Israel needs its brains back

We complain, but what are we doing about it?

Lab 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Lab 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
America’s famous author and humorist Mark Twain said many years ago: “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
Well, everyone in Israel complains about Israel’s loss of some of its “best and brightest” scientists and researchers to other countries, and not enough is being done about that.
But one cannot just sit back and cry about this situation; rather, we must do whatever is possible not only to keep our best young minds here for the sake of our country’s future (stopping the “brain drain”), but also and especially to attract back those many brilliant scholars who have left for “greener pastures” elsewhere, particularly in the United States. We have to work towards “returning the brains.” How can we do it?
Money is a large consideration – but not the only one. At the HebrewUniversity of Jerusalem we have allocated funds to attract outstandingIsraelis working at universities abroad to return home. These fundscannot come close to matching the salaries offered by the foreignuniversities, but we can offer other incentives and challenges throughspecial lab facilities, warm human collaboration within departments,and opportunities to break new ground in research.
And perhaps most important of all, we can offer dedicated graduatestudents – among the best in the world – for whom scientific challengeis the primary motivation.
Let me make it clear that we are not only talking about aZionist-national act of bringing back talent to Israel, but also of anactual and significant economic contribution to the state and theuniversity – a subject which will be discussed at our current HebrewUniversity Board of Governors meeting. The fact is that the substantialforeign research funds which outstanding returnee researchers bringinto the university not only serve to further their current researchbut also contribute to our future by enabling fellowship grants andresearch assistantships to young researchers working with the returningscientists.
To cite some concrete examples: A brilliant graduate of the HebrewUniversity has come back as a leading brain researcher at our Facultyof Medicine, after having left a high-salaried position at HarvardUniversity. We allocated $600,000 for expenses in absorbing him, butsince arriving here he has been awarded competitive research grants of$4.35 million, $2 million of which came from the European Union.
Another researcher, in medical engineering at our Benin School ofEngineering and Computer Science, who had been in the US for more than10 years, also gave up a choice position at Harvard and came here via aHebrew University allocation of $576,000. In the past three years hehas been awarded $3,788,000 in outside grants.
Another of our outstanding graduates has made an international name forhimself in the area of pain research. He, too, chose the HebrewUniversity, after serving on the faculty of the Harvard UniversityMedical School, as a place for continuing his innovative work.
WHAT MOTIVATES these extremely talented people to come back to us,giving up in all cases much higher salaries and infrastructurefacilities that we cannot match? Here are some of their comments: “Thedesire to have an impact on Israeli science and society.”
“To break new ground in Israel; there are not many places where one gets in on the ground floor for developing new programs.”
“The warm and open-armed reception we have received from our colleagues here.”
“The willingness we have found to provide us with the means we need to develop our research.”
And, beyond all that, there is the desire to come “home,” not just forthemselves but even more importantly for the sake of their children.
What all this shows is that the Zionist ideal is not something that ismoribund, or to be regarded cynically, but rather is something that canstill be a factor – when combined with proper professional incentives –in bringing back at least some of our very best minds.
But what of those who are still here, who have pursued advanced degreesand are in need of finding their place in Israel? We at the HebrewUniversity are proud that we are by far the leading researchinstitution in the state. This week we are awarding a record 346doctoral degrees. What is to become of them? We do our utmost to absorbthe best of these new Ph.D.s into our faculties (some 50 per year), butunder present conditions, neither we nor other Israeli institutions ofhigher learning can absorb great numbers of young researchers withoutgreatly increased financial input from the government.
As everyone knows, our human resources are this nation’s most valuablestrategic asset. But if we are to protect and develop this asset, ourelected leaders must make crucial decisions. Do they want Israel toremain among the leading nations in terms of scientific achievement, orbe among those in the Third World? To my regret, I have yet to see thenecessary actions to lead us in the former direction.
The writer is president of the HebrewUniversity of Jerusalem, which is currently conducting  the 73rdmeeting of its Board of Governors.