Saturday, October 12, 2013

Brainpower vs. brain drain – An Israeli dilemma

Two articles in the October 9 issue of the Times of Israel, taken together, add up to a story worth noticing.  Here's the first one:
3 Jewish professors — two of them Israeli — share 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Kibbutz-born Arieh Warshel fought in ’67 and ’73 wars; Pretoria-born Michael Levitt taught at the Weizmann Institute for most of the 1980s; Martin Karplus fled as a child to the US from Nazi-occupied Austria. Prestigious prize awarded ‘for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems’

Warshel, 72, is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he has been since the 1970s.

Fellow winner Michael Levitt, a South Africa-born professor, immigrated to Israel in 1979, married here and taught at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot for most of the 1980s. Vienna-born Martin Karplus fled the Nazi occupation of Austria as a child in 1938.

Of the 23 chemistry Nobels awarded in the past decade, 11 of the winners were Jewish and six of them were Israelis. But both Warshel and Levitt left Israel for the US because they felt they could not progress here — Warshel did not get tenure at the Weizmann Institute — underlining concerns about the ongoing brain drain of top Israeli academics.

[ Etc. ... The rest is here.]
And here's the second one:
‘Unparalleled brain drain’ as Israeli universities deteriorate

Despite becoming wealthier, nation is not investing in higher education, not hiring enough staff, losing top minds to the US, says Taub Center study

Israel’s universities are continuing to deteriorate and are not investing in reversing that trend, according to a study released by an Israeli research institute, just a week before the start of the new academic year. The study highlights an “unparalleled academic brain drain” to the United States.

“Over the past four decades, a much wealthier Israel with much greater budgetary capacity than in the 1950s and 1960s has steadily neglected its world-class academic institutions – and it has been increasingly jeopardizing its future that is so dependent on Israel remaining at the cutting edge,” Prof. Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, said in a statement.

“It is not too late to change direction, but that means that Israel needs to rethink its national priorities and return them to the path of its first decades – the path that eventually enabled the country to become the ‘start-up nation’ that Israel needs to remain if it is to survive in its very hostile neighborhood.”

The study, which is part of the Taub Center’s forthcoming “State of the Nation Report 2013,” is an update of Ben-David’s previous research on the subject in 2008.

Some key statistics indicating the decline of the universities include a drop in senior faculty positions at top universities, an increase in the ratio of students to professors, and the number of Israeli professors working in the US rather than in Israel.

The actual situation is actually more damning than the numbers show, according to Ben-David.

“The situation is considerably worse than reflected in these numbers when it comes to the issue of relaying state-of-the-art findings to the next generation of researchers – who are today’s graduate students,” he said. [....]

[ Etc. ... The rest is here.]
Both articles are worth reading in full, since there's more in them than the issues I've highlighted here. But those issues are worth pondering.

Aside from the general question of Israel's national priorities (which could benefit from some serious reconsideration), Israeli academia is also caught between two sets of clashing political and ideological pressures.  On the one hand, Israeli academics face intense hostility from various forces in Israeli society and politics who consider them, as a group, excessively "left" on a range of issues.  And on the other hand, they are the targets of a world-wide campaign of academicblacklisting (part of the so-called "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" or BDS campaign against Israel and Israelis) aimed at excluding them from international academic and intellectual life.

Yours from the Alternative Homeland,
Jeff Weintraub