Israeli Postdoctorates Suffer as Coronavirus Shuts Universities Abroad

As many as 1,000 are stuck at foreign universities without a real chance to carry on with their work, as laboratories get shut and conferences cancelled

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Harvard University's Widener Library, on June 26, 2020.
Harvard University's Widener Library, on June 26, 2020.Credit: Elise Amendola,AP

Maayan Pur finished her doctorate in life sciences at Tel Aviv University a year ago. In September, she moved to New York with her husband and her toddler son to start a postdoctorate at New York University.

“In my first months, aside from getting acclimated, I spent my time studying my field – heterogeneity of cancer cells within tumors,” she says. “I managed to finish one significant experiment, and then the coronavirus came. If during normal times I’d start a follow-up study, meet leading researchers and doctors, take part in conferences and try to create partnerships, now all this has halted. The labs are closed, conferences canceled and I’m stuck with a theoretical body of work with no way to advance.”

Dr. Haim Beidenkopf of the Weizmann Institute, a member of the Israel Young Academy, estimates that there are currently some 1,000 Israeli postdocs living abroad, and they’re all in a similar situation. Postdoctorates are generally limited to three to four years, and each year a new generation of Israeli academics heads into the world with the goal of advancing their research and building their careers. Many of them receive scholarships. Most Israeli postdoctoral students head to the United States and then return to Israel.

Beidenkopf notes that all higher education institutions were shuttered, along with the support for postdocs. “Projects were canceled, advisers disappeared, laboratories were closed. Since the young academics can’t conduct their work, their scholarships can’t be extended,” he says.

“These are the stars, people with exclusive scholarships who were accepted to top institutions. This is the next generation of Israeli academia, and it’s turning into a lost generation,” he says. “Israeli academia needs to figure out how to save them.”

The Israel Young Academy recently held a conference over Zoom to draw attention to the issue. Some 450 Israeli postdocs currently living abroad participated, as did the leaders of Israeli academia, including the heads of all eight universities. The postdocs were told that should they return to Israel, they’d be accepted to Israeli universities. The universities themselves as well as the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities have started offering scholarships for postdocs who choose to return home.

Prof. Haim Suchowski of Tel Aviv University notes that even those who haven’t left for postdoc positions abroad were in a bind: They got stuck in Israel without work. Meanwhile, some postdocs who were abroad have already returned home, he says.

Is this an opportunity or a disaster, given Israel’s brain drain problem? Prof. Gilad Perez, dean of the Feinberg Graduate School at the Weitzman Institute, says it’s nothing short of a tragedy.

“Scientific work requires a broader view. When young people just starting their academic careers fly abroad, primarily to the best institutions in the world, they return as worldly people and bring new ideas and techniques. If we shut ourselves off within Israel and think that we can do good science here on our own, it won’t happen,” he says.

Prof. Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa and until recently the chairman of Israel’s Association of University Heads, called it an opportunity for Israeli academia to hire science experts who wouldn’t have otherwise been interested in jobs at Israeli institutions.

The Trump administration recently declared that it would rescind the visas of international students who did not attend classes in person. It dropped the proposal on Tuesday in the face of massive opposition.