Israel must address ‘brain drain


HAIFA, Israel (JTA) – Israel, like other small nations without oil but with vibrant economies, has just one natural resource: the brainpower of its people, honed at our seven world-class research universities. But for Israel to benefit from this progress, we must attract and retain the minds that will increase achievements in coming decades.

The threat of “brain drain” – the emigration of highly skilled, highly educated professionals to other countries offering better economic, professional or social opportunities – must be addressed with great immediacy. We must reverse the trend made so evident in a recent study that found nearly one-quarter of Israeli academics are working in American universities.

Our economic progress is inextricably linked to advances in science and technology at our universities. It’s no coincidence that major U.S. companies – including Motorola, Intel, Qualcomm, Google and Yahoo! – have set up major facilities near our universities to take advantage of the continuous supply of fresh ideas and brilliant minds.

These minds translate into Israel boasting more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country except the United States, and the second highest concentration of start-up companies in the world right after Silicon Valley. It’s no wonder that venture capitalists invested $1.76 billion in Israeli start-up companies last year alone – up 8.5 percent from 2006 and more than was invested in much larger, technologically advanced countries such as Germany, France and Italy.

At the very heart of such achievements are our university graduates, with their superb education, exceptional drive and that famous Israeli moxie. It’s no wonder that 27 Israelis were included on the 2007 European Union list of 300 top young researchers. But it is imperative that we continue turning out graduates capable of providing the fuel to drive Israel’s expanding science- and technology-based economy. In order to do so, our universities must again become a government and national priority.

We must make all efforts to attract and retain the very best faculty. Israel’s one-size-fits-all university faculty pay scale – based primarily on rank and seniority rather than merit and performance – makes it difficult to attract top-notch science faculty when competing against extravagant compensation packages being offered by foreign universities and the high-tech industry.

In Israel, all faculty members are paid the same amount. How can we compete with U.S. universities, which recognize the amount of education, specialized equipment and facilities involved in a science-specific education, and as a result pay science faculty members high salaries?

It comes as no surprise that Israel’s brain drain problem is especially pronounced in high-tech disciplines such as computer science and engineering. Iindeed, one recent study found that a third of all Israeli computer science faculty are now found in the top 40 U.S. computer science departments.

Even if we can’t compete with foreign institutions with salaries, we can and must offer our young faculty generous research fellowships, cutting-edge facilities, the very best equipment and a stake in shaping 21st century Israel. This approach has been moderately successful, as demonstrated by the young Technion researchers who have completed successful post-doctoral studies at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Cal Tech and Harvard, “gotten a taste of” their open market value and received tempting job offers in the United States, yet we’ve lured back to teach and do their research at the Technion.

We could attract and keep even more of these talented young researchers, who have done undergraduate and much of their graduate work at our very own universities, if we had the funding to create additional faculty positions. As things stand, we lose many such researchers who decide to stay overseas. It is indeed a waste of our most precious national resource.

Yes, there are serious threats to our educational system – and by extension to the well-being of Israel – but it’s possible to rise to the challenge of our government’s misplaced priorities that put our universities at the back of the line. The infrastructure, the will, the talent, the value system and the tradition for excellence in education are all in place. What we need if we are to keep our best minds from going elsewhere is a major shift that again makes education a central national policy.

(Yitzhak Apeloig is the president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.)

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