Save our scientists

Is Israel earnestly in the business of exporting brains to richer lands?

young scientists 248.88 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
young scientists 248.88
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
Is Israel earnestly in the business of exporting brains to richer lands? It almost seems so, if we judge by the fact that some 200 of the most outstanding scientists in this country's institutions of higher learning have recently received dismissal notices. Their professional skills haven't deteriorated. The research projects they oversee - in varied spheres, from cutting edge cancer research and biotechnology to solid state physics - haven't been suddenly rendered less vital. Their students are no less dependent upon them. The faculties which employ them are no less satisfied with their work. So where's the problem? These scientists aren't paid in full by their official workplaces, a fact which doesn't render them less essential or effective. Their salaries are subsidized to the tune of 60% by a special Ministry of Absorption fund established to attract foremost scientists to Israel. Budgetary tightfistedness has now slashed the program's funding by about a third. While no exact figures are available from the Treasury, we are assured that in the big scheme of things the sums involved are paltry. Nevertheless, since the scientists in question do not constitute a powerful or populist lobby, they become easy victims. Some 500 of Israel's most inventive and resourceful scientists - mostly from the former Soviet Union - currently benefit from the program. But petty belt-tightening threatens to reduce their ranks by 40% and jeopardize the entire program's future. Some of the scientists who will lose their livelihoods and labs might well join the estimated 3,000 top-notch Israeli scientists who now work abroad. Other countries benefit from their creativity as well as the knowhow they acquired here, and our higher education is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer. As these scientists are also generally accompanied by their families, the brain drain's actual tally in demographic as well as qualitative terms is even heavier. WE OFTEN hear this state of affairs bitterly lamented both by political higher-ups and academics. No one disputes that it is profoundly detrimental to Israel both currently and with an eye to the state's future. Israel's official policy therefore - and this is true no matter which particular coalition is in power - is to combat the brain drain by drawing to Israel both some of those Israelis who have left and also new immigrants. The latter category includes some particularly renowned researchers, especially from the former USSR. Their prestigious reputations makes them a lucrative catch for any ambitious faculty and scientific institute in the western world. Israel had made it its goal - back in the days of the first Netanyahu administration - to convince as many of these leading scientists that Israel is a viable and desirable option. The special program, whereby universities and other employers foot only 40% of these scientists' salaries, was instituted little over a decade ago. It has worked to the distinct advantage of all concerned, especially the cash-strapped universities for which this was a particular boon - indeed an unofficial subsidy. They could avail themselves of the most highly qualified personnel without excessive outlays. Yet now nobody is taking responsibility for the cutback travesty. Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, ironically from Yisrael Beiteinu, which pro forma strongly supports the program, blames the Treasury. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opposes sacking the scientists but has opined that the Absorption Ministry can find the necessary wherewithal from the NIS 252 million addition to its latest budget. Meanwhile 200 scientists are caught in this tug-of-war. And others, watching from abroad - both potential immigrants and ex-pat Israelis - can only grow distrustful of promises. We'll avoid a detailed inventory of the wasteful expenditures that have been incorporated into the latest state budget, chiefly to buy political calm. Suffice it to mention increased child allowances and grants for yeshiva students. These make the drastic downsizing of the immigrant scientist program all the more outrageous. Officialdom's parsimoniousness was never more shortsighted than in this case. It not only pulls the rug from under dedicated professionals (among them Ben-Gurion University mathematician Prof. Gregory Mashevitzky, whose son Alex fell last January 6 in Operation Cast Lead), it also glaringly diminishes Israel's future scientific prospects. Any way we look at it, this makes no sense.