Reversing the brain drain

The Israeli government's National Brain Gain Program is trying to bring scientists back to Israel.

Dr. Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun (B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D., and postdoctoral fellow from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) did a lot during her six years in the US. At The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, she headed research in the use of skin cells and other cells of animals to create a stem cell bank to save animals in danger of extinction. If the northern white rhinoceros survives - fewer than ten are now living - Dr. Friedrich Ben-Nun will be part of their recovery. She now lives and works in the Washington DC area.

Dr. Ronit Yarden (B.Sc. and M.Sc. from Tel Aviv University, Ph.D. from Georgetown University, and postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland) ran the genetic applications laboratory at the surgical department of Sheba Medical Center Tel Hashomer. She is now an assistant professor and researcher at Georgetown University, running a laboratory which studies the BRCA1 gene, a mutation of which is a strong indication of the development of breast cancer (a situation which Angelina Jolie handled by undergoing voluntary double mastectomy as a preventative measure). She aims to develop a cure for the dreaded disease.

Both women are progressing toward the pinnacle of their careers. Things are going well for them in America. They are successful, they are doing what they love to do, and they are well compensated. Nonetheless, last week, they and scores of other Israeli academics with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral fellowships, mostly in the life sciences and a few in high tech, went to a community center in the Washington DC suburb of Brookeville to hear how Israel can help them come home, with the clear understanding that they will earn less in their homeland, although just how much less is an issue that is liable to lessen the ardor of some of them to return to the place of their childhood.

The main speaker was Dr. Nurit Eyal, a professional colleague who is now on the Israeli side of the barricade. Eyal, a serial entrepreneur, has been working in biotechnology for over 20 years. She founded and managed GamidaGen, which developed a genetic diagnostic kit, and drug developer NasVax Ltd. (TASE: NSVX). She was responsible for life sciences investments by Yozma Venture Capital and Pamot Rehovot Advisers Ltd. She now heads the Israel National Brain Gain Program, a joint venture of the Ministry of the Economy, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Immigration Absorption, and the Council for Higher Education, and which operates under Chief Scientist Avi Hasson. She came to make her pitch to Israeli academics in New York, Florida, and the Washington DC area about what she calls "Israel's first-ever official program to bring back academics."

It hard to imagine a person more suited than Eyal to sell returning to Israel to biotechnology experts. She is one of them and she can talk to them on their level. She underwent the American experience, and she coped, and copes, with Israeli bureaucracy, although now from the inside.

It is a delicate game. The Israeli cow wants to give milk, but its udders are far from full. The not so sorrowful calves in the Diaspora want to suckle, but not at any price. The supply and demand curves on both sides find it difficult to meet. While Israeli scientists in the US are well aware of the Israeli reality, Israel knows little about the minds that it wants to bring home.

"One of the problems is that we dont know the scale of the problem," said Dr. Eyal. "We dont know which engineers, life sciences scientists, and other academics are outside Israel or where they are. We have no organized data. No one even knows how many Israelis are overseas."

Eyal says that the National Brain Gain Program takes a practical approach. "All over the world there is competition for Israeli scientists, and Israel must compete for them too. Our working assumption is that most of the people here have good jobs and comfortable lives. They will not risk returning to Israel without a guaranteed job that is professionally satisfying and with a salary that meets their expectations. One of the incentives we offer is personal assistance for anyone who is prepared to start the process. We have contact persons at all the Israeli companies who will help the applicants deal with potential employers in Israel. We plan to offer people jobs tailored to their resumes."

Eyal understands that, ultimately, what will drive an Israeli family, academic or other, to return to Israel is a guaranteed standard of living. The yearning for Israel's sun and for family and friends in the country, for the beaches and Israeli watermelon is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Few suffer from primal longings to return to the Holy Land.

Dr. Yarden says she is "very happy" with her life in the US. She lives in both worlds, and adds that she has professional ties with the laboratory that she managed at Tel Hashomer. She brings Georgetown University premed students to a course at Tel Hashomer ("There is a strong response").

Dr. Yarden cites family for her wish to return to Israel, saying, "My parents are aging. It's hard to see this from far away and not be involved." Nonetheless, she is unlikely to return at any price. She is looking for a suitable job in Israel, one that "is professionally satisfying and offers a salary that will maintain human dignity."

Dr. Friedrich Ben-Nun says, "I see myself living in Israel in the end My feeling is that people who want to return will do so out of ideology. I have no timetable. I hope that the risk that I'll be tempted to stay here won't be great. It's important to me to return to my extended family in Israel."

Dr. Eyal says that the National Brain Gain Program has a five-year budget, on the understanding that the brain drain and brain gain are a process. But the program faced a structural problem from the outset. Israeli industry suffers from a shortage of skilled labor in technology professions, especially in computers and with an emphasis on R&D. For example, in 2011, 6,195 job openings were listed in high tech (for systems analysts, computer and electronic engineers, etc.), but these people arent interested in returning to Israel.

In contrast, there is a surplus of people with higher degrees in the life sciences. Israel does not have enough jobs in academe and industry for them. But people with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral fellows in the life sciences who went to the US to fill out their resumes want to return to Israel. Furthermore, they prefer jobs at Israeli universities, of which there are few, over jobs in industry, which they consider less desirable, but where the supply is larger.

At all of Dr. Eyal's meetings in the US, high-tech professionals who want to return to Israel were more scarce than their colleagues in the life sciences. Those in demand hardly turn up, and those who turn up are hardly in demand. It does not look as though the five years allocated for the National Brain Gain Program will be enough to solve this problem.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on June 17, 2013

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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