"Brain drain" follow up – put great minds to use!

By Razib Khan | June 6, 2006 12:52 am

Is it me, or did Janet explode by the old 300 world barrier? :) In any case, she brings up some good issues in her expansive post, and there is one thing I want to follow up in regards to the “brain drain.” Who is it good for? Who is being drained?
This is a definitely “US centric” question. As an American, and a mildly patriotic one (or, more properly, US-egoistic one) I do look at this question through the “but is it good for America?” lens. Some people might ask, “but is it good for the world?” (that is, brain drain to the United States). That depends, but in general, I think yes!

My father is an immigrant scientist. He came to this country to complete a Ph.D. and stayed on. I have uncles who are also immigrant scientists. This phenomenon is part of my own life. Is the United States (or England) better for their presence? I would probably say to some extent since they are taxpayers that don’t bring much negative social baggage (Islamic fundamentalism, anti-sociality, disease, etc.). Immigration has certainly helped them, and it has probably helped the nation to which they immigrated to to some extent…but what about the nation they left?
First, we need to keep this issue in perspective. Research suggests that the “brain drain” problem varies by “donor” nation as a function of size, that is, nations like India and China don’t feel a big hit because they are so populous, while African nations are literally drained. Some people would argue that this drain is a geopolitical issue since the native intellectual classes are simply being exported to the West. But, the reality is that I suspect failing states will fail no matter the presence of scientists, research facilities and grant monies simply aren’t part of the picture for someone with a doctorate in a failing state, survival is.
As an American it is to our benefit to drain other nations of their talent, but, the reality is that talent in many nations will simply go wasted if they don’t go abroad. It is true that email and what not ties together scientists from across the world, but in some regions email is simply not possible when you don’t know if your family is going to be able to have a roof over their heads. The emigration of educated classes does not help the situation of a failed state, but I would hold that it the first and foremost duty of an individual is to their family. On the other hand, nations like India and China can “spare” a little talent, so why not avail ourselves of it?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ask a ScienceBlogger
  • http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/ Dr. Free-Ride

    Word limits, feh!
    Obviously, there are a lot of complexities to this question, and the assessment depends on what variables you take as relevant. I’m the first one to acknowledge that personal interests may trump what’s optimal for your nation or for the scientific community. As well, there are some circumstaces (without infrastructure of a particular sort, etc.) where scientific talent might as well be bagpiping aptitude without a bagpipe.
    On the other hand, some of the things that might be good for a nation in the short term may have bad consequences in the longer term.
    Shorter version: Double my word count and I probably still don’t have a firm “it’s good” or “it’s bad” answer!

  • razib

    yeah, i think the word count is dead. i just liked it cuz it let me respond really quickly.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    The brain drain is the fault of those countries which fail to keep their scientists home. People do not emmigrate on their whim, they must have serious advantages elsewhere to consider leaving. A lot of young people leave my country (Poland) now, not just because it’s a poor country, but also because of widespread cronyism (also in science), lack of state funding for science (way below civilized standards in terms of GDP percentage) and large unemployment. Emmigration is warning sign for the politicians: “clean up the country”.

  • Mengu Gulmen

    “The brain drain is the fault of those countries which fail to keep their scientists home.”
    There’s another side to this.
    Mainly, they are 3rd world countries because the ‘big guys’ (primarily the US) *require* them to be so. The meddlings of the US, UN (which is practically the US’ playground), IMF under the cover of “helping them out” actually make them worse and worse with every passing year.
    This is not just about science. Their economies are mostly advised (read: controlled) by the World Bank, IMF, basically the US. And most of the time they have so much other problems to deal with (such as internal political instabilities [caused mostly by ‘outside factors’], inflation, resource problems, international debts etc) they have no resources to provide for the scientific community.
    Most of the time, they live a ‘basic’ life, working their asses off and getting paid barely enough to survive.
    Most of the scientists, engineers, anyone migrating to the US or any other country, generally do it for a “life where the thing they love to do gets what it deserves”. If the government can’t pay what you think you deserve, and the private sector is saturated, this means that ‘local resources’ have been drained, and you have to move somewhere else.
    This “we’re liberating you” economics/politics has been going on for almost a century now. To undo its effects would require a major restructuring of the international community. And this is not an easy [or preferable] thing to do.
    People living in the US tend to think that the US is just a nation, their nation and that’s it. The truth is, the US is today a power controlling most of the world. The “International Trade System”, the “Rogue States (or more popular today, the Bush-concept: ‘AXIS OF EVIL!!!’)”, and everything related with them are extensions of this fact.
    War on Terrorism and such, are just tools to provide public acceptance of the “punishment” for the states that do not wish to become a part of this gigantic machine.
    There are a lot more things going on than meets the eye in one glance, really. History is a good teacher though. I suggest a review of world history of the last 200-300 years. Especially about the “Companies” set up in east asia in the 1600s by the british, dutch and the french, the causes for the first world war (why do you think there are no movies nor objective documentaries about the WWI?), the european business structure between the two world wars, “what was in the second world war apart from hitler, pearl harbor and hiroshima?”, how and why did the UN got set up, and all of the US’s exploits after the second world war. It all comes together in the end.
    Brilliant strategies, cunning tactics, I must say.

