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Talent in transit

Studies have shown that the circulation of brains can provide benefits to developing countries

JAIME PRADESThe debate on the “brain drain”, an expression coined in the 1950’s to describe the exodus, to wealthy nations, of talent trained under difficult circumstances in poor countries has taken a new direction. In the last few years, thanks to extensive economic integration among nations, less expensive means of transportation, and communication resulting from globalization, the international mobility of highly trained professionals has increased significantly. In fact, the academic community has now begun to view this phenomenon as something much more complex and multifaceted, and possibly able to provide compensation and benefits to the affected countries. The original term has unfolded into other terms, such as “brain exchange”, to describe the situation in countries as England, Germany, and Canada, which not only attract qualified professionals but also export them, especially to the United States. Another such expression stemming from the original one is “brain gain”, linked to countries which successfully attracted back their native professionals, who had migrated to other countries. The concept of “optimal brain drain” refers to countries that were able to maintain the exit of brains at tolerable levels and, in the long term, also extracted some expertise from the benefits obtained overseas by their straying citizens.

The list of expressions deriving from the original one is very long. The report prepared by the US’s Briant Lindsay Lowell, a professor at Georgetown University, and by Scotland’s Allan Findlay, from the University of Dundee, at the request of the International Labor Organization, describes a collection of sub-phenomena. One of them is referred to as the “brain waste”, the exporting of professionals to work at well-paid but unqualified jobs, which do not take advantage of or enhance the training these professionals received in their native countries. The expression “brain export” describes the exodus of talents who are able to make up for their absence in several ways, whether it is by sending money to their families, by transferring technology to their native country, as is the case of India, which created a powerful software industry, thanks to legions of computer science students who went to study in the United States. The expressions “brain globalization” and “brain circulation” were coined to define the international mobility of talent that has become part of the lives of big corporations, especially the rotation of executives, the objective of which is to ensure the corporations’ competitive edge in global markets.

The brain drain in the traditional meaning of the expression affects developing countries in South and East Asia, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in Africa and in Latin America – in this case, Argentina being the country that comes to mind. These countries are still losing highly trained professionals without being able to retrieve them or benefit from their international circulation. “Like many social processes, the impact of the brain drain on developing countries depends on direct and indirect effects”, Lowell and Findlay wrote. “An immediate, direct effect is the decline in the number of skilled workers, a loss which is difficult to repair in the short term; but there are also indirect effects with the strength to encourage economic growth.”

A number of strategies have been created or tested to deal with the brain drain. Surprisingly, they have very little in common, other than the fact that the words in English begin with the letter “R”. One of these strategies is “reparation”, which has been abandoned. This strategy is based on the idea, launched in the seventies by Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati (1934- ), of creating a tax to be paid by wealthy countries to offset the predatory brain drain from the developing world. Another strategy that is no longer being used is “restriction” to the exit of qualified professionals – this strategy was abandoned because of its incompatibility with civil rights in democratic regimes. Other strategies include “recruiting policies”, whereby a country seeks to inject some fresh air into its academic and productive environment by attracting brains from overseas and “retention policies”, focused on discouraging the brain drain by strengthening the native country’s scientific, productive and economic development sectors. Finally, there is the “return” option, which seeks to attract part of the brains back to their native countries, and the “resourcing” option, also known as the “diaspora” option, which seeks to mobilize researchers living abroad and encourage them to help strengthen the connections of the academic and business communities in their native countries with the developed world.

In the past, Brazil resorted to the recruiting strategy to provide its scientific community with consistency – the founding of the University of São Paulo/USP, in 1934, is the main example of this strategy. In the last forty years, Brazil has followed the retention option, by fostering the development of a strong national post-graduate system. Research studies on the international mobility of Brazilian talents – albeit scarce – show that the country has not undergone significant losses in this respect. A study coordinated by sociologist Simon Schwartzman in 1972 showed that Brazil’s brain drain was insignificant: only 5% of the respondents in his study remained abroad after concluding their studies. A research study conducted in 2002 by Reinaldo Guimarães, a professor at the Social Medicine Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/UFRJ, produced similar results. His analysis encompassed the period from 1993 to 1999 and involved queries to 2,769 leaders of research teams from all over Brazil. He verified that 966 Brazilian scientists had migrated overseas in those years, 443 of whom went abroad to work and 523 to study. The result also corresponds to 5% of the total 18,180 PhDs involved in research activities and who had obtained their doctorate degrees during that period.

JAIME PRADESBrazil also has a significant ability to attract scientists from other countries. A survey conducted by the National Scientific and Technological Council (CNPq) in 2005 showed that 2,145 foreigners had permanent employment at Brazilian universities.  However, this does not mean that Brazil’s apparent immunity to the problem cannot be reverted. The tendency in the developed world is to increasingly resort to countries from Southern and Eastern Europe to meet its needs for highly qualified professionals. In 2000, Germany offered 20 thousand permanent residency visas to information technology specialists, and in a little over a year Germany was able to recruit half of this contingent, especially from Eastern Europe.

