Those Nobels could have been Israel’s, says Hebrew U president

Those Nobels could have been Israel’s, says Hebrew U president

Two of the three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry are apparent victims of the country’s ‘brain drain’ to the US

Hebrew University President Menachem Ben-Sasson  (photo credit: Flash90)
Hebrew University President Menachem Ben-Sasson (photo credit: Flash90)

Israelis shouldn’t be surprised that their best and brightest are going abroad to win Nobel Prizes, according to Professor Menachem Ben-Sasson. As president of Hebrew University, he has felt the pain of brain drain acutely: “For decades, the country has neglected to upgrade and expand research facilities and budgets that scientists need to get their work done. Our universities would love it if their graduates came back home to continue their work, but that requires investment,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview.

On Wednesday, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to two US-based professors who met at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and are former Israelis: Arieh Warshel, born on a kibbutz and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles since the 1970s, and Michael Levitt, who was born in South Africa, immigrated to Israel in 1979 and taught at Weizmann between 1980-1987. They share the Nobel with Professor Martin Kaplus, a Jew who fled Austria for the US with his family in 1938, and whose daughter Rebecca is a family doctor in Jerusalem.

In what pundits called a prime example of the problem of brain drain — the large-scale emigration of scientists and other academics because they cannot find suitable positions in Israel — Warshel told Israeli interviewers that he had left the Weizmann Institute “because they wouldn’t give me tenure”; Levitt also felt professionally stymied.

During the 1980s, said Warshel, the issue of job security in inflation-ridden Israel was a very serious one, and he felt there was no choice but to seek a stable academic future abroad. (In response to Warshel’s comments, the Weizmann Institute said in a statement that he would most certainly have advanced, had he remained).

Maybe he was right, said Ben-Sasson on Wednesday. “You can’t generalize from an individual case, but the way things are, Israeli researchers feel they have no choice.” The way to get Nobel-quality researchers to do their work in Israel is to provide them with the resources they need, he said.

By “resources,” Ben-Sasson does not necessarily mean higher salaries. “Many of our PhDs and scientists want to work in Israel and they don’t care about the salary,” he said. “What they do care about is having the tools and equipment they need to work, modern labs, and a cluster of other scientists they can work with.”

On Monday, the Taub Center for Social Research released a report decrying shortcomings in Israel’s higher education system which have led to the brain drain problem.

The report determined that “Israel’s academic brain drain to the United States is unparalleled, with 29 Israeli scholars in the US for every 100 remaining at home” in 2008 (the most recent year for which information is available). The figures were well beyond those of “brain drain runner-up” Canada, which lost just 11.5% of its researchers to the US that same year.

Compared with statistics from five years earlier, the brain drain rate in most countries had fallen, but in Israel it rose.

What about all the highly touted recent investments in higher education?

“Absolutely there is money going to universities, but the question is what is being done with it? Much of it has gone to build classrooms, which of course you need,” said Ben-Sasson (there are currently 300,000 students in Israeli higher education programs, a per capita increase of 400% since 1973). “But what are they teaching? You need classrooms, but you need ten times more investment for labs and equipment for scientists, and this is something the policymakers have forgotten about.”

Government programs to recruit scientists who have gone abroad haven’t changed things much. “Believe me, we know exactly which of our graduates and researchers went abroad and why,” said Ben-Sasson. “This past year Hebrew University announced 50 new academic positions, an unprecedented number. And for each position we had as many as 25 applications,” he said. “We could fill many more positions, but the resources are limited.”

Could a country as small as Israel find positions for all these academics going abroad? Most definitely, claimed Ben-Sasson, even if they don’t all become lecturers at Hebrew U. It’s a matter of creativity, he said. “Scientists care about research, and they need the facilities to do that, but when it comes to employment you could have some variety — with some researchers working in industry or business. You could have, for example, a situation where a PhD is teaching in an advanced high school class. It’s a matter of being wiser in how we use people.”

Not all will want to stay. Many budding Israeli academics go abroad to do post-graduate studies, because of the paucity of doctoral programs here, and some will always find situations that fit them abroad. But the large majority want to come back to Israel, Ben-Sasson reasoned — and he said it is the state’s responsibility to give them that option. “The only way to do that is invest in infrastructure, in equipment, and in opportunities,” he added. “Once we do that, they will come back.”

“I’m happy that people of merit won the Nobel, and that they worked in Israel,” said Ben-Sasson. “Israeli education got recognition from people around the world for its quality. It says something about the power and positive side of academia in Israel.”

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