Brain drain takes worst academics as well as the best, study says

Analysis of Italian PhD graduates finds that the ‘milk’ as well as the ‘cream’ leave

July 24, 2018
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A “brain drain” of emigrating researchers might not be as bad as it sounds, according to an analysis from Italy that found that the worst-performing – as well as the best – researchers were leaving the country.

While the “cream” of PhD graduates from Italian universities were more likely to head abroad, generally to work in highly ranked universities, the “milk” also did the same, seeking opportunities at research-light institutions to escape tough competition at home.

“This result contradicts the general popular belief that only ‘brains’ are going abroad looking for better opportunities,” according to “The Italian brain drain: cream and milk”, published by three academics from the University of Bergamo in the journal Higher Education.

The study looked at about 1,500 research-active PhD holders who graduated between 2008 and 2010 in economics, finance and business management, of which 30 per cent have since emigrated.

“Those who are more likely to move abroad are those with the relatively best and worst research performances before migrating. Instead, those remaining in Italy are found to be on average of good scientific quality,” the authors found.

The study defines research performance as the number of papers published by an academic during and within a year after their PhD, weighted by the average number of citations per paper received by the journal they published in.

Men were more likely to move abroad than women, it also found. Younger PhD graduates were also more likely to emigrate. Those graduating from institutions in the south of Italy were less likely to leave than those in the centre and north.

Although brain drain has long been a concern since it was first used to describe British scientists leaving for the US in the 1960s, little research has been done on whether those emigrating really do have more potential than those left behind, the analysis says. It is crucial to understand exactly who is migrating, the authors conclude, rather than “indiscriminately demonising the brain drain”.

Italy has long been seen as one of the countries worst hit by an academic brain drain, with doctoral graduates put off staying by low levels of spending, bureaucracy and difficulty finding a job. Thirteen per cent of Italian PhD students graduating in 2010 had moved abroad four years later, according to the paper.

A Times Higher Education analysis last year found that Italy suffered the biggest brain drain of any major European research nation when it came to European Research Council grants. Ninety-two grant winners were Italian nationals in the most recent data, but just 45 grant winners chose to base themselves in Italy. The UK and Switzerland were the biggest net beneficiaries of mobile grant winners.

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