  • http://liberaldirk.blogspot.com/ LiberalDirk

    If I left my country it would be bad for it, and good for the country I left for.
    Or at least that is what my humble ego tells me.
    Why would I want to leave? Why would anyone. Well, the state (any state) has tremendous power. When the state uses that power to enforce upon me conditions that are in excess of what I can endure I would wish to leave.
    Say I was a nurse in South Africa (I’m not). I work for the state. The hours are long, the pay is meagre and the working conditions are poor, dangerous and declining. If I was a nurse I would first try to enter the private sector, and if that did not work I would attempt to find employment in another field. If that was impossible I would emigrate to a country where I could work within my speciality in decent conditions.
    Or if I happened to belong to a group the government has chosen to actively discriminate against, If the discrimination became impossible to endure, I would leave.
    Likewise, if the conditions (infrastructure & social conditions) of the country becomes intolerable I would leave.
    In short any government experiencing massive voluntary emigration needs to look at itself and ask, what are we doing that so many people want to leave.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Mengu Gulmen,
    1) what does that have to do with the topic of the post?
    2) you ever hear of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join’ ’em?’ scientists of the world, all roads lead to rome, come and be citizens of the empire!

  • Mengu Gulmen

    Razib, this was actually a reply to the previous comment by Roman Werpachowski.
    I was just trying to put the brain drain/flux in perspective with other things it’s related to and to make a point to basically say “nothing happens by itself” :)
    About joining the empire.. I’m hoping for the days that the internet will render it useless :)

  • a

    Razib, I think your categorisation of “donor” nations is too simplistic. In Australia, politicans often talk about the “brain drain” even though Australia is a great place to live. I don’t know how much of a problem the “brain drain” actually is in Australia since I’m currently contributing to it and doing my PhD in europe. I’m waiting to see how Tim Lambert is going to weigh in on the subject.

  • John Emerson

    What I’m wondering is whether some up-and-coming nation will put out the welcome mat and invest some serious money on becoming a tech powerhouse. One disability most of the world has is that, pre-9/11, the US was one of the easiest countries for a foreigner to assimilate to. (Japan, for example, is extremely difficult.) A second disability is that English is the de facto standard in almost all tech and science areas so the local language usually wouldn’t help.
    The best bets to me would be So. Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. So. Korea and Taiwan are quite hospitable, well on the way to development, and have strong but democratic governments. Singapore is more of a police state and less hospitable (I’ve heard) but very efficient and orderly.
    I don’t see Europe or anywhere in Europe being able to take an initiative of this kind, for fiscal and political reasons, though they are ideal in many ways. If the EU were able to pull this off it could be major.

  • http://leftwingfox.blogspot.com Left_Wing_Fox

    Canada was experiencing a ’bout of “Brain Drain” to the United States, but a great deal of that had to do with job opportunities and the strength of the American Dollar. In 2000, the US dollar was worth $1.60 Canadian. So the same job between US and Canada might offer $50,000/year, living expenses would be roughly the same, but big ticket items (Cars, technology, furniture) would be about 60% of the relative cost, and Student loans could be paid off that much faster.
    Now with the Oil Boom in Alberta, and the US Dollar worth about $1.10 Canadian; we’re starting to see a reverse in the flow. Especially for that $50,000 job, Canada offers lower personal taxation rates (!) and a superior value on medical benefits.

