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Israeli Groups Bringing New Ideas to ‘Brain Drain’ Battle

October 27, 2013 By:
Ben Sales, JTA
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Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson wants the government to spend more money to attract its best minds back to Israel. Photo from Hebrew University.

JERUSALEM — The son of a Jewish philosophy lecturer, Menahem Ben-Sasson has had an academic’s dream career.

After earning his doctorate in Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ben-Sasson completed post-doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge. He then returned to Hebrew University as a professor, eventually becoming its rector and in 2009 its president.

In between, he held a decidedly less glamorous position — as a teacher at Jerusalem’s Himmelfarb High School.

“If someone says why study to be a doctor, there won’t be a position available, I say I want to be a doctor because I want to finish my studies,” Ben-Sasson told JTA. “I got a doctorate and I was a high school teacher. I was happy.”

Ben-Sasson sees his story as one way to combat Israel’s so-called “brain drain,” in which talented academics leave the country to work in the United States or Europe.

According to a recent report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, for every 100 Israeli scholars who stayed in Israel, 29 left for positions abroad in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available.

The problem gained new urgency earlier this month when Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, two Israeli professors working in the United States, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Several Israeli organizations are working to bring academics back to Israel, offering them incentives, professional guidance and a range of job opportunities.

Last year, Hebrew University attracted far more applicants for academic positions than it had openings, prompting Ben-Sasson to suggest that Israeli academics should consider positions outside of higher education, including in Israel’s vaunted high-tech industry.

“There are high schools, there is industry, there are educational programs, there are positions in the Education Ministry,” he said. “There are government positions that need academics.”

A new governmental organization founded this year aims to match Israelis living abroad with job opportunities back home. The Israel Brain Gain Program — a joint venture of Israel’s Chief Scientist, the Council for Higher Education and the Absorption and Finance ministries — aims to obtain a precise count of Israeli academics living abroad and to ensure that those who want to come back can find work.

Ben-Sasson said Israeli universities often encourage promising scholars to gain experience abroad, but Nurit Eyal, Brain Gain’s director, said most hope to return.

“Most Israeli academics say I want to come back to Israel sometime,” Eyal said. “Someone who left for a post-doc doesn’t have a network. And if you’re five or six years abroad, you lose some of your connections.”

Brain Gain hopes to act as a sort of headhunter, matching academics abroad with a personal liaison who can find them a job that suits their needs. The liaisons also will help the academics navigate the often complicated process of moving back to Israel after a stay in the United States or Europe. A nongovernmental organization, Gvahim, does similar work, and has connections with 300 Israeli companies.

“To bring academics with international experience is great, but if they don’t succeed in Israel, you haven’t done a lot,” said Michael Alvarez-Pereyre, Gvahim’s marketing and communications director. “You can’t talk about brain gain if someone with a Ph.D. isn’t working. He’s not using his brain.”

Israel’s Council for Higher Education also instituted a set of reforms several years ago that by 2015 will add 2 billion shekels (about $570 million) to the government’s annual budget for higher education. Part of that money has gone to opening up 16 “centers of research excellence” in partnership with Israeli universities in fields as varied as solar energy and Abrahamic religions. Each center will employ 15-30 researchers — though not all will be new hires — and encourage collaboration with universities abroad.

A portion of the government higher education budget will go to upgrading Israel’s scientific research facilities, which Ben-Sasson says is a must. At present, he says, Israel’s universities do not offer the same research opportunities as institutions abroad because the research infrastructure is often lacking.

“There’s nothing like Israeli researchers in the world,” Ben-Sasson said. But when Israeli scholars do work abroad, he said, “They see the most modern facilities, technicians that know what they’re doing, machines that are the best in the world.”

Government spending on infrastructure, Ben-Sasson said, will bring a renewed flow of innovation back to Israel.

“We educate thousands of students, they educate thousands of students and they come up with medical patents, they obtain agricultural patents,” he said. “The best investment in the world is in higher education.”

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