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Europe's recent bid to attract more skilled workers underlines developing countries' need for greater – not less – investment in their intellectual capital.

Listen to any developing country leader talk about the difficulties of building a knowledge-based economy, and chances are high that the brain drain will top their complaints. What is the point in investing in training cadres of scientists and engineers, they argue, if they immediately leave for better-paid jobs in the developed world?

So it is not surprising that last week's European Union announcement of plans to introduce a 'blue card' scheme to attract more highly skilled immigrants, particularly from Africa, Asia and Latin America, has raised strong protests within these regions (see 'EU 'blue card' to attract Southern researchers).

Many commentators are arguing that the move will only deepen and encourage the brain drain, and is likely to directly undermine commitments made elsewhere, at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2005, for example, to build up strong professional communities in fields such as science and technology. One commentator described the EU announcement as a "neo-colonial grab for the raw materials of the information economy".

Brain drain or circulation?

The reality is more complex. Unlike politicians, development economists rarely talk of a brain drain: their preferred terminology is 'brain circulation' — the concept that individuals who leave a country can still make a valuable contribution to its development, either from a distance or by eventually returning.

This is not to deny that a major problem exists. Poor facilities and job prospects mean that in too many developing countries a science graduate's strongest hope of building a research career is to seek a position in a North American or European university.

Anecdotal evidence supports the statistics on the brain drain. It is not unusual to hear an Indian university's computer engineering department, for example, reporting that a whole graduation class plans to take up jobs in the United States when they finish their studies. Or an African research department complaining that it is impossible to fill scientific vacancies since there are no qualified candidates left in the country.

Science and technology are far from being the only professional fields affected. Perhaps the worst hit is the medical profession. Trained nurses and health workers in countries such as Malawi are leaving to work abroad almost as fast as their countries produce them.

Better returns, not less investment

It would be catastrophic if such experiences led developing countries to conclude that investing in training skilled professionals in general – and scientists, engineers and technicians in particular – was a waste of money. The way forward is to find how to increase returns on investment, not to reduce the investment in the first place.

There is a strong need to encourage those who join the brain drain to find ways of benefiting their countries of origin. For example, former 'brain-drainers' can bring back home professional experience gained overseas.

China's and India's high-technology companies would not have grown so fast without support from returning expatriates who worked for considerable lengths of time in fertile environments such as Silicon Valley.

Even those who remain abroad can help. Their earnings often provide the capital investment high-technology enterprises need to get off the ground. And many developing countries are beginning to tap into the skills of their intellectual diasporas – such as inviting scientists to return as guest lecturers or to collaborate on joint research projects.

Real change, not diktat

But much more needs to be done to increase the incentives for trained scientists and engineers to pursue professional careers in their own countries, and to attract back those who have left.

Neither can be effectively achieved by government diktat. The more any government tries to impose restrictions on its scientists' and engineers' international movement, the more it is likely to create a backlash. Constraints – as the former communist states of Europe found to their cost – fuel resentment and the desire to leave.

Change will come about only when developing countries provide researchers with an environment where they can work effectively and feel adequately rewarded for their efforts. This means providing an adequate infrastructure for high quality research, and providing salaries for scientists that, at the very least, allow for a decent standard of living.

All this, however, requires investment. If the European Union is keen that its employment needs do not undermine its overseas aid policy – and a commitment in last week's announcement to 'ethical recruitment', particularly in Africa, suggests that is the case – then it must put its money where its mouth is.

That means providing more direct support for science and technology capacity-building in Africa, and working with African governments to ensure that such support is used effectively. Only then will the brain drain become an opportunity, rather than a threat.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net