Should we plug the brain drain? The pros and cons of scientist mobility

July 20, 2006

Brussels, 19 Jul 2006

Researchers have always been relatively mobile workers, and it is widely accepted that international cooperation and exchanges of ideas are essential for the advancement of science. But what happens if the flow of researchers is one-way? How can poorer countries stop the mass exodus of their best and brightest to richer countries? And closer to home, how can the EU attract and retain the best researchers? These questions were debated at the Euroscience Open Forum in Munich on 17 July by a panel which included two researchers who had come to Europe to further their careers.

Putting the issue into context, Mario Cervantes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) pointed out that skills-driven migration was nothing new; when visiting a 12th century church in Rome recently, he observed that the stained glass windows had been made by French and Flemish artisans.

Today's skilled migrant workers are more likely to be medical personnel, information technology (IT) specialists, students, entrepreneurs and, of course, researchers. There are frequently reports of brilliant scientists who have left Europe in search of a brighter and probably richer future in the US. Questions are also raised about the ethics of researchers from developing countries being recruited by institutions in the developed world.

However, these anecdotal tales mask a severe lack of data on researcher mobility which makes it very hard to analyse the full picture. Nevertheless, while many details remain obscure, it is clear that there is a net movement of researchers from developing to developed countries, and to a certain degree, from developed countries to the US.

Very often the press presents this 'brain drain' as a largely negative phenomenon, yet as Georges Bingen of the European Commission's DG Research pointed out, researcher mobility brings many benefits. 'Brain circulation can be extremely beneficial,' he said. 'It transfers knowledge and opens up connections, and this is why the Commission encourages mobility outside Europe.' He cautioned that mobility was a problem in cases where there was a systematic reluctance to return; where the best talents were disproportionately affected; and where there was no compensation from incoming brains.

So what induces scientists to move abroad, and what, if anything, can their home countries do to convince them to return? Dr Rohini Kuner left her native India after her pharmaceutical degree to do a PhD in the US. She then came to Europe, where she embarked upon her postdoctoral research in Heidelberg. Her decision to stay in Europe was influenced by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation). 'At the age of 30 I was given the chance to lead a research group with the help of the DFG,' she said. 'This is very important for keeping young brains.'

When she left India, the majority of graduates in certain subjects wanted to leave. Ten years later, the situation is a little better as Indian IT institutes are starting to establish strong reputations and attract good graduates and even foreign researchers. However, these institutes are still the exception, not the rule. She pointed out that it is not enough to train postdoc researchers and then expect them to go back to their own country to continue their research. This is particularly relevant for her field, biomedical research, where carrying out world class research entails the use of extremely expensive equipment which is not easily accessible to researchers in developing countries.

An alternative perspective came from Brian O'Neill, an American climate change scientist who has spent the last four years working at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria. Describing himself as a 'brain circulator', he said that he planned to return to the US in a couple of years. He chose to come to Europe because in the interdisciplinary field of climate change research, some of the best work in the world is being done in Europe, and the IIASA is one of the leaders in this field. Furthermore, the international nature of both climate change science and policies means extensive experience of different research communities around the world, adding to his understanding of the issues. He also highlighted the purely personal benefits of living abroad, such as the opportunity to learn foreign languages and get to know different cultures.

According to Dr O'Neill, one factor stopping many researchers from going abroad is the lack of opportunity to return. Partly this is a question of visibility, or rather the lack of it; out of sight really is out of mind. Some returners also have difficulty slotting back into the job market, as time abroad can be seen as time out of the local research career ladder. Another problem he has in Austria is fundraising; there are few funds available for foreign researchers there, and the procedures for getting these are confusing. Similarly, getting funding on his return to the US will be difficult because he cannot apply for some grants until he has a job confirmed there. Finally there are the difficulties of moving with a family. All too often spouses of scientists are unable to obtain work permits, making a move out of the question for scientists whose spouses wish to pursue their own career. Children of researchers may also face difficulties integrating into foreign schools, particularly if they do not speak the language.

All of this leads to the question of what countries and regions like the EU can do to attract and retain scientists. All panel participants agreed that international mobility on the whole was a good thing, for the reasons outlined above. Key to getting researchers back is providing them with opportunities to return. The EU does this by awarding fellowships to study outside the EU which are conditional on the awardee's return to the EU at the end. The recently launched ERA-Link initiative also ensures that researchers who leave the EU for the US are able to stay in touch with each other and researchers in the EU. To help non-EU scientists work in the EU, the Commission has set up a special scientist visa, along with a scheme to help researchers with tax problems, or difficulties settling their families in the host country.

Ultimately however, the best way to attract scientists to Europe is to improve working and career conditions, and to do this requires greater investment in research and development from governments and the private sector alike.

More information on ESOF2006

Further information on ERA-Link

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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