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There is no need for labs to poach researchers from developing countries — let them return home but maintain collaboration, argues John Kirkland.

The market for high-quality academic staff has gone global.

A recent report from Universities UK warned that "increased R&D targets in many countries will mean increasing competition for researchers around the world. Europe alone will need 500,000 more research staff by 2010 to meet EU targets. Success will require access to the best quality staff –– wherever they can be found." Here I suggest a way in which developing countries could collaborate in this process.

The particular needs of developing countries are recognised in the report, notably with a request that the drive to recruit should not be achieved by further accelerating the brain drain from these nations. Some might describe the warning as a noble gesture, showing that universities still seek a moral approach in a competitive world. Others would describe it as hypocrisy or, at best, too little too late. 

New perspective on an old problem

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that 30–50 per cent of the developing world's population who are trained in science and technology already live in the developed world.

More enlightened observers will argue for a more sophisticated approach. The notion that individuals can choose to remain in their home country (generally regarded as a good thing) or leave to work in a developed country (regarded as a bad thing) is increasingly unsuited to an age in which professional careers are no longer confined to a single location. So, increasingly, are simplistic arguments about whether members of the diaspora can produce more benefit from overseas than by remaining in their own country. Whatever long-term economic arguments are produced, a loss of 20,000 skilled professionals a year must have a negative impact.

The reality is that the brain drain does not have to be an either/orsituation. The key question is not whether individuals work in their own country or abroad, but how the two alternatives can be best balanced –– to benefit both their own careers and the universities in their home countries, and even to provide incentives for host universities in the developed world.

Can these interests be reconciled? The idea that researchers from developing countries should spend time in the North is far from new. Many donor agencies and governments offer the possibility of fellowships, conference visits and collaborative research. All such offers are welcome, but they often display a lack of creative thinking. The awards are for finite periods, often based around agendas driven by donors rather than the career development of the individual concerned. They tend to represent 'islands' in a career, and are insufficiently connected to the long-term needs of the individual or of their home institution. 

And too many donors tend to be seeking the same sort of people –– academics who are already established but have sufficient working years left to provide a return on the investment. International fellowships reach only a minuscule proportion of academics in developing countries.

The tragedy is that by the time most such fellowships are available many committed, talented individuals have become disillusioned with their career prospects. Tracer studies of Commonwealth scholarship holders in the United Kingdom reveal that 85–90 per cent of recipients return home to build their careers. But the enthusiasm and potential generated during their postgraduate studies is undermined by a lack of facilities and support. 

Coming up with a better all-round remedy

A recent study commissioned by the British Academy from the Association of Commonwealth Universities suggests that a lack of opportunities and mentoring in the immediate post-doctoral period is critical. Africa has not developed the concept of early-career research fellowships, which in developed countries provide early career training, joint publications and exposure to funding applications.

An opportunity exists for universities in the North to enhance their world standing while helping sister universities in less developed countries. A scheme in which the best doctoral candidates are routinely invited back for annual periods of, say, six weeks a year for an initial five-year period would allow the universities to maintain a serious stake in the publications, research and teaching of their alumni –– almost as though they were part-time staff members. 

For the recipients, it would enable overseas collaboration to take place within a planned career-development framework. For the developing country university, it would help enable the retention of their brightest young staff, who would have planned access to the facilities of a northern institution. Everyone would benefit from the spin-off projects that would probably result.

The development of such 'hybrid careers' would be cheap: perhaps £6,000 (US$11,930) per recipient per year. Given the benefit that would accrue, it would be reasonable to expect Northern universities to contribute to this sum. It would provide a novel way of giving enlightened hosts access to the brightest young talent, while helping to create a new generation of developing country academics into the bargain.

John Kirkland is deputy secretary-general – development of the Association of Commonwealth Universities