Israel fights to stop science brain drain

By Nathan Jeffay, September 16, 2010

Israel has begun to implement a £250 million plan to win its best and brightest scientists back from abroad and slow its "brain drain".

A decade after the state slashed funding for university research, new posts for young academics are few and far between. The result is that most are going abroad to find a "post doctoral" research position - and increasingly they are staying abroad.

This has caused alarm across the political spectrum. A year ago, in a well-received speech in the Knesset, President Shimon Peres declared: "We cannot accept the brain drain from this country, and we must and can ensure the return of brains to Israel."

Over the past few years, the government has offered various financial benefits and tax breaks to Israelis abroad in order to tempt them home, with some success. But this March, the government decided to focus particularly on its academics by establishing Centres of Research Excellence, four of which are due to open this coming January and up to 26 more within five years.

These bodies are meant to boost research in science by giving grants to researchers and universities proposing innovative projects. But the declared aims of the project specifically include reversing the brain drain.

Academics are now busily putting together research proposals to send to the Council for Higher Education, which is running the centres. Last month it invited applications for the first round of funding, which will be paid out in January to studies on the molecular basis of diseases, cognitive processes, computer science, and renewable and sustainable energy sources.

A spokesman for the Council for Higher Education claimed that "this will do a great deal to improve research".

But the Centres of Research Excellence have their critics. Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, a Haifa University education professor and a leading campaigner for government action to stop the brain drain, believes the centres will only help a small number of high-flying academics in "market-oriented" fields. As such, they constitute "the next step in inflicting the logic of the market on Israeli higher education".

Meanwhile, one British citizen is trying to stop the brain drain in the humanities and social sciences. This summer Leonard Polonsky, who was ranked 507 in last year's Sunday Times Rich List, began building the multi-million pound Polonsky Academy for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem.

Due to open in 2013, it will provide office space and $40,000-a-year research scholarships to PhD graduates for up to five years until they find an academic post. It will also attempt to bring foreign talent to Israel by offering the same benefits to non-Israelis who are prepared to spend a stint in Jerusalem. Altogether it will be home to 30 researchers at any time.

Last updated: 5:26pm, November 3 2010