Israel Is No. 1 Exporter of Academic Talent to the U.S., Data Shows

With enough researchers working in the U.S. to fill the entire faculty of two to three typical Israeli institutes, government fails to reverse brain drain

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File photo: Students at Tel Aviv University, October 11, 2018.
File photo: Students at Tel Aviv University, October 11, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

Relative to the size of national population, Israel has sent a larger proportion of academic researchers to the United States than any other country, U.S. State Department data show.

The number of Israeli researchers working in the U.S. reached 1,725 in 2017, an increase of 5.6% from the year before, according to the State Department’s Institute of International Education’s Open Doors data portal.

The survey includes people engaged in temporary academic activities and not enrolled as students at U.S. colleges or universities. They don’t include people working at full-time jobs teaching or in business research.

The extent of the brain drain is illustrated by the fact that the number is equal to the entire faculty of two to three typical Israeli institutes of higher education, and 625 more than the entire senior faculty at Tel Aviv University, Israel’s biggest.

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The figures, on the one hand, point to the quality of Israeli academics and universities because so many Israelis are able to pursue their studies in the U.S. Conducting research abroad exposes them to new ideas and techniques and can form the basis for future international collaboration.

“Most of the researchers who go abroad are joining the world’s top laboratories, which testifies to the high quality of the academic system in Israel,” said Prof. Rosa Azhari, president of the Azrieli College of Engineering and a former member of the Council for Higher Education.

On the other hand, they also show the extent of the brain drain Israel is suffering as many of these scholars are likely to remain in America permanently. Budgets for research at U.S. universities are bigger, as are salaries. “There’s no brain drain. Brains don’t flee – they are expelled,” Prof. Dan Schechtman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry who teaches at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, told TheMarker recently.

Even though Israel’s population is just 8.5 million people, in absolute terms it has the 16th-largest population of researchers in the U.S. Relative to the size of its population, Israel has far more researchers in the U.S. than any other country – about 0.02% of its total population, according to estimates made by TheMarker using the State Department figures.

In absolute terms, it has more researchers in American than the Netherlands (population 17 million, 1,270 researchers) and nearly as many as Taiwan (population 24 million, 2,078 researchers). Israel accounts for 1.3% of all overseas scholars in the U.S. Iran is No. 14 in the rankings in absolute terms – 1,977 researchers out of a population of 82 million.

China is the leader by far, with no fewer than 45,000 academic researchers in the U.S. – a third the total. But as a percentage of national population, far more Israelis are present in the U.S. than Chinese.

Israel has been contending with brain drain for some time and has taken steps to try and reverse it, yet the trend has only grown. In 2017, 5.8% of Israelis with a bachelor’s degree or more lived abroad, up from 4.6% in 2013.

Azhari said she wasn’t concerned about the number of researchers going abroad. “Because of the expansion of Israel’s college system in recent years, there are more opportunities for people who are abroad to return to Israel and continue here in an academic career,” she said.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 33,000 Israelis who had completed academic degrees in the years 1988-2011 had been living abroad for at least three years, most of them people with degrees in science and engineering.

Those with Ph.D. degrees were even more likely to be living aboard – 11% in 2017 versus 9.9% in 2013. Nearly a quarter of Israelis with doctorates in math were living abroad, along with 17.5% of those with degrees in pharmacology.

Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research at Tel Aviv University said in a 2013 study that in Israel, “academic immigration to the U.S. is the worst in the Western world.”

He has been tracking the phenomenon for many years and found that in 2003, the number of Israeli college lecturers in the U.S. was equal to a quarter of the number of senior faculty in Israel. Many of the Israeli ex-patriots were at the top rank of their profession. By comparison, only 2.1% of British lecturers were working in the U.S., compared with 2.9% of French and German lecturers.

The government’s campaign to lure back the most educated Israelis has only been a partial success. Under Naftali Bennett’s term as education minister, the number retiring has declined and the number leaving has grown.

For example, in 2017, 601 academics who had been abroad for three years or more returned to Israel, down from 700 in the 2016 and 900 in 2014. In 2017, 2,082 Israeli degree holders left.

Israeli academics say that most of their colleagues who remain abroad do so because they can’t find work in Israel and/or because research budgets and conditions are far smaller here than those at top American institutions.

Prof. Benjamin Geiger, chairman of the Israel Science Foundation, estimates that the average grant for a researcher in the U.S. is $150,000, whereas in Israel he or she can expect 250,000-300,000 shekels ($54,500-$81,800).

“When you say brain drain, you’re talking about the best researchers, who accept offers from abroad that can’t be refused – and not necessarily in terms of wages,” said Geiger. “These researchers don’t want to give up their scientific and professional dreams, so they tend to stay in the U.S., and many of them become professors at leading universities.”

To try to stem the flow, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities has set up a program for Israeli researchers studying and working abroad to find work back home. Formed in 2007, today it has a database of 3,000 people who have expressed an interest in returning to Israel, and it helps them maintain ties with relevant institutions and jobs. Another body that is helping academics come home is the ScienceAbroad nonprofit

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