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Brain drain: a viable alternative

The brain drain is a very common problem in Honduras – more than 60 per cent of my contemporaries left the country upon graduating. After studying biochemistry in the United States I actually decided to return to my home country, only to find that there were very few opportunities in this field.

It is not surprising that much of the brain drain relates to those engaged in scientific fields of study. My own feeling is that this stems from the fact that scientists inherently have an adventurous spirit – it is not realistic to expect someone with a curious mind to stay in a country where there is no substantive scientific community. But instead these scientists are expected to do routine and boring work at production laboratories, rather than being given the chance to pioneer new research areas.

In countries that are struggling economically, there is no wonder that research institutes – both public and private – are unable to afford to undertake even the simplest research project. I experienced the conflict between research and production first-hand when I worked at the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research (FHIA). We were caught in an ongoing battle between the administrative director, who wanted our laboratory to produce plants for sale, and the research director, who expected new research projects and findings.

The real question is: who suffers most in the end? In my view, it is the organisations that require the scientists' services. For this reason I believe it is imperative that a scientific community is created in these countries. And the organisations that ultimately profit from this community should be the ones to fund such an initiative.

A virtual scientific community would be a great first step towards this goal. But such efforts must be complemented by a practical and functional scientific research community at a local level. This would give returning scientists the opportunity and impetus to contribute to the country's research agenda. Admittedly the infrastructure required would be a substantial investment, which is why the costs must be borne by all members of such a community.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that offering scientists a structure that enables them to pursue their research ambitions could be successful. And I believe that this strategy would be far more fruitful than 'forcing' scientists to take jobs in which they end up both disgruntled and producing low quality research. By following the latter approach, the brain drain is likely to be delayed, not avoided. Creating a community that enables scientists to develop is a much more appealing idea. After all, it is the possibility of scientific discovery that drives scientists – not money.