A clear tendency to return to their native country separates Brazilian researchers abroad from their colleagues of other nationalities. Maria Luiza Lombas, whose master’s thesis was presented at the University of Brasília in 1999, focused on the expectations that Brazilian students working on their doctorate degrees in four different countries had about returning to Brazil. She points out that the promotion agencies have strict policies in the sense of requiring that their scholarship grantees return to Brazil, under penalty of having to return the money invested in their education. In her research study, she verified that 84% of the 346 doctorate students she had interviewed planned to return to Brazil immediately after concluding their studies. Of the remaining 16% respondents, the majority wanted to remain in those countries for a few more months to complement their training in research activities. Of this group of respondents, only 2% stated that they intended to extend their stay abroad and engage in some kind of professional activity. The researcher, who currently works as the general coordinator of scholarships abroad at the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior/Capes, further states that the consolidation of post graduate studies in Brazil resulted in changes by the promotion agencies in regard to grants being offered for doctorate studies abroad. The promotion agencies now prioritize modalities such as sandwich doctorate or post-doctorate studies, in which the time that grantees stay abroad is much shorter and the grantees are less exposed to invitations to remain abroad, even though this is not the objective of the strategy. “Scholarships encourage the interaction of our researchers with the international academic environment. When these researchers com back to Brazil, they retro-feed our system with their experience”, she states.

Léa Velho, a professor at the Department of Scientific and Technological Policies of the Geosciences Institute at Unicamp, believes that other factors influence this tendency to return. “In spite of difficulties, Brazil still offers these researchers a chance to work in the academic field. They have a place to come back to, which makes a difference”, she states. Léa adds some cultural data. She says that Brazilians do not like to move around, even inside Brazil, and when they say they want to come back to Brazil, they’re talking about the big centers such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. She further states that: “the scholarship grantees who go abroad belong to a social class that has special privileges in Brazil, and these privileges, such as the possibility of having domestic servants or extended families to help raise their children, do not exist in developed countries. The cultural shock is very significant, and I think it is only natural that many of them do not want to remain abroad forever”, she says. Biologist Marcia Triunfol, who came back to Brazil two years ago after working for more than ten years in the United States, agrees with Lea Velho’s analysis. “The culture is too different. I felt that the commitment to work that Brazilians have when they are abroad becomes more relaxed when they come back to Brazil, perhaps because the conditions are not always the desired ones or perhaps because here they live under the protective wing of public funding”, she says.

Marcia had worked for Science magazine and for the National Health Institute. Personal reasons motivated her decision: she had married in the US and had become a widow. “I had a good job and could have stayed there for many years, because probably nobody would ever send me away. But I wanted to do things that were out of my reach in the United States.” Nowadays, she lives in the town of Itaipava, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. She opened up a scientific communication firm and travels around the country conducting workshops that help researchers write scientific papers in English.

In the opinion of Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor at the Political Sciences Department of USP’s College of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences/ FFLCH, Brazil’s decision to invest in the strengthening of its post-graduate system – although successful – has produced a major side effect, which is the insignificant international insertion of Brazilian research studies. She is part of a network of professionals who study the academic profession in 19 countries. According to data she obtained on Brazil, 21.8% of the Brazilian professionals who had been interviewed stated that they had participated in international research projects in the last three years, a percentage which is considered as being quite low. This percentage goes up to 37.6% among professors linked to the major research universities, where post graduation is the strong point; however, this percentage corresponds to only 18 such institutions in Brazil. “Although a growing number of articles by Brazilian researchers is published in internationally indexed journals, the network production is still restricted. If there were a stronger mobility of talent, this would probably be different”, she states.

One of the beneficial effects registered in some countries traditionally affected by the brain drain is that families increasingly invest in education. There are signs that the perspective of obtaining a permanent residency visa in a developed country encourages more people in poor countries to invest in education. Since not all those aspiring people leave their native countries, the final balance is positive for the country. In an article published in 2006 in a journal of Great Britain’s Royal Economic Society, economists Michel Beine, Frederic Docquier and Hillel Rapoport showed the results of a mathematical model based on immigration rates and the educational level in several countries. They did the math and came to the conclusion that, when the tendency by well-educated people to migrate doubles in a given country, the proportion of a highly educated native population goes up by 5%. In the case of India, according to an article published in 2007 by economists Chengze Fan, from Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, and Oded Stark, the chance to emigrate to the United States to study computer engineering led many young Indians to learn computer programming, thus creating a platform of competencies that led the country to create a powerful software industry. But this effect depends on an “optimum” level of immigration, beyond which the losses could cause damage that would be difficult to offset and below which no stimuli would be generated to expand the population’s general education.

