Brain drain, falling stars

If we send our best minds to the United States and Europe, we must be able to ensure that they’ll come back.

Students receive degrees at The Hebrew University of J'lem (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Students receive degrees at The Hebrew University of J'lem
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Even as we bask in the glow of the Asian Science Camp convened this summer in Jerusalem to bring talented young Israelis together with their peers from other countries and renowned, top-ranking scientists, the nagging question remains: When the time comes for these young men and women to carry out scientific research, where will they do it? In Israel, in the United States, or, perhaps, in China?
We would like to be able to answer: Here, in our country. Here they were born and brought up, here they served or will serve in the army, and here they will acquire at least the beginnings of their academic education.
Of course they should spend part of their years of study abroad, because science is international. But will they come home afterward to engage in research at universities and in industry, and contribute their knowledge and skills to Israeli society, as well as their presence to the intellectual elite of the country?
It depends. In the 1980s, the writer of these lines (similarly to some of my colleagues) was faced with a choice: to work in the academic profession I had acquired in Israel – or in Cambridge, alongside a Nobel Prize winner. Happily for me, a suitable position was found for me in Israel and I was able to realize the Zionism that beats in my heart, and, at the same time, my ambition to engage in research. Some 30 years later, during the period known as “the lost decade,” such a choice would hardly exist: There are no positions in research, no laboratories, no equipment, no possibility to advance in the profession. So what do people do? They stay abroad.
They call this the brain drain, and during the lost decade we lost 1,000 brilliant minds to universities around the world. As Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, said at the time, Israel is among the world's leading exporters of brains.
We have incomparably talented young people, and the ambition to acquire an education is imprinted in the Jewish DNA. But what use is this without the decision of a government that is prepared to invest the necessary resources to bring them home? How much longer will Israel be able to retain its scientific, industrial, technological and security standing if it continues to lock its gates in the face of the best of its children wanting to return home?
CHINA HAS been facing a similar problem since allowing its talented students to go and study abroad. The brain drain was terrible, and the government took action: It directed enormous budgets to its institutions of higher education, research and development. The number of university graduates in China increased from 950,000 to 4.5 million within seven years. At the same time, China waged an energetic campaign to draw the best of its children back within its borders. And so, 81 percent of the members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 54% of the members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering are people who returned from abroad. By the end of the last decade, 20% of China’s citizens in academic professions who had been working abroad had returned to the country.
The lesson has not been lost on the chairman of the Council for Higher Education, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, and Prof. Trajtenberg. In 2010, the Netanyahu government inaugurated the Stars Program, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz allocated a special budget for bringing Israeli scientists back from abroad.
This is not something to be taken lightly: creating a workplace for a single scientist – setting up a laboratory and purchasing equipment, a salary for the scientist and his or her assistants, and so on – costs $1.5 million, and to this must be added the laboratory's regular maintenance costs and the need to replace equipment to keep up with technological progress. And nonetheless, the program's goal was to bring back 1,000 scientists within a decade.
Already in its first year, 2010-2011, some 200 new faculty members were taken on at institutes of higher education; by the following year the number had risen to 230. But now it appears that the sword of cutbacks that is being brandished at us threatens to put an end to the Stars Program.
If we send our best minds to the United States and Europe, we must be able to ensure that they’ll come back. A long-term budget plan which allows university presidents to plan at least a decade in advance must be instated. This will guarantee that the scholars in whose future we’ve invested will continue to enrich Israel’s future.
The writer, a professor, is president of Bar-Ilan University, which stands at the forefront of a nationwide initiative to reverse Israel's brain drain.