The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 13, 2015

An Abundance of Riches

In the early 90s, shortly after the implosion of the USSR, the world was suddenly awash with brilliant Soviet scientists and engineers who found themselves unemployed and impoverished. Many of them wanted nothing more than to continue their work, while others seized the opportunity to move to greener pastures abroad. A small number were coopted by countries and terrorists seeking nuclear and biochemical weapons know-how. In order to keep the rest from succumbing to such temptation, US institutions organised monthly stipends for them, while George Soros created the International Science Foundation to support the sciences in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a large-scale emigration of Jewish scientists began to Israel, which found itself swamped by these riches.

I was at TIFR in the summer one of those years, and the notice-boards in the cafe were festooned with newspaper clippings describing efforts by various countries to attract the scientists. Some pooh-poohed the miserly stipends the US were paying out - $500 a year or so. Some marvelled at the Chinese willingness to pay top dollar for expertise. And many bemoaned Indian bureaucratic intransigence and hierarchical pig-headedness that prevented us from paying higher salaries to attract Soviet scientists than our own professors were earning. And thus a superb opportunity to revamp our scientific and technical base, and to improve the calibre of our research and our universities was forever lost.

For the Israelis, though, the incoming rush was a mixed blessing. Haaretz recently had a beautiful piece on the diaspora from the Soviet Union. The Jews of the USSR did much to change the political landscape in Israel, especially towards a conservative direction. They also added considerable fillip to cultural diversity. But many of them found it hard to adjust to their new lives. Israel did not have the capacity to accommodate every brilliant Jewish scientist who arrived. After two or three top-notch algebraic theorists arrived, for example, where would the fourth be placed? And so many a scientist, who anywhere else in the world would have been a superstar, found themselves sidelined and frustrated.

It is a heartbreaking thing when pearls are so abundant that their shine is lessened.


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