Eulian Roberts says the success of Qatar’s science park shows what can happen when a country makes the creation of knowledge-based jobs a national priority.
The 'brain drain' is back on the economic agenda, with developing nations claiming that G8 countries are luring away their scientists with the promise of temporary visas in a drive to bolster their technological capacity.
This month Alpha Oumar Konare, president of the African Union, attacked "selective immigration" policies of developed countries that draw knowledge workers away from poorer countries where they are badly needed (see Head of African Union attacks 'brain trade').
Mohammed Bedjaoui, Algeria's foreign minister, says that 23,000 university graduates leave Africa every year. This trend is evident in the West's labour market statistics: the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that immigrants account for one-sixth of the IT workforce in the United States.
It is a matter of social economics that the best and the brightest — especially those from less developed nations — will leave their countries for better pay, a nicer lifestyle or a more interesting job. Similarly, employers will always seek the best-educated workers at the lowest price. Berating those who leave or those who hire them is not going to stem the tide.
So what can be done to ensure that developing countries retain the brain power they need to drive their economic development?
Knowledge workers, especially researchers and scientists, are strongly attracted by interesting and meaningful jobs, not just lifestyle and salary benefits. Here government policy can make a difference.
Qatar is a test case for what can be achieved when a country makes knowledge-based jobs a national priority.
A small and rich Gulf state, Qatar has attracted top-ranked US-based universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell, Georgetown and Texas A&M to its shores under the umbrella of the Qatar Foundation. These universities are finding that their US staff are happy to come over and teach, but only if they can also do cutting-edge research.
To create such opportunities, Qatar's government, industry and universities have collaborated to generate research projects that have an immediate benefit to its economy or society.
One such project addresses type-II diabetes, which is disproportionately prevalent (and increasing) in Arab countries. In 2003, four of the five countries that had the highest prevalence of adult diabetes in the world were Gulf countries: the United Arab Emirates (20.1 per cent), Qatar (16 per cent), Bahrain (14.9 per cent), and Kuwait (12.8 per cent).
Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar is working with the national hospital operator Hamad Medical Corporation, and the IT agency the Supreme Council for Information & Communication Technology, on a new project that aims to monitor diabetics using advanced sensors as they go about their life.
This collaborative strategy is considered so important that Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, wife of Qatar's emir and chair of the Qatar Foundation, has in principle secured the revenue from one of the country's oil wells to fund such research —appropriately called the 'Well of Knowledge'.
In addition to creating academic research programs, Qatar's strategy has been to generate high-tech jobs in the private sector. It has encouraged multinationals like ExxonMobil, Shell and GE to set up major research centres in the country. This has the twin benefit of providing real-life problems for students and faculty to work on, and creating knowledge-based jobs for the students when they graduate.
Shell, for example, is locating a US$100 million research centre at Qatar Foundation's science park.
Of course not every country has the luxury of bringing in campuses of Weill Cornell or Carnegie Mellon, but the principle of linking the private sector and academia together can be replicated at any scale.
Such programs will not completely halt emigration of talent, but they will help the growth of knowledge-based jobs and take a step toward 'brain circulation' — when investment in human capital leads to national gain.
Eulian Roberts is the chief executive of the Qatar Science & Technology Park, in Doha, Qatar.