The idea that a brain drain would be inescapably harmful was based on the supposition that each talent represents a human capital asset, whose education and qualifications are a result of investments made by a country. Migration, according to such a perspective, irretrievably aborts the expectation of a return on such investment. According to French sociologist Jean-Baptiste Meyer, an outstanding expert on talent mobility, the human capital approach is faulty because it contemplates only one of the variables of this phenomenon. He points out that the sociology of science developed a conception of the processes of creation, transmission and application of knowledge which is based on collective work, with emphasis on the role of networks and scientific communities. “Individual skills and activities only make sense or generate results when linked to the communities they are related to”, says Meyer. In his opinion, this is easily observed in the examples of scientists who go back to their native countries to dwell bitterly on the waste of their competencies, because their skills are not connected to the environment where they obtained their maximum performance. Calculations by Meyer and by South African sociologist Mercy Brown show that the productivity of the research and development sector of the so-called Triad (United States, Western Europe and Japan) was 4.5 times higher in terms of the number of published articles and ten times higher in terms of patents in comparison to the same sector in the underdeveloped countries. “This is the big problem of the brain drain concept”, says USP’s Elizabeth Balbachevsky. “It is based on the principle that the education of a PhD is a static acquisition, that the professional received a hermetic package of knowledge and competencies. The truth is that this asset is dynamic. To maintain and perfect it, it is necessary to be in a favorable research environment; otherwise, that competency will get lost”, she states.

JAIME PRADESJean-Baptiste Meyer has become one of the main defenders of the potential of the return option, which seeks to attract back professionals who had emigrated, and of the diaspora option, which seeks to engage the researchers scattered abroad with the science and technology systems in their native countries. “As the skills of the emigrants are special, they represent a huge potential for adding resources to the emigrants’ native countries”, Meyer concludes. “Of course this depends on whether they are brought back in favorable conditions or whether they become useful in some other way. In this case, the brain drain would become a brain gain, because the developing country would have access to a human capital whose training took place in and was funded by another country, and this human capital could possibly become a multiplier of the state-of-the-art knowledge he obtained abroad”, he states.

Countries such as Singapore, South Korea and India were able to attract part of their brain drain back to their native countries. Talent repatriation programs have been implemented since the 1980’s; these programs set up local networks in which the returning talents are actually able to find jobs and become operational. The most successful examples come from nations that invest significant quantities in science and technology and have the necessary infrastructure to help those who return to settle down. The problem is that these requisites are not replicated in the poorer countries. In this case, diaspora is the option; this option is based on the strategy of involving researchers living abroad into networks focused on helping the scientific and economic development of their native countries.

The diaspora networks are based on the supposition that it is possible to benefit – albeit remotely – from the human capital of the emigrated professionals. The advantage is that these emigrants do not depend on investments in infrastructure, existing resources being resorted to instead. The objective of the diaspora networks is to create links through which the emigrants can connect with their native countries without the need of returning temporarily or permanently. This kind of long-distance partnership is possible nowadays, as exemplified by transnational collaborative research projects, involving academic institutions and business corporations. The South African Network of Skills Abroad/Sansa, created in 1998, is an example of an active network. This network’s objective is to connect highly qualified South African professionals living abroad with their fellow countrymen, in order to create an environment for the collaboration and transfer of knowledge. The network has more than 2,2 thousand members spread throughout 60 countries. The network was created by the Science and Technology Policy Centre of the University of Cape Town; nowadays it is managed by the National Research Foundation, a government-sponsored research organization.

Other such examples include the Chinese Scholars Abroad/Chisa, the Red Caldas, a Colombian network of research scientists and professionals, the Arab Scientists and Technologists Abroad/Asta, and the Silicon Valley Indian Professionals Association/Sipa. Although most of these networks state they are independent, many of them have connections with government institutions. But Meyer and Brown warn that few remote networks created by developing countries have been able to achieve any kind of consolidation. The most likely hypothesis for this is that researchers and scientists working side by side in the same lab or working remotely through an international network need to identify the relevance of collaborative research in order to start interacting, which is not always the case with the heterogeneous diaspora networks. This is why developing countries have to be realistic about the impact and use this diaspora strategy in combination with other policies.

In practical terms, the distinction between the return option and the diaspora option does not always respect the limits established by theory, and combined forms appear. In an article published at the beginning of this year, Anna Lee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, explores the examples of researchers trained in the US’s Silicon Valley, and shows that it is possible, through talent mobility, to transfer technical know-how speedily and flexibly. In 2000, approximately one half of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley were foreigners – together, they totaled 40 thousand professionals in 2000, according to that year’s US census figures.

According to Anna, there are examples of professionals trained in Silicon Valley who were responsible for noteworthy contributions towards the strengthening of the technological ties between their native countries and more advanced economies. Many of these talents travel regularly to and from the United States and their native countries, and there are those who have become “transnationals”, maintaining a residence in more than one place. In the early 1980’s, Israelis and Taiwanese professionals trained in Silicon Valley went back to their native countries and began to transfer the US’s venture capital model to invest in new companies. They had the technical expertise, familiarity with the business models and contact networks – coupled with the advantage of being familiar with the culture of these markets.

Israel became well known for creating software and internet companies. Taiwan became a center for the manufacturing of personal computers and circuit boards. It was no coincidence that this process was speedier in smaller countries than in countries with more complex economies, such as China and India. However, according to the researcher, beginning in 2004, venture capital and private equity funds have invested more than US$ 1 billion a year in companies located in the two emerging giants. “Although this is just a tiny fraction of the venture capital invested annually in the United States, this fosters local entrepreneurship and helps create a competitive environment for local companies and multinational corporations”, says the professor.