Brain drain? The pros and cons of scientist mobility

Brain drain? The pros and cons of scientist mobility

Brain drain? The pros and cons of scientist mobility.

Researchers have always been relatively mobile workers, and it is widely accepted that international cooperation and exchanges of ideas are essential for the advancement of science. But what happens if the flow of researchers is one-way? How can poorer countries stop the mass exodus of their best and brightest to richer countries? And closer to home, how can the EU attract and retain the best researchers? These questions were debated at the Euroscience Open Forum in Munich on 17 July by a panel which included two researchers who had come to Europe to further their careers.

Putting the issue into context, Mario Cervantes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) pointed out that skills-driven migration was nothing new; when visiting a 12th century church in Rome recently, he observed that the stained glass windows had been made by French and Flemish artisans.

Today’s skilled migrant workers are more likely to be medical personnel, information technology (IT) specialists, students, entrepreneurs and, of course, researchers. There are frequently reports of brilliant scientists who have left Europe in search of a brighter and probably richer future in the US. Questions are also raised about the ethics of researchers from developing countries being recruited by institutions in the developed world.

However, these anecdotal tales mask a severe lack of data on researcher mobility which makes it very hard to analyse the full picture. Nevertheless, while many details remain obscure, it is clear that there is a net movement of researchers from developing to developed countries, and to a certain degree, from developed countries to the US.

Very often the press presents this ‘brain drain’ as a largely negative phenomenon, yet as Georges Bingen of the European Commission’s DG Research pointed out, researcher mobility brings many benefits. ‘Brain circulation can be extremely beneficial,’ he said. ‘It transfers knowledge and opens up connections, and this is why the Commission encourages mobility outside Europe.’ He cautioned that mobility was a problem in cases where there was a systematic reluctance to return; where the best talents were disproportionately affected; and where there was no compensation from incoming brains.

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