasons that many scientists do not rush to return is that the career development and promotion opportunities in Israel are limited. In our small country, the number of academic positions is limited, and their availability is subject to the retirement of veteran faculty members or, in few cases, the introduction or expansion of new fields of research and teaching.

This being the case, the chance for returning scientists to integrate into research in higher education and continue to develop in their field is very small. In addition, quite a few talented Israeli scientists are given attractive offers, both professional and financial, from research institutions and R&D bodies abroad – often tipping the scale against the decision to return.

 Illustrative image of scientific research. (credit: FLICKR)
Illustrative image of scientific research. (credit: FLICKR)

Even though the Israeli government invests a great deal in research and development, the funding available to scientists – mainly at the beginning of their academic career – is relatively smaller than that offered in other developed countries. This too is a major element in the decision to remain abroad.

Although it seems that employment opportunities in commercial industry are greater than those in academia, the available positions are limited for those who return to Israel after post-doctorate research, as companies seek “talents” bearing managerial experience, a knowledge of the global market and a proven ability to promote international competitiveness.

And yet, it is important to emphasize that most Israeli scientists do want to return home after their training abroad, even after many years. They are attracted to Israel’s innovative, entrepreneurial and dynamic ecosystem made up of leading researchers in many fields, as well as to the sense of community and their inherent bond with their homeland. And still – it is often not enough.

Israeli scientists staying abroad cost the country NIS 2.4 billion every year

Some will ask – why should we be concerned? After all, we have enough scientists, entrepreneurs and a strong industry that enabled Israel to prosper and be a true Start-Up Nation. Well, that is unfortunately inaccurate.

The current situation is not enough and more so, its sustainability should not be taken for granted. The Israeli brain drain should concern us all as academic and economic leaders, and doubly concern the state that invested quality training of this significant segment of human capital and must consider returning them home a supreme national interest.

WHY IS it a national interest? Because the Israeli economy suffers a huge loss. A study conducted by Nova in 2018, based on ScienceAbroad data (as related to the average number of scientists who return every year and their integration in the Israeli employment market) found that Israel loses a future GDP potential of NIS 2.4b. every year due to scientists who leave and do not return. It is a market failure that must be addressed in a deep and comprehensive manner, while earmarking a dedicated budget intended solely to returning scientists to Israel.

This budget should provide for the specific needs and barriers identified as those preventing scientists from returning to Israel. The Israeli government must promote a detailed and comprehensive plan that will include, inter alia, unique incentives for scientists who wish to return to Israel. Such a plan should also contain measures for promoting investments in absorbing science and technology researchers and for supporting the development of new industries that will enable additional jobs.

Employer assistance in onboarding new scientists can appear in many forms, ranging from a rich absorption package including a full and sufficiently high salary directly to the scientists for two to three years, through advanced management training, tax breaks, subsidies and other monetary incentives for companies willing to invest in the promotion of new technologies and services in Israel through returning scientists.

It seems like a relatively small amount when compared to the great yield that Israel will generate with each returning scientist. Further, there will be the mobilization of the economy in general.

Finally, we all understand that, at the end of the day, even if all the right steps are taken, not everyone will return to Israel. There are many temptations abroad and various personal interests. And still, we must consider the Israeli scientists abroad a very important resource for the State of Israel.

Preserving their bond with the country while creating a mixed and active network that can offer each member professional and business value, that also serves as a link to the Israeli ecosystem and “scene,” must be a goal. Israeli scientists abroad can greatly benefit Israel by promoting and establishing important international connections, creating strong partnerships with global companies and promoting joint interests, such as opening opportunities for Israeli scientists to train and gain experience in the global market, joint research and development initiatives, and the establishment of R&D centers in Israel.

Israeli scientists who have chosen to stay abroad will be the foundation for all of these, not only out of their commitment to the country and their desire to continue supporting it from afar but also due to their understanding that an ongoing connection with the scientists and researchers in Israeli academia and industry will serve their own professional and personal interests and will greatly contribute to the institutions, companies and organizations with which they are affiliated.

The State of Israel cannot afford to let the US or European markets reap the fruits of its investment in training the future generation of scientists. Every scientist who remains abroad causes cumulative economic and social loss. In the absence of proactive measures to enable the scientists to return, it will be difficult to turn the wheel, which is rolling faster today than ever, back.

The writer, a former president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, serves as chairperson of the executive board of ScienceAbroad, which acts to return scientists to Israel while fostering and retaining ties with Israeli researchers abroad and promoting the issues required for enabling their return.