Israeli students march through the entrance to Jerusalem, one holding a sign depicting Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reading in Hebrew "Student! Unemployment wants you!" during a protest against educational reforms, May 10, 2007.
"The Brain Drain We Don't Hear About"
May 13, 2010
Author: Ilai Saltzman, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2009–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Recently, public discourse about the so-called brain drain — the massive flight of Israeli academics to institutions of higher learning the world over, and especially in the United States — has intensified. For the most part, the discussion has revolved around scholars in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, computer sciences, business administration and economics. Hence, one might think that the flight of talent affects mainly the natural and exact sciences, as well as several nonscientific fields that are also considered "income generating" professions for the country, such as economics and business.
Yet the reality, to our regret, is far more complex and worrisome. For, along with those in the sciences and economics-related fields, there is also a consistent drain of academics in the social sciences and humanities, whose work may not necessarily have a direct impact on leveraging the Israeli economy. Not only those seeking a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's are leaving the country, but also academics who are engaged in political science, history, literature, communications, statistics, linguistics and Middle Eastern studies, among many other fields.
Judging from the fact that no one seems to be proposing a centralized effort to lure them back home, apparently these scholars are less important to the major decision-makers in the government and the academic planning institutions (the Council for Higher Education and its planning and budgeting committee, for example ). This may be because it is very difficult to quantify and calculate their contribution to Israel's growth.
During a visit to Boston in early February, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Tel Aviv University in the not-so-distant past, engaged in a discussion with Israelis doing their research in MIT and Harvard about the need to bring "expat scientists" back to Israel. The success of the plan to build what the latest Israeli government decision calls "excellence centers" will be judged, in the opinion of the person who devised the proposal, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the CHE's planning committee, on the basis of the ability "to bring back 300 Israeli scientists" (as reported in Haaretz English Edition on March 14 ).
Welcome attempts to set up an Internet database of "drained brains," as part of the national project to bring back academics to Israel, are turning out to be very incomplete. Although "the humanities" is listed among the fields from which someone contemplating a return can choose, there is no mention of "the social sciences" per se — only economics, psychology, accounting, law and business administration. What does that say about scholars in the fields of geography, international relations, statistics, sociology and anthropology, among other areas?
Not all Israeli students are studying physics or chemistry at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology or at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, nor are they all studying economics and business at Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa or Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, not to mention the large number of colleges scattered around the country. According to the CHE (whose figures are based on data collected by the Central Bureau of Statistics ), during the academic year 2007–2008, more than two-thirds of all students pursuing bachelor's degrees in Israel majored in the humanities or the social sciences, as compared to about a third in the sciences.
Among doctoral students, life sciences and exact sciences had the advantage (44.4 percent of all Ph.D. candidates studied humanities and social sciences, as compared to 55.6 percent in life sciences and the exact sciences ). But the number of bachelor's degree students in humanities and social sciences was double that of all the students in life sciences and exact sciences; for the master's degree, there were 2.5 times as many.
In other words, beyond the public obligation to provide research and employment opportunity to academics who want to teach subjects that may not be "profitable," as part of having a modern and diversified academic system, the greatest demand from students is still in fields requiring teachers whose presence in Israel is not necessarily defined as a "national goal" by the heads of the education system and the treasury.
The finance and education ministers and the heads of the academic planning institutions have to understand that when they plan new "centers of excellence," it is important to include, in the correct proportions, the fields of philosophy, political science, history and communications, among others. These are not necessarily subjects that encourage national economic growth by luring investors or making technological breakthroughs, but they definitely meet an academic demand and undoubtedly can help address the non-material needs of Israeli society, thereby contributing to its strength and vitality.
The humanities and social sciences need not be regarded as challenging the exact sciences and the life sciences; they complement rather than replace them. The intellectual foundations of Israeli society have always been based not only on scientific research, but on our broad education in the liberal arts as well. As our first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion said: "The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values."
Dr. Ilai Saltzman is a research fellow at the International Security Program at the Belfer Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Haifa.
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