No brain drain despite Nobel emigrants

Gali Weinreb

When Omri Casspi plays in the NBA and Yossi Benayoun plays for Liverpool, we do not call this a brain drain.

The news that two of the 2013 Nobel Prize winners are Americans with Israeli pasts hit Israel just when it was discussing emigration in general and the brain drain in particular. According to the partisans of the brain drain argument, Israel as a country, and its academic institutions, do not offer good enough prospects to keep people who have alternatives. The lack of university positions, small research budgets, and a country that can be hard to live in drive the best of us abroad.

The counterargument has it that what people call the "brain drain is nothing more than the natural development of an academic career. When Omri Casspi plays in the NBA and Yossi Benayoun plays for Liverpool, we do not call this a brain drain. It is natural that researchers with lofty goals will seek to achieve them in the most valued and best-networked places with the biggest budgets. The fact that Israeli universities have succeeded in retaining five Nobel laureates is proof of the opposite of a brain drain.

So is there or isn't there a brain drain? According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, in 2011, 5% of Israeli academics had spent at least three years abroad. According to the Taub Institute, in 2007-08 (the worst years of the university budget crisis, which has since ameliorated) 29 lecturers from Israel were overseas for every 100 who stayed in the country. In comparison, 1.1 per 100 Japanese faculty members and 3.4 per 100 of French faculty members were in the US at that time.

Ministry of Science Chief Scientist Ehud Gazit told "Globes", "Israel has no brain drain like in other countries. The example of Arieh Warshel is indicative: he wanted to stay here, he prefers Israel. If he had a post, he'd stay. A real brain drain occurs when educated people don’t want to live in the country, but many Israeli scientists actually want to come back."

"Globes": So what's the problem?

Gazit: "We're the country with the largest number of scientists per capita, but in terms of positions, we're somewhere in the middle. That's the problem. As a result, about 1,000 top faculty members in foreign universities are Israelis. Many of them would return if they had a job."

It should not be forgotten that Israel attracts brains. Nobel Prize in Economics Laureate Robert Aumann was a German and an American before settling in Israel. Nobel Prize in Chemistry Laureate Avram Hershko was born in Hungary. Every Israeli Nobel Prize Laureate (and an absolute majority of successful researchers) carried out a substantial part of their award-winning research overseas. In other words, every one of them imported knowledge. It should also be noted that university graduates have a higher proportion of emigrants than graduates of colleges, implying a search for opportunities, not a brain drain.

The Weizmann Institute of Science has the highest proportion of graduates overseas, at 17.8%; followed by the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, with 9%; the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with 7.1%; Tel Aviv University, with 6.9%; Ben Gurion University of the Negev, with 4.3%; and Bar Ilan University, with 2.9%.

6.7% of those who had spent more than three years abroad in 2010 returned by 2011. "We should not only bring the young back. We'd be happy to bring back the 50-year old stars, such as Warshel, who did not get a post, who have proven themselves. Tens of millions of shekels should be devoted to this. Bringing home the stars, who already work at foreign universities, would give Israeli science a great boost, for the good of the universities and ties."

Scientists interested in returning to Israel are invited to seek the assistance of the Israel National Brain Gain Program, headed by Dr. Nurit Eyal, which helps people with BA and higher degrees find jobs.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on October 10, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018