Two Israeli scientists – Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt – were awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry this year. To top it off, one of the recipients of the Nobel prize in physics this year – Francois Englert of the Universite libre de Bruxelles – also has a special appointment at Tel Aviv University.
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You would think that all Israelis would burst with pride at this recognition of Israeli science’s achievements, but that is not the way it is in our small country. The group of perennial complainers, who can find nothing good in this wonderful country, insist on reminding us that Warshel and Levitt are now working at American universities and offer this tidbit as proof that it is hard to live in this country and that the best and brightest are leaving for greener pastures.
These critics seem to show little understanding for how research in the exact sciences is conducted nowadays. Researchers are attracted to clusters of scientists working in their area of interest regardless of national boundaries. Many such research clusters exist at the present time at American universities; there are some in Europe, and, yes, there are some at the universities in Israel.
As a matter of fact Levitt came to the Weizmann Institute from Cambridge University to conduct his research here for a number of years. And Robert Aumann, the Nobel laureate in economics in 2005 came to the Hebrew University from MIT. It is not easy to compete with the ample resources available for research and facilities at American universities and it is natural that many talented Israeli scientists are drawn to research groups engaged in their areas of interest there. That is equally true for scientists from Europe who flock to American research centers.
The fact that percentage-wise the number of Israeli scientists at American universities is the largest only indicates that the Israeli educational system graduates each year a very large number of highly talented and proficient scientists. A proper statistical survey would probably discover that there are more brainy people in Israel per capita, and certainly per square kilometer, than in any other country in the world. Too many brainy people for such a small country? That is certainly no cause for complaint.
The competition at universities for advancement and tenure is fierce. Was it not Woodrow Wilson who said on being elected president of the United States that after the time he had spent at Princeton University he needed to learn nothing more about politics? It is certainly true at Israeli universities. Warshel left Israel for the U.S. after not receiving tenure at the Weizmann Institute. There are others, well known today, who after having been denied tenure here left Israel for academic appointments in the U.S.
Does this mean that Israel is destined to lose many of its best scientists to American universities in the years to come? Not necessarily. As Israeli universities develop, and as the trend begun by the president of the Technion, Peretz Lavi, to initiate collaboration with universities abroad continues, more and more talented scientists will be coming to Israel to pursue their studies and research here. The net outcome is likely to be an influx of promising scientists to Israel.
As in science, also in engineering, technological developments, startups, and mergers, know no national boundaries. While many Israeli engineers are working abroad, Israeli companies are being joined by engineers coming to Israel seeking professional opportunities here. The many opportunities being created in the Israeli high-technology sector will no doubt bring engineers and technicians to Israel from around the world.
Israel may be on the way to becoming a magnet for talented engineers and scientists. That will increase the number of brainy people in Israel. And that is all to the good. No reason to complain.