Peruvian scientists disgruntled with ‘brain gain’ scheme

Inca Ritual_Ivan Kashinsky_Panos
Copyright: Ivan Kashinsky/Panos

Speed read

  • Returning researchers are disappointed with support and facilities
  • Scientists are left on their own when the two-year brain gain contracts end
  • An improved initiative is due to be launched later this month

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[LIMA] When Maria Quintana returned from her high-tech lab in Sweden to Peru’s National University of Engineering in 2011, she was dismayed to find herself sharing a small, plywood room with three other researchers, faced with broken equipment and without the chemicals she needed for her solar power research.

“I still don’t have [key equipment] for testing, nor funds to buy it. In my two first years, I was just sending nanomaterial samples to Sweden for some special tests that are impossible to do in Peru, instead of doing in-depth research”, she tells SciDev.Net.

A lack of tools — as well as job insecurity — is a common concern among the handful of scientists, such as Quintana, who returned to Peru as part of the first phase of a 'brain gain' programme funded by the Inter-American Development Bank between 2010 and 2012.

“Bringing scientists back isn’t going to help, if working conditions don’t change simultaneously and authorities don’t give support to scientists who are already here.”

Heinner Guío, National Health Institute

The programme offered two year contracts to develop a preapproved project with a Peruvian university or research organisation with up to US$150,000 in funding.

Another returnee, Heinner Guío, who did his postdoctorate research in immunology at Imperial College London, United Kingdom, says he has “faced an administrative and logistics system that is not suitable for the development of science”.

Guío, who is at the National Health Institute, is working on the first Peruvian population genetic map, studying DNA samples of indigenous communities from the mountains and jungles of Peru. One of the goals is to eventually help diagnose diseases and design tailor-made health solutions. He says the originality of his research has attracted talented and committed researchers, which is what keeps him from emigrating again.

“But we don’t have a stable employment contract and we need to renegotiate our wages every three to four months,” he says.

Quintana faces a similar situation. “I’ve been here for four years but without job stability, vacations or any kind of job support,” she says. “I’ve had to get a job in a private university to recover economically.”

When the two-year brain gain contract ends, “we are left on our own”, she tells SciDev.Net.

The second returnee programme aims to entice 20 scientists to return by offering an extra US$3,000 a month on top of their basic pay. The deadline for final applications is 30 November and authorities who run the programme say there has been a “moderate interest”.

The authorities from Peru’s national science council are aware of the concerns that earlier returning scientists have raised and say they are working to solve them.

Anton Willems Delanoy, deputy director of innovation and technology transfer at the National Council for Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (Concytec), tells SciDev.Net that the council plans to launch an improved brain-gain programme later this month.

According to Willems, a tracking and monitoring office will be created to support returnees when their contract finishes. And the duration of their research contracts is likely to double to four or five years and the administrative burden will be lessened.

But a single programme cannot solve all the challenges Peru’s scientists face, says Celia Cornejo, coordinator of monitoring and evaluation of management of the Fund for Innovation, Science and Technology, which implements the brain gain programme.

“We need to modify several things that are out of our reach. Unfortunately, our universities and public entities don’t have any research budgets,” Cornejo tells SciDev.Net.

Such challenges, says Guío, mean that “bringing scientists back isn’t going to help, if working conditions don’t change simultaneously and authorities don’t give support to scientists who are already here”.

Willems promises that another mechanism under the new brain gain programme will see Concytec matching scientists’ expertise to the research and teaching needs of universities and public institutes.

But Rodomiro Ortiz, a Peruvian researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, thinks the entire approach to working with science diaspora needs to change.

“Instead of thinking in terms of repatriation, it would be better to set up mechanisms for leading scientists — whether Peruvian or foreign — working at high-quality international centres to offer advice to national researchers and help new practitioners in their expertise fields through tutoring, networks and research placements,” he says.