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Fears of long-term damage caused by a ‘brain drain’ from developing to technologically advanced countries may be exaggerated, even though increasing numbers of highly skilled workers worldwide — including scientists and other researchers — are moving abroad for jobs, according to a new report.

The study, produced by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups together 30 industrialised countries, bases this conclusion on the fact that many professionals eventually return to their place of origin.

Developing countries therefore benefit in the long-term, it says, if migrants return with new skills obtained abroad, especially if they have capital to invest or have contacts in the international science and technology fields.

But the report also warns that the brain drain may be harmful if it prevents a country from building up the critical mass of highly skilled workers needed to develop high-tech industries, or if its education and health services are under-staffed.

“The circulation of brains worldwide is a good thing,” says Dominique Guellec of the OECD’s Economic Analysis and Statistics Division and one of the authors of the report. “Ideas improve and there is better matching between skill and jobs.”

He adds: “In the short-run too, the brain drain has some advantages for developing countries. Often, there are no job opportunities for these people, and the only alternative to going abroad is to be unemployed.” Furthermore, migrants send money earned abroad back to their relatives at home, which also benefits the country.

The report, International Mobility of the Highly Skilled, cites the cases of three relatively recently developed countries — Ireland, Taiwan and Korea — where skilled workers initially went abroad and then later returned and helped to develop high-tech industries at home.

To lure back their top scientists in this way, developing countries should build their own innovation and research facilities, the report says. China, for example, has recently launched a programme to develop 100 universities into world-class research centres. Another way to ensure return, the report suggests, is to encourage students to study abroad while making grants conditional on the student’s return home.

Even those scientists who stay abroad for good can benefit their country of origin, and should not be considered a brain drain says Lea Velho, a Brazilian researcher at the Institute for New Technologies (INTECH) in Maastricht, The Netherlands.

For example, she argues, Brazilian researchers based in the United States have helped science in Brazil by promoting cooperation between the two countries.

“In this very globalised world, having a network of people in difference places can advance knowledge,” she says. “It isn’t only the number of people that stay abroad that matter — you also have to ask what those people are doing and how they may be of gain to the developing world in the future.”

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Related external links:

OECD home page
International Mobility of the Highly Skilled

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