Brain-drain: More High-tech Workers, Doctors, Academic Researchers Leaving Israel

New study shows that Israel's most educated citizens are leaving at a growing pace, which 'could have catastrophic consequences for Israel’

The front gate of Tel Aviv University, October 11, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

Israel’s most educated citizens, and those with the most crucial skills, are moving abroad at a growing pace, says economist Prof. Dan Ben-David in a new study.

Ben-David warns that his findings should worry Israel’s decision makers, as government policy is pushing away the people that Israel needs, instead of incentivizing them to stay or to return home.

The research, being published by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, focuses on three groups: academic researchers, doctors and high-tech workers. In Israel there are fewer than 130,000 of these people in total, meaning they account for only 1.4% of the population. Yet they are the workers who give Israel’s economy its edge, warns Ben-David.

“Due to the small size of this group, a critical mass of them moving abroad, even if we’re talking about a few tens of thousands of people, could have catastrophic consequences for Israel,” he says.

Ben-David, who is president of the Shoresh Institution and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, has conducted previous research on Israel’s brain drain. Ben-David’s research has focused on Israeli immigration to the United States, where the universities are considered the world’s best.

Previously published statistics have shown that a large number of Israeli academics reside in the United States temporarily, for instance to complete post-doctorates. For his latest research, Ben-David spoke with hundreds of Israeli researchers who have tenure or are working toward tenure in the United States.

In his latest study, Ben-David reviewed the academics at 40 leading departments at U.S. universities, in six different fields: chemistry, physics, philosophy, computer science, economics and business. He ranked the departments by the average number of citations per faculty member.

Ben-David found that in leading U.S. university departments for chemistry, physics and philosophy, the number of Israeli researchers was equal to 10% to 13% of the total number of senior Israeli faculty members in such departments in Israel.

In other fields, the number of expat Israelis relative to their counterparts in Israel was even higher. In leading U.S. computer science departments, the number of Israeli faculty members was equal to 21% of the total number in Israel; in economics departments, the figure was 23%, and in business departments, it was 43%.

“There are some leading business departments in the U.S. with a double-digit number of Israeli faculty members,” writes Ben-David.

The different percentages stem from differences in salaries, he says. In fields such as computer science, economics and business management, U.S. private sector salaries are relatively high, so U.S. universities offer faculty members high salaries in order to compete. Israel’s public universities, by contrast, offer identical pay to faculty members regardless of their field, Ben-David explains. Salary gaps between Israel and the United States grow the more educated the employee is, not just for university researchers, Ben-David notes.

If all the senior Israeli faculty members were to return from the United States, they would fill nearly two local economics faculties, two computer science faculties, and more than three business management faculties, he says.

Israel actually hasn’t seen a significant wave of outward migration over the past few years. In 2016, the last year for which Central Bureau of Statistics data is available, Israel had 15,200 citizens moving abroad – defined as leaving the country and staying abroad for at least a year – the lowest number since the early 1990s. The figure works out to 1.8 citizens expatriating for every 1,000 Israeli residents.

Some 26% of the people who left that year were new immigrants who arrived in 2006 or later.

On the other hand, some 8,900 Israelis returned to Israel in 2016 after spending at least a year abroad, not counting visits home of up to three months. Some 42% of these people were former immigrants who had later left Israel for a year or more.

While Israeli society as a whole hasn’t seen an increase in emigration, Ben-David is worried by the departure of Israel’s most educated. Central Bureau of Statistics data shows that in 2017, some 4.5 Israelis with academic degrees left the country for every one who returned.

It also emerges that Israel’s best universities create the largest percentage of expatriates. For instance, among people who received a degree at a teaching college between the years of 1980 and 2010, only 1.8% left Israel (defined as living abroad for at least three years). Of those who completed university degrees in social sciences and humanities, some 6.7% moved abroad. Those with degrees in science and engineering, the figure was 9.2%.

“These are the most crucial people for Israel’s future,” says Ben-David.

Another worrying figure is the growing number of Israeli doctors abroad. Israel lacks the resources to train enough doctors, so a growing number of Israelis interested in the field go to study abroad, and many don’t come back.

The number of Israeli doctors in other OECD nations has been steadily growing over the past few years, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of doctors in Israel. The number of Israeli doctors abroad was equal to 9.8% of the figure in Israel as of 2006, and 14% as of 2016.

In the United States alone, there were some 3,500 Israeli doctors as of 2016. In terms of absolute numbers, only the U.K., Canada and Mexico have more citizens working as doctors in the United States. These three countries have way more citizens than Israel does.

Ben-David blames Israel’s national priorities as being responsible for pushing its most educated citizens abroad. “Incentives aren’t enough to halt the brain drain out of a country that’s marching away from the developed world,” he said. There are several factors: Low salaries; low labor output; the high cost of living, particularly housing; the high taxes on the top two deciles, which are nearly double the rate in the United States.

The problem is particularly acute for Israelis with doctorates. Israelis who complete a doctorate and want to find work at one of the country’s universities need to complete a post-doctorate abroad. After spending several years abroad, many find that there are no workplaces available for them at home, and in any case the conditions abroad are better.

Some 11% of people who completed a doctorate at an Israeli institution live abroad; the figure is 24.2% for those with a doctorate in math; 20% for computer sciences and 17.5% for pharmaceutical sciences.

With reporting by Lior Dattel