Unique Challenges of Preventing Brain Drain in the Middle East

Lebanese American U. helps doctoral students while Israel universities seek private funds for research.
June 10, 2008

The Lebanese American University has become the first academic institution operating in the Middle East to financially underwrite tuition and living costs for selected doctoral students studying abroad — but only with a patriotic tether.

Under the plan, which adds a twist to other programs that provide grants for doctoral study in the United States, the university will select eight people a year to support for doctoral studies abroad, generally in the United States. But they must agree to accept a faculty position at the university after they finish their coursework, and write their dissertations in Lebanon. The university would fund a return trip for dissertation defenses.

“And I’m happy to tell you that the idea is already taking off like wildfire,” says Joseph Jabbra, president of the university, speaking shortly after the move was finalized last month.

Officials say the ambitious initiative is aimed at tackling a region-wide “brain drain” that has left Lebanon’s academic job market sorely depleted. As Jabbra is quick to point out, Lebanon is not the only nation in the Middle East to be experiencing intellectual-capital flight. (The issue also is attracting attention in Europe, as institutions in Italy and elsewhere seek to recruit in the United States to make up for lost intellectual talent.)

In nearby Israel, for instance, a recent Tel Aviv University study found that nearly a quarter as many Israeli academics as there are employed in Israel are currently working in the United States, which is also home to nearly two-thirds of all the estimated 650,000 Israelis living elsewhere, with perhaps as many as three-quarters of those departing being scientists.

The report, which largely blames poor policy decisions for the exodus, has spurred organizations such as the Israel Cancer Research Fund, a charitable group known as the ICRF, to redouble efforts to attract Israeli academics to pursue research opportunities at home. Fund organizers believe that work opportunities, rather than regional security concerns, remain the main attraction for departing academics, according to the organization’s chairman, Yashar Hirshaut.

In medical science, for instance, the U.S. spends $7 billion in annual research, whereas Israel, whose academic accomplishments have figured large in much of the commentary accompanying its recent 60th anniversary, the total spend is less than $15 million.

Faced with such realities, “there are many people who see no downside to leaving the country,” Hirshaut admits.

Since 1975, ICRF has invested $33 million in basic research, enabling Israeli academics to pursue new research at home.

Among the grantees have been Israel's two Nobel prize winners in chemistry, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, with the fruits of the research conducted by ICRF-funded scientists including life-saving drugs such as Gleevec, Doxil and Velcade.

“Until this past two years I hadn’t even heard about the problem of an Israeli brain drain,” admits Hirshaut, whose organization financially supports 50 labs per year out of the 150-odd annual applications it currently receives for grants. Right now, however, the “great temptation, as he and others refer to it, “has become a real problem.”

But while Israel and other countries in the region have lost significant portions of their academically trained workforce on account of poor policy, along with political instability, low public investment, or accelerating migration trends to greener economic pastures, Lebanon can claim the dubious distinction of having experienced challenging times on all those fronts simultaneously and over a sustained period.

Quantifying the actual numbers of departing academics from most countries — or academics who opt not to go to a country in the first place — is not an exact science, and even a matter of some hot debate, with at least one recent study arguing that the belief that rich countries are draining poorer ones of their best-qualified people could be largely unfounded. Nevertheless, the intellectual flight of the Lebanese over the past three decades is already a matter of grinding record.

A civil war from 1975-1990 spurred nearly one million people to leave, with as many as 300,000 having followed over the following decade and a half, a figure not including those who headed for safer national pastures in the wake of a costly 34-day war with Israel that left more than 1,000 dead and much of the infrastructure in ruins. Nearly half of the recent émigrés are said to be university-educated. At the same time, regular mass demonstrations in the capital, Beirut, the assassination of a number of high-profile politicians and a fledgling economy have not added to the confidence in Lebanon's future, still less enhanced its attraction as a destination for international scholars. Earlier this month, Beirut witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence since the end of the civil war.

The latest Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development figures show that 13 percent of the 57 million immigrants now living in its 30 member developed nations are Lebanese émigrés, a higher figure than for any other Middle Eastern jurisdiction. Nor do those figures account for citizens in other countries who trace their family roots to Lebanon.

“It’s always been the way that the minute the Lebanese start thinking about their higher education, they start thinking about going abroad,” explains Jabbra, the architect of his university’s new latest move to stem the intellectual outflow not only to the developed world but across to the oil-rich Gulf states that are currently awash in liquidity and newfound higher-education activity. Jabbra is an example of the same cultural wanderlust, having worked for 14 years as an academic vice president at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, before returning home to Lebanon four years ago to head the private institution, which was established as a high school in 1835 by American Presbyterian missionaries and incorporated as a university in 1994.

The LAU, which is chartered by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, enrolls nearly 7,000 students, with English as its language of instruction.

If it is in the Lebanese nature to head abroad, “never forgetting about their country is also in their nature,” Jabbra says. Little surprise, then, he adds, that enthusiasm for the LAU proposal has been “gratifyingly” high among students both in Lebanon and those among their counterparts who are already pursuing their studies abroad. On his watch the university has also recently ramped up its salary levels to match those of many competing American institutions.

Nevertheless, as the university president acknowledges, competitive salaries and attractive new faculty packages are not the only measures by which interested outsiders might weigh their options for Lebanese tenure. While it may be correct to say, as Jabbra insists, that the capital Beirut is safer than a comparable North American city, the perception persists of a dangerous Middle Eastern nation roiled by instability and intermittent mayhem.

“That’s part of the reason why there has been a very serious brain drain,” Jabbra says. “And yes, there’s no doubt that, when you hear about any instability in any part of the world, you will be hesitant about going to that part of the world. But this part of the world has much going for it too, and so has our university, which is of course provides an instantly recognizable American environment.”Jabbra looks at his new plan to improve the country’s academic fortunes in the best American tradition.

“Competition is good, we say, and it leads to excellence — especially when you look at what we’re offering,” Jabbra concludes. “Lebanon is a place that, despite some political problems, is somewhere anyone can feel at home.


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