ISRAEL: Excellence centres to woo back academics

In an attempt to stop the brain drain of Israel's leading scientists who have left the country to conduct research abroad, the government recently approved the creation of 30 academic excellence centres.

According to Professor Shimon Yankielowicz, a member of Israel's Council for Higher Education's planning and budgeting committee, the number of Israeli scientists in leading research institutions in America is a quarter of the number in Israeli research universities.

Israel has 5,000 scientists in its research universities and more than 1,200 in US research institutions.

The aim of establishing excellence centres is to attract scientists back to Israel, revitalise the research infrastructure and focus on research institutions. This would allow the institutions to take advantage of their relative strengths and to deal with a major problem of research institutions in Israel - that their academics are relatively old.

About 50% of researchers are over the age of 55 so, within 10 years, they will retire. Within the next five years, 1,200 people will retire and will have to be replaced, Yankielowicz said.

The project calls for the creation of 30 centres of excellence over the next five years with a budget of 1.3 billion shekels, of which 450 million shekels (US$121 million) will be from the Israeli government, 450 million shekels from the institution chosen to host a centre and 450 million shekels from an appropriate foundation.

Five centres of excellence out of the 30 will be established during the next academic year as a pilot project.

Yankielowicz said an ad hoc committee of experts would call for proposals in different subjects and the institution with the best submission would host the centre.

In some cases, "inter-institutional consortia", or universities that unite, could apply to host a centre. He estimated about 10 researchers from outside Israel would be attracted to each centre, with about 300 leading scientists in total returning to work in the 30 centres.

One critic of the plan wrote in an editorial in the daily Ha'aretz that, "Although Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar described the plan as an `energy shot to the higher education system and research in Israel', there are good grounds to doubt Sa'ar's interpretation and offer one based on the fact that far cheaper and more effective energy would be achieved simply by increasing research budgets and creating more jobs in Israel's existing research universities."

Yankielowicz defended the scheme, saying it would "enable us to replace people who have retired" and take back people who wanted to return from abroad. He said bottlenecks included a lack of positions in Israel and the need to offer scientists the right infrastructure, world-class laboratories, joint research projects and good salaries.

But the excellence centres, with their local and imported scientists in addition to other measures, would go a long way to ensuring the level of excellence in the sciences and other subjects at the country's research universities, Yankielowicz said.

"In my view, the programme is the beginning of a change of attitude in Israel regarding higher education [after years of budget cuts]," he said.

Over the last 20 years, he estimated the higher education budget in Israel had been cut by 20%.