JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Nobel Prize in chemistry has stirred up national pride in Israel but also concern on Thursday over a brain drain of some of its best and brightest to universities in the United States.
Two of the three scientists who won the prize on Wednesday hold Israeli citizenship, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to phone in his congratulations – long distance.
Both men, Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California and Michael Levitt of Stanford University School of Medicine, immigrated years ago to the United States after scientific work in Israel and became Americans.
That set Israel, a small country of eight million people that has seen 12 of its citizens take home a Nobel medal, talking about the ones that got away – scientists, doctors and other academics who have chosen to leave for foreign shores.
It’s a real problem, a new study showed this week, even in a so-called “start-up nation” where homegrown talent has spawned innovative high-tech companies, some of them acquired for mega-millions by industry leaders such as Apple and Google.
The Taub Center for Social Studies in Israel found the emigration rate of Israeli researchers has become the highest among Western nations.
Citing statistics for 2008, it said there were 29 Israeli academics working in U.S. universities for every 100 remaining in Israeli institutions of higher education.
The country that came in second to Israel on the list, Canada, had a ratio of 11.5 researchers in the United States per every 100 back home.
“In fields such as economics, financing and marketing, huge salary gaps have evolved and, as a result of that, more and more Israelis who work in those fields decide not to return home,” the study said.
Daniel Hershkowitz, president of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said more than a third of computer science researchers at top U.S. universities are Israeli.
“I don’t see Israel being able to compete with what they offer in the United States. We are talking about a vastly different scale,” he told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu’s congratulatory phone calls to the two emigrant Nobel winners came just days after his finance minister, Yair Lapid, publicly criticized Israelis who opt to live in Berlin.
Speaking Hebrew in a series of Israeli media interviews, Warshel, who was born on a kibbutz, or collective farm, and Levitt, a native of South Africa, alluded to the difficulties in climbing the academic ladder in Israel.
Their wives, however, seemed bitter.
“Israel doesn’t give a lot, and that’s why people are leaving. This is a result of pettiness, small-mindedness and people who can’t think big,” Levitt’s spouse, Rinat, told Army Radio. Warshel’s wife, Tamar, said her husband didn’t receive tenure in Israel, “and that’s why we had to leave”.
Israeli interviewers posed the formula question that is always asked of compatriots who have chosen to emigrate from a state established as a refuge for the Jewish people: When are you coming back, and not just for a visit?
The short answer was, not any time soon.
(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Ralph Boulton)