Scientific diasporas — networks of expatriate scientists — are no substitute for direct capacity building in developing countries. Nevertheless they have an important contribution to make, and their activities need more support.
The 'brain drain' from poor to rich nations has, for several decades, been one of the more intractable problems undermining efforts to increase the scientific capabilities of developing countries. Such countries have proven their willingness to provide individuals with the skills and knowledge required to engage in international-level scientific research, even if such training has to be obtained abroad. Too often, however, they have been unable to prevent such individuals from pursuing their scientific career overseas, or to provide sufficient physical or economic resources to allow them to exploit these skills and knowledge in their own country. It is estimated, for example, that about one-third of all scientists born and educated in developing countries now work in foreign laboratories, a massive drain on both talent and investment that such countries can ill afford.
Various policies have been introduced — ranging from imposing strict restrictions on emigration to offering attractive salaries to those prepared to return — in an attempt to stem this flow. So far, however, they appear to have made relatively little impact. One result is that increased attention has been made over the past decade to ways in which the brain drain might be turned to a country's advantage. And one of the more promising of these has been the idea of drawing on the talents, goodwill and even patriotism of those who make up a country's 'scientific diaspora', the term used to describe a dispersed community living in foreign countries.
In contrast to what some policy makers would, it seems, like to believe, such scientific diasporas will not, in themselves, solve the problems created by the brain drain. One danger, for example, is that emphasising the 'diaspora option' will reduce the focus placed on the more important commitment of investing in an adequate research and training infrastructure. Furthermore, as several critics have pointed out, the lack of such an infrastructure not only deprives a country of the opportunity of building up its own scientific capacity, but also makes it unlikely to be able to benefit from the opportunities that an effective diaspora offers (see Can the scientific diaspora save African science?).
Nevertheless, as pointed out in a report published last week by the French development research agency Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), the diaspora can offer a useful way of strengthening such an infrastructure in those countries that already possess one (see France pledges support for 'scientific diasporas). And, given that this is the case, the French government's decision to give its formal support for such initiatives — while expressing an appropriate reminder about the need to continue to support other strategies as well — can only be welcome.
Several countries have already demonstrated that, provided the circumstances are appropriate, the scientific diaspora can work extremely effectively. The two most well known examples are China and India; in both cases, domestic research efforts are being strongly supported and enhanced by the activities of a global network of expatriate researchers. In other cases, such as South Africa, many elements of similar success can already be seen, even if the overall achievement remains patchy (see South Africa shows the value of the diaspora option).
In almost all cases, the diaspora has been able to ensure an enhanced flow of information, providing researchers within the country with increased information about scientific development outside. In some cases, support from members of the diaspora takes the form of returning to the country for brief periods to give seminars or run training courses.
Occasionally joint research projects are launched, which may include temporary exchanges of researchers. And there are even circumstances in which foreign-based researchers have raised funds for major research initiatives in their home countries — an initiative that has been particularly encouraging in India.
But caution is also appropriate. Where achievements have been registered, this has not been by chance. As noted above, a scientific diaspora will only be a success where several conditions are met. One is that there is support both within and outside the 'home' country; if enthusiasm is lacking on either side, diaspora initiatives are unlikely to prosper. A second is that an adequate infrastructure exists in the home country to make use of what the diaspora has to offer.
Another requirement, as highlighted in the IRD report, is for continuity of support. All too frequently, purely voluntary initiatives that start in a glow of goodwill rapidly lose their momentum as the initial enthusiasm dies away. The need here is for the type of permanency and commitment that only comes from public funding, which means government support. The price to be paid may be a certain lack of spontaneity; the advantage is, firstly, that initiatives can be planned with a reasonable certainty that they will be put into effect, and secondly that such initiatives can be tied into government plans for science, rather than being seen as a potential challenge to them.
The issues involved are complex, and can sometimes lead to tensions between enthusiasts and those who argue for a more cautious approach. Some of the different perspectives are reflected in the contributions to SciDev.Net's dossier on the brain drain that was posted earlier this year. Particularly sensitive is the extent to which a formula that has worked so well for China and India is also relevant to other countries, such as many in Africa and some in Latin America, that lack the prerequisites for success outlined above. And this issue in turn is linked to a debate about the extent to which it is responsible to present the diaspora initiative to such countries as a 'solution' to the brain drain problems that they face.
But whatever their disagreements, both sides agree that scientific diasporas provide, at least in principle, a potentially powerful tool for enhancing scientific capacity. The challenge is to ensure that the tool is well suited to the specific characteristics of the situation in which it is applied, and that it is used with an appropriate balance of imagination and pragmatism. Extra support by government aid agencies in the developed world could help to ensure that this happens. Hopefully other governments will choose to follow France's example.