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  • South Africa's brain drain underestimated


[CAPE TOWN] The 'brain drain' of scientists from South Africa is four times greater than government figures suggest, according to a report released last month.

Official migration statistics show that almost 17,000 science and technology (S&T) professionals – or about 1 per cent of the total S&T workforce – left the country to seek employment abroad between 1994 and 2001.

But a new report, based on a comparison with immigration statistics from the top five destination nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), suggests that this figure greatly underestimates the real situation.

The report, Flight of the Flamingos, was carried out by the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the national Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), against a background of concerns about the impact of the brain drain of scientists from the country.

However, the report shows that the main factor in South African brain drain is not in fact the emigration of S&T workers, but rather that these individuals decide to move into other professional fields.

For example, only 18 per cent of S&T workers who left the country's science councils did so to go abroad. About half moved to non-research and development (R&D) positions within South Africa. There was a particular tendency for S&T workers to move into management and financial occupations – the so-called 'MBA drain'.

The report also finds that foreign students are making up an increasing proportion of the national skills base, rising from around 10,000 in the late 1980s to 35,000 in 2001. In 2000, almost three-quarters of these students were from other African nations.

Thomas Pogue, a senior researcher at CSIR, says the report does not consider the issues of 'brain drain', 'brain gain' and 'brain circulation' to be disasters, but rather realities of mobility that must be managed. In recognition of this, the report calls for an 'R&D worker mobility strategy' to manage and respond to movements of South African and foreign workers.

Although the S&T workforce has a typical distribution of ages, with most scientists aged between 25 and 44, the report notes that younger researchers are not publishing as prolifically as their counterparts of a decade ago. Only 15 per cent of research output is now produced by researchers younger than 40, and this may be indicative of wider problems in the system, the report warns.

But according to Michael Kahn, executive director of the HSRC Knowledge Management Group, the survey shows that South Africa's S&T system is "quite robust", despite the loss of scientists. He says that the name of the report reflects the fact that many of those scientists are likely to return: "Flamingos migrate only to return when the brackish waters are replenished," he says.

Luci Abrahams, director of the LINK Centre, a South African policy research and training body, is also optimistic, saying that the report shows that there are a variety of forms of mobility, of which 'brain circulation' is the most important.

"If people who leave the system can be encouraged to come back they will bring renewed intellectual capital, which could be very positive," she says.

Nevertheless, says Kahn, there is no room for complacency, adding: "a key challenge will be how to grow the S&T workforce".

Link to report: Flight of the Flamingos

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