Stop the brain drain!

This week, two news stories emerged that indicate Israel is in danger and needs to rethink its national priorities.

Nobel Prize Chemistry winners (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nobel Prize Chemistry winners
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week, two news stories emerged that indicate Israel is in danger and needs to rethink its national priorities.
The risks are real: If we don’t stop our unparalleled brain drain and return higher education to its rightful place, we will abandon our place as the world’s “Start-up Nation,” undermine our ability to compete in a modern global economy, give up the standard of living we enjoy and imperil our ability to survive in a hostile neighborhood.
On Wednesday three Jewish professors – two of them Israeli-Americans – were jointly awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
While on one level this is reason to celebrate, a closer look at the winners’ biographies paints a picture that should give us pause.
According to media reports, the two Israelis – one of them an oleh (immigrant) and one of whom fought bravely in two wars – had left Israel to continue their work in the United States.
This brings us to the other story: a report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies that shows a flood of Israeli researchers and academics streaming to the US.
Despite massive growth in Israel’s population and economy in recent decades, our government’s focus and spending on higher education have declined to the point where 29 out of every 100 Israeli scholars emigrate to America.
It wasn’t always this way.
Earlier generations knew that education was the key to climbing out of poverty and turning themselves, and our country, into a success story.
Yet the Taub report tells us that “a much wealthier Israel with much greater budgetary capacity than in the 1950s and 1960s has steadily neglected its world-class academic institutions.”
Since the 1970s, the report tells us, “the country is much wealthier and has significantly greater ability to develop its university system, but Israel dramatically changed course. Over the next four decades, the country’s universities steadily receded from the nation’s national priorities.”
We must wake up and realize the major risks this trend poses to Israeli society. It is no exaggeration to say the brain drain is jeopardizing everything Israelis have worked so hard to achieve.
This is not a problem the universities can solve on their own. At the most fundamental level it requires a change of consciousness among Israeli society. If the cost of cottage cheese and apartments can trigger a summer of protest, then the loss of our best teachers, research scientists and innovators should stir some sort of response.
In practical terms what we need is specific action at the government level. While Israel’s research universities are incredibly productive, we urgently need the government to fund more positions for researchers and build advanced facilities where they can conduct groundbreaking Israeli research.
The Chinese example is instructive. Understanding that true superpower status is achieved through research and development, the government created the physical conditions that allowed researchers to do their best work in China. A program to develop the most sophisticated and best-equipped laboratories has helped stem the tide of departing researchers and helped China reap great economic rewards.
We also need a national program to open up positions for researchers, academics and innovators here at home. This means investing considerable cash and creativity in finding ways to employ our best people in academia, research and development. Israel has the highest concentration of talent in the world, but in the absence of adequate resources, our talent will turn toward other lands and other callings, and we will all be left poorer.
I understand the attraction to great opportunities and big paychecks. But in conversations with our best and brightest, I have found that many will forgo greater pay in order to take part in the great Israeli success story – if we can provide them with appropriate jobs and workplaces.
Let us act now to stem the brain drain, and ensure the next generation of Nobel laureates receives the good news here at home, in Israel.
The writer is president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.