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Nobel Prize in chemistry puts spotlight on Israel's brain drain

October 10, 2013|By Batsheva Sobelman
  • Nobel Prize winner Arieh Warshel, second from right, celebrates with, from left, Israel Consul General David Siegel, USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Warshel's wife Tami at a news conference at USC.
Nobel Prize winner Arieh Warshel, second from right, celebrates with,… (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images )

JERUSALEM -- This year's Nobel Prize in chemistry struck a bittersweet chord in Israel -- a mix of pride for home-grown achievement and concern for the future of the nation's higher education and scientific research.

Two of the three laureates for the prize announced Wednesday, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, conducted a considerable part of their research in Israel's leading scientific institutes. But by the time they gained Nobel recognition, they had long since shifted most of their work to the U.S. despite strong family ties in Israel.

The reason was prosaic. Warshel didn't get tenure in Israel, a crucial obstacle to the continued research, Levitt told Israeli media.

Four decades later, Israeli academia continues to produce groundbreaking science but chronic under-budgeting of higher education and a shortage of academic positions send many researchers to work abroad.

A study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel -- published shortly before this year's Nobel awards were announced -- found that Israel has the worst brain drain in the West, with 29 of every 100 Israeli scholars working in the U.S.

The number of Israelis seeking higher education has quadrupled over the past four decades but available faculty positions have dropped by a quarter, the study said.

The problem is especially acute in the sciences, which require massive investment and facilities. Only a handful of positions are available to dozens of Israelis completing postdoctoral studies abroad every year. Many choose to stay in the U.S., where opportunities and funding are more abundant.

For every four Israeli scientists working in Israel, there is another one abroad, Daniel Hershkowitz, president of Bar-Ilan University and a former minister of science, said Thursday. More than one-third of the faculty teaching computer sciences in top U.S. universities are Israeli, he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres congratulated Levitt and Warshel, and Science Minister Yakov Peri called the win a source of national pride.

But, Peri added, reversing the brain drain is "a national challenge."

The academic research system is "running on inertia and its last drops of fuel," said opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich. Warshel's accomplishment is a testimony to the strength of past  higher education in Israel, but there won't be many others if Israel doesn't "regain its senses," she said.

Just recently, about $27 million earmarked for higher education was slashed from the country's budget.

Some commentators poked fun at the practice of proudly claiming the winners -- and anyone else with links to Israel -- as cause for national celebration. Raanan Shaked, a Yediot Aharonot columnist, said the next such honoree might be "a Norwegian scientist whose mother once had a fling with a kibbutznik in the '60s."

Or Kashti, education correspondent for Haaretz, slammed Netanyahu and Peri for "parochial smugness." Co-opting Nobel winners as Israeli won't hide the truth of Israel's deteriorating academia, he wrote

Israel's last two Nobel laureates, Daniel Shechtman and Ada Yonat, also received the prize for chemistry (2011 and 2009, respectively).

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