Israel struggles with brain drain


TEL AVIV (JTA) – Even though Hebrew University’s economics department is rated one of the top centers for economics in the world, the head of that department is having a tough time recruiting faculty.

It’s not that good students don’t come out of the center. Just last year, eight went to top doctoral programs at Harvard, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, according to the departmental chair, Professor Eyal Winter.

It’s that they’re not coming back.

“We discuss their prospects of return after graduating and they say it’s inconceivable that they’ll stay in the U.S., but it turns out they rarely return,” Winter said. “Once they receive offers in the American market they decide to stay.”

Hebrew University’s problem is Israel’s problem.

In growing numbers, young top-tier Israeli academics and professionals are being drawn to positions abroad, mostly in the United States, lured by higher salaries and better working conditions.

The academics expect to earn much more money overseas than in Israel, and abroad they face lighter teaching loads and better research facilities. A recent study found that more than one-quarter of lecturers who have taught in Israel have taken jobs in the United States.

That figure makes Israel’s rate of academic brain drain the highest in the world – 10 times the rate in Europe.

The brain drain problem is not new to Israel, but it has intensified in recent years, especially in economics and the sciences.

Professor Dan Ben-David, the director of the public policy department at Tel Aviv University, has conducted research on academic brain drain and says 10 percent of Israeli physicists and a third of computer-science academics work in top U.S. university departments.

Brain drain is a significant problem as well in other professional fields with major salary gaps, including high-tech, engineering, business and medicine.

“I think we should be alarmed,” said Omer Moav, a Hebrew University economist who co-authored research on the topic for the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center think tank.

Low salaries and high taxes are leading thousands of Israelis with higher educations to leave the country every year, the report found.

“The canary in the coal mine is telling us something: that the State of Israel is failing to allow the educated, middle- and upper-middle class a good life here,” said Moav, who co-authored the report with Eric Gold, another Hebrew University economist.

The study found that between 1995 and 2002, 4.7 percent of Israelis with master’s degrees and above between the ages of 30 and 40 – considered the primary period people emigrate – decided to leave the country.

The figure for the same age group was even higher, 6.9 percent, when immigrants to Israel, the majority of them from the former Soviet Union, were included.

Ron Siegal is part of this trend. After receiving offers from the economics departments of Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, he decided to accept a tenure-track assistant professor position at Northwestern University, considered one of the top schools for his specialty, economic theory.

In a phone interview from Chicago, Siegal told JTA that his choice was difficult to make but ultimately came down to being in the best place to begin his career.

“Israel is not a central place,” he said, “and when you are starting out exposure is important.”

Siegal said it’s important to be proximate to one’s peers when it comes to being published in the right journals, getting invited to important conferences and ultimately receiving tenure.

At Northwestern, Siegel not only earned a significantly higher salary but also had a lighter teaching load than in Israel – allowing him more time for research.

Shraga Brosh, the president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel, blames the flight of some of Israel’s top minds to government cuts in research-and-development budgets.

Brosh made headlines earlier this year when he announced that 25,000 high-tech workers had left Israel in the past seven years to work for U.S. companies. Researchers dismissed the number as inflated, but the announcement highlighted the sense that Israel is in a crunch.

The loss of human resources costs Israel some $1.9 billion each year, economists in Brosh’s organization estimated. They are currently raising money to provide stipends for returning Israelis in the hope that a financial boost will be another incentive to go back.

An Israeli working in the United States, Gil Blander, helped found a nonprofit organization called Bio-Abroad that connects Israeli biologists living overseas with work opportunities in Israeli academia and industry.

Blander, who did his post-doctoral work in biology at MIT and is now working at a biotech company in Boston, said he founded the organization out of frustration by a lack of information about jobs and opportunities in Israel for professionals abroad.

In the United States, Blander said he found a “more comfortable place to do science,” but added that he and his wife, who works for a high-tech firm, eventually plan to return to Israel.

The Israeli government recently ramped up efforts to bring Israelis back to the country, offering them tax incentives, organizing job fairs for Israelis abroad and establishing relocation Web sites.


Ben-David says it’s not just salaries that is sending Israelis overseas. Citing the steep decline in available positions at Israeli universities, he faults the government and says budget cuts are to blame.

Officials from the Finance Ministry, which oversees the budgets of Israel’s seven universities, insist higher education is a top national priority. Approximately one-quarter of the ministry’s $7 billion education budget goes to higher education, and academics were granted a 24.5 percent raise through 2009 as part of the deal in February that ended Israel’s three-month university strike.

Until the 1970s, Israel had about the same academic positions per capita as the United States, but since 1973 Israel’s population has doubled while the number of available faculty positions has declined, Ben-David said.

Eitan Rubin is among the Israelis who have felt the lure of overseas. He left Israel a while ago for Harvard’s Bioinformatics Center for Genomics Research but, ideologically committed to living in Israel, returned to work at the National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev, which is associated with Ben-Gurion University.

“Leaving America was very hard, both professionally and to leave that level of science,” Rubin told JTA.

Rubin worries now that because less money is available in Israel for research, he won’t remain competitive with his U.S. colleagues.

Another Israeli returnee, Shulamit Levenberg, who took a post in bio-engineering at the Technion Institute after five years doing post-doctoral work at MIT, says she wishes more of her colleagues were in Israel.

“Brainpower is one of the strengths of our country, and it’s a shame there are not more possibilities for people to come back,” she said. “They went through a long process of study and can really contribute. We are losing them.”

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