Forget Brain Drain. The Truth Is Israel Gains When Talent Goes Abroad.
The much-deplored ‘escape of the brains’ has actually brought closer ties with Silicon Valley, India, and even Taiwan
While the benefits of circulation accrue to countries, they also—perhaps most crucially—accrue to the circulators themselves. A recent OECD study suggests that the productivity and impact of researchers who circulate between countries are significantly greater than those who have stayed put during their career. And beyond their individual enrichment, Israeli academics teaching at American research institutes help create joint programs, such as the new the U.S.-Israel Center established last year at the University of California, San Diego, which is designed to support collaborations between Israelis and Americans in both business and academia, including for example in the area of social entrepreneurship.
Israelis aren’t the only ones playing in this field. Silicon Valley’s Taiwanese and Indian engineering communities also show how this connectivity operates on the ground. These migrant engineers have built a two-way bridge between Taiwan’s and India’s tech communities and California’s. They serve as key intermediaries and have a great edge over American-born competitors, because of their contacts, relations, cultural insight and language fluency. The result is a global network between the sending and receiving country that enhances opportunities for both countries. Immigrants are twice as likely to be entrepreneurs, and transnational entrepreneurship is on the rise. The circulating entrepreneurs with dual ties seek merger and acquisition opportunities back home, and they facilitate joint ventures across borders. If in the past Silicon Valley companies sought out opportunities for cheap production and low-level application in India, Taiwan, and Israel, co-development and investment are the contemporary reality. In academia, a similar enrichment is generated by brain circulation.
And the bridges get built in all directions. We have in the past decade seen an increase in partnerships between high-circulation countries. Taiwan has a growing domestic venture-capital industry, with $1.3 billion in annual investments—but Taiwanese investors have been putting their money into Israeli start-ups. Meanwhile, Israel and India are exploring a free-trade agreement, which would bolster the already-robust $5 billion bilateral trade between the two nations by enabling freer movement of engineers, scientists, and students between the two countries.
So, rather than encouraging hand-wringing about the brain drain, Israel would be wise to focus on nourishing connectivity, encouraging boomeranging, and engaging in the international talent wars—both to bring its own home, and to become a destination for the brightest from other nations. In recent years, Israeli labor courts have made strides toward adopting changes to employment law modeled on California’s, which voids restrictive noncompete agreements. The results have been striking. Over time, California has experienced a brain gain, drawing the best talent from other states, and it has gained twice: first by creating a more open and supportive entrepreneurial environment than its counterparts such as Boston and Ann Arbor, and then by sustaining those vibrant networks.
A study of India’s booming high-tech labor market describing the rise of “a global war for talent” offers potentially illuminating lessons. The study concludes that in retaining their employees, the best industry leaders have realized that employees care greatly about nontangible rewards such as pride, satisfaction, fair treatment, and professional support. Ambitious individuals with great career aspirations readily forgo some monetary compensation to be where their talents and contributions are appreciated. The newly established Centers of Research Excellence—known as I-COREs—which the Israeli government is establishing at its public universities are exemplary of the right kinds of efforts to strengthen long-term commitments to Israel’s academic vision and stature. National human capital policies shouldn’t be simply about “brain-drain reversal” but must be about the new investment in human capital, retention, and network formation.
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