1 May 2003 | EN | 中文
An increasing number of specialists, aware that significant changes in migration patterns have occurred over the past three decades, now agree that a paradigm shift has occured in the way these movements need to be observed, analysed and dealt with by policy makers.
Such a paradigm shift – from "brain drain" to "brain circulation" – has a major consequence for public policy, namely that the mobility of highly skilled manpower should be seen as a normal process that should not be stopped, and that the real challenge is therefore to manage it as well as possible.
Introduction: a shifting paradigm
During the 1960s and 1970s, much discussion and analysis took place about the mobility of highly skilled professionals. Interest in this topic subsequently dropped as a combined result of economic recession and limitations in the analysis of the problem.
But in recent years the issue has returned to the spotlight, largely due to growing interest in the so-called global knowledge-based economy. As a result, it is now widely debated, as reflected in various recent international official publications and meetings. [1,2,3,4] The debate has focused on the nature and impact of the mobility of such professionals, and in particular its negative or positive effects on both their countries of origin and their host countries.
Until the early 1990s, the “brain drain” was the predominant (if controversial) concept used to frame such discussions. This implied a one-way, definitive and permanent migration of skilled people from developing to industrial countries. It had a basically negative connotation, namely that it involved a loss of vital resources. However it was also argued that – at least in the developing world – it avoided a “brain waste”.
More recently, however, the idea has been gaining momentum among scholars, decision makers and journalists that policy makers should characterise the issue in terms of a “circulation” of skills and manpower. Certainly the conditions that govern mobility have changed dramatically, in terms of new forms of communication, transportation, geopolitics, intercultural relationships and commerce.
As a result, mobility has lost some of the traditional features that led it to being characterised as a brain drain. For example, it may be temporary – with occasional returns to the country of origin – rather than permanent; it is multi-directional instead of unilateral; and, being a global movement, it affects developed as well as developing countries. Furthermore, the increased ability to interact at a distance helps maintain umbilical links with regions of origin, in contrast to the past when a break with such a region was often total.
An increasing number of specialists, arguing that significant changes in migration patterns have occurred over the past three decades, therefore now acknowledge a paradigm shift in the way these movements need to be observed, analysed and dealt with by policy makers.
Such a paradigm shift suggests a major consequence for public policy, namely that the mobility of highly skilled manpower is a normal process that should not be stopped, and that the real challenge is therefore to manage it as well as possible.
Negative and positive aspects
In the global knowledge-based economy, the international mobility of skills-holders has become viewed as a natural extension of the traditional cosmopolitan character of the world's scientific community. At the same time, however, since research and development has become a major source of wealth and of socio-economic development, there is intense competition between nations to attract qualified scientists and technologists.
Within the initial paradigm of a brain drain, there was a clear answer to the question of who wins and who loses. Namely, it was generally accepted that the countries of origin suffered from the brain drain, while host countries benefited by experiencing a “brain gain”.
In the circulation paradigm, however, the complexity of the flows prohibits such simple accounting exercises. Positive aspects of the “circulation” model include the ways in which compensation mechanisms – such as scientific cooperation and co-authorship, or the transfer of technology – mitigate its disadvantages [see Effects of highly skilled migration on receiving countries]. The negative aspects include the extent to which the circulation may be asymmetrical and thereby reinforce inequalities.
A variable landscape
Despite the relative lack of reliable data at the national, regional and global level, it seems clear that the last decade has seen a significant increase in mobility, especially involving professionals working temporarily in other countries and students leaving their home country to study abroad.
Reliable estimates based on the most recent data from the US National Science Foundation, and adjusted for the remaining member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), suggest that about one third of qualified scientists and engineers who were born in developing countries end up working in the North.
The proportion of this expatriate population varies significantly between both home and host countries. China and India, for example, have by far the most expatriates working in other countries (particularly the United States). But the proportion of total researchers that these expatriates represent for their country of origin is much lower than in countries such as those in Africa, with smaller scientific communities.
There are also significant variations among host countries. Some of these are more dependent on foreign-born scientists and engineers than others. For example, 10 per cent of the total science and technology workforce in the United States is of foreign origin, while in Australia this figure is 25 per cent.
Not surprisingly, this diversity means that the consequences of the current pattern of circulation also vary widely. For the countries that receive significant number of skilled scientists and engineers, the impact is usually (though not always) largely positive. But the impact on the countries of origin is much more complex.