  • Rietzsche Boknecht

    talent in many nations will simply go wasted if they don’t go abroad.
    I believe that this(emigrating)is all to the better. (NOT that there are failing states where the educated sometimes see emigrating as their only option(that’s bleak), but that it just so happens that the emigrant can personally help the himself, contribute to host nation he has emigrated to & make the most of it, sometimes helping family back home or encouraging familes to emigrate as well — all the better if they’re a high g bunch, no?. It’s a win-win situation sometimes, wouldn’t you say?
    I don’t know whether I’m hypocritical or selfish on this issue or not, but I believe in putting great minds to use. And, as was pointed out, overly-populous nations like China & India can afford to spare some talent for the rest of the world.
    Is it bad that the best & brightest are getting themselves out of hellholes? They can’t even utilize their potential when they’re remaining in hellholes.
    We aren’t really sucking the developing or failed states dry, because high g people do not & cannot make the most of themsleves in such places anyhow.
    A big problem here is that the large influx of largely low g latino migrants is likely to lower the attractancy of the U.S. — in terms of scientists abroad looking where best to emigrate — by slowly tranforming it into a hellhole itself, possibly.

  • AG

    To Rietzsche Boknecht
    Your argument is valid. But this does not apply to China any more. In book WORLD IS FLAT, Bill Gates said also, talent Chinese are no longer interested in emigration any more.

  • pconroy

    John said:
    What I’m wondering is whether some up-and-coming nation will put out the welcome mat and invest some serious money on becoming a tech powerhouse.
    John, where have you been for the last few years, seriously??
    Ireland has being doing this for a while now, and they have one of the highest quality of living standards in the world, speak English, are a friendly people etc. A few years ago they funded Nicholas Negroponte to open Media Lab Europe in Dublin. 10 years ago they hired Vinton Cerf and various other Internet luminaries as special consultants. Is it any wonder than Google opened up its first non-US operation in Ireland. Right now the country exports more software than the US does, and in a country whose population just reached 4 million, has over 800 indigenous software companies! They launched a 5 year plan 2 or 3 years ago to import 200,000 engineers and scientists – aiming at US, English, Australian and Indian nationals. Recently they have expanded this to recruiting Chinese nationals.
    My brother lived for 2 years in South Korea and informed me that it is intolerable for an American or European to do so. In any job you are expected to show utmost deference and respect to any asshole who happens to be your boss. You are expected not to question any decision, no matter how moronic and echo the party line on everything. So no, this country won’t be one where many non-East Asians would be interested in emigrating to.
    As regards Taiwan, it’s in the process of being reassimilated into Mother China, so that’s a non-starter too.
    I see Australia as being a good candidate to follow Ireland’s lead. Finland would be a good place for researchers too, but who wants to learn Finnish (Soumi)?

  • pconroy

    Actually come to think of it, Vietnam might have a good shot at being a great high-tech place, as despite a bitter colonial past and the Vietnam war, they have been exposed to the West and understand something about Western culture, though they are firmly located in East Asia. So it could be a draw for both Asians and Europeans, but not right now – it needs a big chunk of infrastructure development first.

  • jaakkeli

    pconroy, Finnish is abnormally problematic only in the European context – it’s not like Vietnamese is closer to becoming the next world language. Climate is much worse a repellant…
    But you’re right about John E having been sleeping on Europe. In *per capita* terms Finland has been the “tech powerhouse” compared to the US since cell phones got big (or since they stopped being big) – but we’re so small that we can’t ever produce a Silicon Valley no matter what we do. The future of the EU could be bright if an example by the small countries could lift some of the larger ones from their delusions… (Also, small countries can only be top of the world in a few field – if we’d attempt to do everything ourselves, we’d just end up doing everything worse than the big ones – so in the ideal case we’d be seeing *focus* by small countries and a lot of brain moving following that, with each country being a net winner in some areas and net loser in some. Minimization of the latter is not ideal at all.)
    And BTW, in the field I care about, European prestige leadership is guaranteed for decades. The US had all the prestige and then made an explicit decision to kill it. It alone doesn’t hurt the US, but I think it’s symptomatic. I don’t think there’s any way to salvage US leadership – the country is just too badly stuck in “we don’t need that fancy stuff, CUZ WE’RE NUMBER 1!!!” mode to do anything about it.

