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Israel: Scared of brain drain?

Mazel tov! This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to American-British-Israeli Michael Levitt, American-Israeli Arieh Warshel and Austrian-American Martin Karplus (who by the way happens to be also of Jewish origin). Six Israeli Nobel Prize laureates within just a decade actually seem like a pretty good score and a reason for Israel to celebrate its contribution to science. Yet, the award of the Nobel Prize to Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel somehow leaves Israel with a sour taste by reminding the country of what it perceives to be on one of the biggest challenges for Israeli higher education and research – brain drain.

On 7 October, only two days before the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies released data on Israeli higher education and research which will be fully published in the forthcoming State of the Nation Report 2013. According to the study, the number of students enrolled at Israeli research universities grew by 157 % in line with a population increase of 133 % from 1973 to 2010. Yet, the number of senior faculty staff at research universities increased by only 9 % in the same time frame. Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa even encountered a 17-26 % decline in senior faculty staff over the same period. The study also points to the fact that 28 % of all foreign scholars in US universities come from Israel. The steadily rising number of Israeli scholars to the US reflects “the lack of tenure and tenure-track position in Israel’s research universities.” Precisely this issue prompted Arieh Warshel, as many other Israeli scholars, to move ‘chutz la’aretz’, out of the country, to the US where he would encounter better conditions  for research than in Israel.

The whole issue needs to be put in a broader perspective as emigration is often considered as some sort of ‘betrayal’ by Israeli society. A recently aired series of reports on Israeli Channel 10 about young Israelis immigrating to Europe led some important Israeli officials to controversial comments on their Facebook pages. Israeli’s Minister of Finance Ya’ir Lapid commented on having had little sympathy for Israelis moving to Europe to find better living conditions, considering the prosecution of Jewish people during World War II. Retired Israeli general Uzi Dayan even commented that he would disdain those leaving behind Israel and thus betraying the Zionist idea. These comments were posted prior to 7 October and this year’s Nobel Prize announcement. One might wonder if the same comments had been posted as a reaction to the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Probably not. 

Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013