Impacts on countries of origin
Some countries of origin have benefited significantly from a return of those who had previously left to study or work overseas. Since the 1990s, for example, Korea and Taiwan have experienced a massive return of expatriates thus successfully reversing their brain drain [see Networking lessons from Taiwan and South Korea]. However, these returns are affected by many factors in the host countries, as well as at home (economic growth, the demand for skills in high-tech sectors and so on).
China and India appear to be following the same route two decades later, having in China’s case previously pursued a policy of “storing brain power overseas” for subsequent use (to use the 1987 words of Zoo Zihyang, then China’s head of state) [see Developing a new generation of Chinese scholars abroad].
At the other end of the scale, for example in several Latin American countries and especially in Africa, this type of circulation has had detrimental effects on research communities, particularly where good local working conditions are lacking, and few scientists and engineers are therefore tempted to return home.
Heightened global security
Other factors have had an impact on the global circulation of researchers. For example, the flow of Arab students and scientists to the United States has changed significantly as a result of the events of 11 September 2001. Anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing climate of suspicion in the United States has persuaded many of these individuals to move to other parts of the world.
Similarly, restrictions imposed for reasons of national security on the participation of foreign scientists in sensitive research programmes have also raised concerns about, for example, Russian and Chinese nationals working in the United States. Finally, uncertainties about economic growth, especially in the ICT sector, have also had an impact on demand. Flows are certainly not about to dry up. But their future dynamics are highly uncertain.
Addressing policy options
Various policy proposals have been put forward in recent years to address some of the problems thrown up by the current dynamics of “brain circulation” [see Brain drain policies that meet the needs of all]. Some commentators, for example, have argued for a tougher approach to allowing scientists and engineers to leave their countries of origin. Others have suggested that such countries should be offered financial compensation for those who do leave. Both of these, however, have their origins in a restrictive brain drain approach, and neither appears to be realistic today unless they are reformulated in, for instance, multilateral schemes.
A third option is to promote active recruitment policies, intended to promote immigration. This undoubtedly has many advantages. However as shown by the case of Southern Africa, it also risks creating a chain reaction, with every country trying to pass on the costs of migration to less developed ones.
As mentioned above, in recent years so-called 'return' policies, based on incentives, have been successfully applied in Asia. However this also risks creating secondary effects. For example, it could actually boost further emigration if a period spent abroad came to be seen as offering a path to subsequent rapid promotion at home. Another concern is the high financial cost of any incentive package. And consideration also needs to be given to the tensions that can be created by offering privileges to returnees that are not enjoyed by local researchers.
Another promising approach to have emerged recently is to draw on the resources represented by the scientists from one country who may now be distributed around the world – the so-called diaspora option. A recent report identified more than 110 existing initiatives worldwide.  Interesting pilot projects are also underway, such as the International Organisation for Migration's programme 'Migration for Development in Africa', and the Asian Development Bank's assessment of Asian science and technology diaspora networks.
The advantage of this type of approach is that, while providing access to expatriate human and social capital, it does not deprive host countries of useful human resources. However, its viability and effectiveness still have to be established.
In the long run, the optimal solution is likely to lie in providing conditions in which people do not have to leave their country in the first place. A really free and positive circulation should not proceed from constraints and generate shortages.
The phenomenon of “brain circulation” is complex, and needs to be better understood and better managed. No simple solution at hand. However, the questions raised by the circulation of skills – such as the unknown magnitude of the phenomenon, uncertainties about the consequences, the strong diversity of situations, and the effectiveness of policy responses – need to be addressed jointly by scholars and policy makers.
There is, in particular, a need for more reliable information, for a precise description of the situations of specific countries, and for assessing and monitoring of policy measures. Significant efforts have recently been made in this direction by the governments of both host countries, and countries of origin, as well as by intergovernmental organisations. Hopefully their combined results will form the basis of common methods for following up and strategically managing such circulation flows in a cooperative manner.
The author is a socio-economist at the Institute of Research for Development in France. He has been working in Asia, Latin America and Africa on the international mobility of skills since 1990.
 Regional conference on brain drain and capacity building in Africa. Addis Ababa (2000)
 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2001) International mobility of highly skilled workers: from statistical analysis to the formulation of policies
 International Labour Office & Department for International Development (2001) Skilled labour migration from developing countries: analysis of impact and policy issues
 United Nations Development Programme (2002) Human Development Report
 Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (2003) Science and technology diasporas (forthcoming)
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