Mitigating the brain drain is a moral necessity

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The loss of skilled personnel is a major drain on the whole development process, nowhere more than in science and technology. A new SciDev.Net dossier provides a guide to this complex issue.

Shortly after coming to power last December, Kenya’s new president, Mwai Kibaki, issued a heartfelt plea to the country's graduates now working in the developed world. “We invite all of those who have been hounded out of our shores by repressive policies of our predecessors to come back home and join us in nation-building,” the president said. “Kenya needs the genius of its citizens wherever they are. It’s time for healing, and we need every hand on deck.”

Kibaki’s words will have generated sympathy across the continent. Virtually every African country has suffered from a debilitating ‘brain drain’ of its brightest and best over the past few decades; according to one estimate, the continent has lost one third of its skilled professionals over this period, and is currently having to pay US$4 billion a year to replace them with expatriates from the West. In addition, many essential sectors of the economy – science and technology among them – remain chronically weakened by the resulting lack of human resources.

Africa is not the only region to have suffered in this way. Across the world, low salaries, a lack of high-quality research facilities, and political instability have each played their part in luring away those who might otherwise have played a key role in securing their nation’s future. Ironically, the very universality of science has only made the problem worse, since it means that those trained in one country can, almost more than in any other profession, easily function in another that offers them better working conditions.

Perhaps nowhere in the panorama of development needs, is action more urgent. Yet as the articles in a new ‘dossier’ that SciDev.Net is launching this week clearly demonstrate (www.scidev.net/braindrain), if the causes of the brain drain are complex, the possible solutions are even more so. At its core, however, two messages are clear. The first is that the haemorrhage will continue as long as a country fails to integrate science into its political priorities – or fails to back up such a commitment with the financial and other resources needed to make this commitment a practical reality. The second is that the developed world, which has benefited so substantially from the brain drain, has a moral responsibility to ensure that this happens.

Financial incentives

As in most other professions, money remains a major factor behind the brain drain. In fact, many young scientists are actively encouraged to seek training abroad by developing nations that see this is as more cost-effective than attempting to provide comparable training opportunities at home. But, whatever job satisfaction such researchers could obtain from working in their country of origin, the lure of substantially higher salaries remains understandable, particularly as family commitments grow; faced with a choice of earning $50,000 a year in a US university and $500 a year in an African one, few can be blamed for choosing the former.

Many of those who have been successful in reversing at least part of the brain drain have found that this can only be done by offering employment packages that significantly exceed local norms. Those rich (or committed) enough to do this have often been able to turn the brain drain to their advantage, as both Taiwan and South Korea have done (see Networking lessons from Taiwan and South Korea).

Even China, whatever its egalitarian principles, has found this an effective strategy. Indeed, the approach has been largely responsible for the trend – remarked on by several authors of articles in our dossier – to think more in terms of “brain circulation” rather than “brain drain”. In other words, it promotes the important idea that migration of skilled personnel becomes less of a problem as soon as it becomes a two-way, and not a unidirectional, process.

But money alone is not the only factor behind the brain drain. As Mohamed Hassan, the executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences, has pointed out (see Sociology – not finance – drives the brain drain), many scientists initially leave their country of origin driven less by financial hardship than the desire to find an environment in which they can work effectively with enthusiasm and support.

Conversely, it is a fear of losing direct contact with professional peers, and of the lack of basic library or research facilities, that deter many from returning. TWAS and its parent organisation, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), have been at the forefront of initiatives pioneered by the late Pakistan-born physicist Abdus Salam to address this by, for example, organising short training courses and research fellowships at the ICTP’s headquarters in Trieste, Italy.

The need for long-term solutions

But, as Hassan is the first to admit, these are only stopgap remedies, not long-term solutions. The same can be said of another increasingly popular way to attack the brain drain, namely the so-called “diaspora option”. This is based on the idea that, if a developing country lacks the financial resources to attract back its emigrant researchers on a permanent basis, it can at least find ways of tapping into their skills and experience.

Supporters of this strategy point to the many ways in which this can be successfully done; for example, expatriate scientists can return temporarily to give training courses or research seminars, or can provide various forms of support from outside the country (see South Africa shows the value of the diaspora option). Critics argue that putting excessive emphasis on what can only be a temporary measure risks deflecting attention from more sustainable capacity-building strategies (see Can the scientific diaspora save African science?).

Various other solutions to the brain drain have been put forward, each with its own attractions – and drawbacks. The most draconian, but in the long-term least effective, have been bans on scientists working – and sometimes even travelling – abroad, a measure virtually guaranteed to stifle creativity and commitment. Among the more attractive options, but at the same time more politically difficult to implement, have been proposals for an international tax that recipient countries would pay on all immigrant scientists and other skilled personnel, the proceeds to be redistributed to those who have paid for their training in the first place.

The authors of the various articles in our dossier do not come up with any consensus on the best way forward. Indeed, even though virtually all countries suffer from a brain drain in one form or another, this is one area in which there is no ideal solution; remedies need to be tailored to individual circumstances. Our intention has been to lay out some of the components from which such remedies can be constructed, and relate the experiences of those countries that have tried them out, with varying degrees of success.

Yet the lack of an ideal solution is no excuse for inaction. As has been frequently stressed on the SciDev.Net website, a genuine commitment to development requires a genuine commitment to building the scientific capacity that underpins it. But investment in this capacity will be worthless if its fruits are dissipated through a subsequent brain drain. It is in the interests of the whole development community to ensure that this does not happen.

© SciDev.Net 2003