On October 9, 2013, three men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, two of whom were Israeli. In fact, Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt are the fifth and sixth Israelis to attain this honor within the past decade, an achievement of impossible statistical proportions for such a small country. However, only three of the six Nobel Laureates still live in Israel — the other three have taken up residence in the United States. The voluntary expatriation of Warshel and Levitt, the two most recent winners, has finally hit a nerve. Specifically, the celebration of Israel’s immense academic achievements are tempered by the stinging reminder that Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt do not walk the halls of the Weizmann Institute and do not impart their knowledge to doctoral students at the Technion. Instead, the University of Southern California (Warshel) and Stanford University (Levitt) reap the benefits of the duo’s brilliant insights.
The Nobel Prize is perhaps the most visible and well-known academic honor in the world, drawing widespread international attention. This year, the prize serves as a reminder that Israel is experiencing an ever-increasing brain drain.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “a study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel[…] found that Israel has the worst brain drain in the West, with 29 of every 100 Israeli scholars working in the U.S.”
Why do Israeli scientists and academicians choose to relocate to the United States? As this year’s winner Michael Levitt bluntly told YnetNews, he and fellow laureate Arieh Warshel left “because Warshel didn’t get tenured [in Israel] and it was critical in those years of work.”
As it turns out, Warshel is not alone — Taub Center director and Professor Dan Ben-David explains to the Los Angeles Times that in recent years “researchers have to struggle to gain grants and tenure positions, nearly all those who to go the US are either tenured or on track to tenure.”
This has not always been the case: “In 1986, the external teachers represented 13 percent of the senior research faculty. By 2010, this ratio had risen to 46 percent — i.e. almost half of the university lecturers today are not on the research faculty.”
In the United States, the much-maligned education system continues to disappoint, but the criticism does not extend to institutions of higher education. The U.S. boasts the highest number of world class universities of all other countries, and Israeli scholars are not oblivious to this fact. Over the past 40 years, Israel’s population has doubled and the amount of students seeking higher education has quadrupled, yet, “the number of senior faculty in the research universities rose by just nine percent” over the same time period.
According to Ben-David, Israel is “neglect[ing] its world-class academic institutions” despite the fact that it is “much wealthier […] with greater budgetary capacity than [it was] in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Indeed, this “neglect” is manifesting itself directly within the Jewish State’s national budget. In April, Haaretz reported that Finance Minister Yair Lapid “plans to slash NIS 1.5 billion [$425 million] off the education budget in 2013-2014” in order to alleviate the larger-than-expected budget deficit. Whether or not these cuts are avoidable is a separate discussion — the fact of the matter is that Israel continues to lose invaluable academic resources to the United States and, occasionally, to European countries such as Germany.
Israel’s so-called brain drain has not yet put the country in dire straits. Its universities are still pumping out highly-skilled and brilliant mathematicians, chemists, physicists, biologists, medical doctors and anthropologists. The number of academicians leaving Israel today can be likened to a small stream of water escaping from a dam. However, a stream of water can often portend future disaster as it reveals inherent structural weaknesses — the dam will eventually break, often without warning.
Unfortunately, two Israelis did not win the Nobel Prize a few weeks ago. Two former Israelis did. Therefore, it would behoove Israel to reevaluate its priorities and to address its academic deficiencies if it is to retain the global academic respect it needs and deserves.