VoxEU Column Education Migration

Brain Drained: Soaring Minds

This column introduces a two-part series on how differences between universities are inducing a massive academic migration from Israel to the United States. The magnitude of this scholarly brain drain is unparalleled in the western world.

The brain drain is no longer merely a concern about outmigration from developing to developed countries. As border barriers to individuals whose skills are in demand fall, a greater number of those who can move are choosing to do so, particularly in academia. In its examination of the brain drain to the United States, the European Commission (2003) reported that 73% of the 15,000 Europeans who studied for their PhD in the States between 1991 and 2000 plan to remain in America. If Europeans are concerned about the migration of their academics to the States, then Israelis should be nothing less than alarmed.

In general, the ratio of foreign scholars in America to scholars in the home country ranged from 1.3% in Spain to 4.3% in the Netherlands (Figure 1). At 12.2%, Canada was an outlier, though this is much more of a two-way street than in any of the other cases. While Canada is an outlier, Israeli scholars in America are in a class by themselves. The Israeli academics residing in the States in 2003-2004 represented 24.9% of the entire senior staff in Israel’s academic institutions that year – twice the Canadian ratio and over five times the ratio in the other developed countries.

An examination of five fields in which Israeli academia is considered to hold world-class scholars – physics, chemistry, computer science, economics and philosophy – is suggestive. In two of these fields, economics and chemistry, Israelis received 3 Nobel Prizes in recent years. Academic citations between 1997 and 2007 place Israeli universities among the top 150 in the world in all 4 of the 5 fields measured by the ISI Web of Knowledge (there is no ISI ranking for philosophy).

Among the tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the top 40 American departments (ranked by the American National Academy of Sciences), there are a fairly large number of Israelis in each of the five fields. The number of Israeli physicists in just the top 40 American departments is one-tenth the entire number of physicists in Israeli research universities (Figure 2) – more than double the overall migration rate of the Netherlands, the European country with the greatest rate of academic emigration to the States. The share of top Israeli chemists in America accounts for one-eighth the entire discipline in Israel. The number of Israeli philosophers in top American departments accounts for 15% of the philosophers remaining in Israel.

Though the emigration rate by top-end researchers in physics, chemistry and philosophy is very high, that rate is doubled by the economists. The number of top Israeli economists in the States is 29% of those still remaining in Israeli departments of economics. The group with the greatest proportional representation in the top American departments is computer science. The number of Israelis in just the top 40 US computer science departments represents a full third of the entire contingent remaining in Israel. Some of the leading American departments have no less than 5-6 Israelis each.

Migration of academic economists

A more focused look at one of the five groups –economists – provides a glimpse of how the emigration within this field has impacted the discipline in Israel (Ben-David 2007). By the 1970s, Israel had become one of the most productive countries doing economic research in the European area.

A comparison of 600 universities and research centers in 18 European countries by Combes and Linnemer (2002) for the years 1971-2000 provides an indication of this impact. Table 1 compares the 18 countries, putting the numbers into per-author terms. Using the United Kingdom as a base, it is evident that the UK outpaces other countries rather easily. Israel is the exception. Between 1971 and 2000, Israeli researchers published two and a half times as many pages per researcher as UK economists. When the comparison is made in the blue ribbon journals only, the ratio of published pages is nearly seven to one.

By the end of the nineties however, signs of problems began to appear on the horizon, as revealed by Combes and Linnemer’s (2002) comparison of the European countries during the sub-period of 1996-2000. Israeli economists were still ranked number one during this period in terms of per-researcher output, but the gap between them and the other European countries declined considerably. For example, they produced “just” 55% more published pages overall than the UK economists and “only” four times as many pages in the top journals. While this reduction in the gap is probably due to improvements in the output of the UK economists (as well as those in the other European countries with whom the publication gaps declined), this drop in the publication gap is also a symptom of a process that has only accelerated in Israel since 2000.

Coupé (2003) uses academic citations on articles published in the years 1990-2000 to rank the 1000+ most cited economists in the world. The location of the Israelis on his list during the nineties and their location today provides an indication of both stocks and flows between countries at the top end of the profession.

Of the 13 leading economists in Israeli universities during the 1990s, three of those under retirement age are now employed full-time outside of Israeli academia – two in leading American universities and one in Israel’s private sector. While roughly a quarter of these top 13 have since left Israeli academia, none of the dozen top-ranked Israeli economists in the States during this period has since returned to Israel. In fact, some of them actually made the move to the States during the nineties and have remained there since – among them a few with quite a number of years left until retirement.

What has transpired in the Tel-Aviv University economics department is symptomatic of the situation’s severity. The number of faculty in the department, which had been ranked (on the basis of citations per capita) in 14th place internationally – and was in sole possession of first place among all departments outside the United States, between 1990 and 2000 – fell from roughly 25 in the mid-nineties to 18 in 2007, of whom only eight were full-time and did not hold additional positions elsewhere. The top two Israeli departments of economics, at Tel-Aviv and Hebrew Universities, have reached the point where there are so few faculty members in each, that the graduate programs in the two departments will be united from the 2008-09 academic year, a situation not seen in Israeli academia since its inception.

Why do they leave?

While security and taxes undoubtedly play a role in the emigration of some of Israel’s academics, both circumstances are actually better today than a few decades ago. Though terrorism has been on the rise, it has been decades since all-out wars were waged that threatened the very existence of the country. And while Israel’s tax burden is not very evenly distributed, it is no higher than the OECD average – and it has been coming down in recent years.

As reported by many of the Israelis who left, as well as by those in Israel who tried to recruit them, the primary reasons for the current academic brain drain lie elsewhere – in the realm of the country’s higher education policy (Ben-David 2008). And herein are a number of lessons for those who do not want to follow in Israel’s footsteps.

In the second half of this series, I will examine how academia in the United States and in Israel evolved over the past several decades and how policy differences between the two culminated in a rate of academic brain drain from the latter to the former that is unparalleled in the western world.


Ben-David, Dan (2007), “Soaring Minds: The Flight of Israel’s Economists,” CEPR Discussion Paper No. 6338.

Ben-David, Dan (2008), “Brain Drained: A Tale of Two Countries,” CEPR Discussion Paper No. 6717.

Combes, Pierre-Philippe and Laurent Linnemer (June 2002), “Measuring and ranking economists throughout Europe,” working paper.

Coupé, Tom (December 2003), “Revealed Performances: Worldwide Rankings of Economists and Economics Departments, 1990-2000,” Journal of the European Economic Association (the full list is at: http://student.ulb.ac.be/~tcoupe/update/top1000c.html)

European Commission (2003), “The Brain Drain to the US: Challenges and Answers.”

ISI Web of Knowledge (2007), Essential Science Indicators.

National Academy of Sciences (1995), Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change.

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