  • pconroy

    I broadly agree with you, as I think Ireland and Finland are small enough, dynamic enough and smart enough to blaze a path for the large economies of Europe to follow.
    But, what I’d ideally like is much more fluid migration within Europe. My ex is French and her family live in Paris, which is now within commuting distance of London, but none of her family would ever think of working in England, let alone living there, due to anmity and rivalry between them.
    French graduates are flocking to Ireland though, and I would like to see more of this.
    I think this generation and the next one in Europe, will be more like Americans, and move between the regions and countries of Europe, over the course of their careers willingly and regularly.
    BioTech is taking off in Finland and Ireland right now, and I’d love them to become the hubs of R&D for the rest of Europe, with manufacturing of derived products left to countries like Germany – who excel in this.
    I’d also like to see Israel become part of the EU, as they are the only other country in the greater Europe area which are small, dynamic and smart as well. Right now most Israeli research gets funded by the US, but I’d like the EU to have the benefit of this country’s brainpower.

  • pconroy

    wrt Vietnam, AFAIK the entreprenurial class speak Mandarin, so this or English might become the language of high-tech in that country, as I agree that Vietnamese might well be as difficult as Finnish to learn.

  • Rietzsche Boknekht

    I’d also like to see Israel become part of the EU
    Not good, I believe. The political implications would be enormous, I think — likely not something the EU would want to deal with. The arab street already views Israel as the US’ arm of jurisdiction in the ME.
    Right now, most Israeli research gets funded by the US…
    Yea, see what I mean? Not good. There’s more to this issue than just science, R&D, & where it will/should flourish. It’s got some geopolitical dimensions too.

  • John Emerson

    If Finland or Ireland were successful enough in high tech, biotech, etc., they would BECOME large countries. I am really thinking of someone replacing the US rather than just supplementing it.
    Even for Finnish scientists in Finland, I suspect that the international language of science is English. So if we could only convince the Irish to abandon their archaic Gaelic and learn English.

  • pconroy

    Surely you jest :)
    the part of Ireland I came from has been English speaking for over 600 years, and English has alweays been an official language of Ireland…

  • Boknekht

    English speaking for over 600 years
    If I may take one guess as to which area in Ireland you’re from, I’ll go with somewhere in N. Eastern Ireland. That my best guess.

  • jaakkeli

    If Finland or Ireland were successful enough in high tech, biotech, etc., they would BECOME large countries.
    Uh, how will that happen? Our ultranationalist fruitcakes have yet another try at a private invasion of Russia and this time it actually works? Or we just make a lot of babies? And this is going to happen in, uh, what time?
    The US emerged unprecedentedly because of various unique circumstances, like all that empty (or sort of empty) land to populate. No country is going to have similar advantages in population again without something unpredictable on a nuclear-holocaust-kind-of-scale happening first. (Even fantastic biotech to eg. eliminate aging won’t work, because what you need is a relative advantage and you can only have a slight head start on a tech, other developed countries will never be *that* far behind in today’s world. It’s not like a land advantage, which you can keep as long as you can, well, keep it.)
    I am really thinking of someone replacing the US rather than just supplementing it.
    The only ways for anyone in Europe to surpass the US now are through either some group as whole (but EU GDP is already bigger than US GDP…) or through lessening of the US (great powers have been reduced to nothing through their own stupidity before, the odds of the US screwing up that badly of course approach one with time). As a brain-drainer of failed states, the EU is probably roughly equal with the US right now. There’s no way to for the EU to *replace* the US ie. stop the flow of significant number of smart people into it, because there’s no way to leave the US far enough behind for it to look completely unattractive in comparison (the only way to get there is for the US itself to pull something moronic enough to end up that far behind).

  • Iorwerth Thomas

    ‘So if we could only convince the Irish to abandon their archaic Gaelic and learn English.’
    Ummm, you _are_ joking, I hope…
    I’m pretty sure that there are fewer first-language Irish Gaelic speakers than there are first-language Welsh speakers, and the number of the latter is not exactly large (though the numbers of bilingual Welsh/English speakers has increased in recent years).

  • Iorwerth Thomas

    That’s Irish Gaelic speakers in Ireland and Welsh speakers in Wales, obviously… (There’s not many of the former in Wales and not many of the latter in Ireland.)

  • John Emerson


  • pconroy

    Your “best guess” would be totally incorrect.
    The North East of Ireland – the georgaphical entity, as opposed to political – would be the Down, Antrim and Belfast areas of Northern Ireland. First off this is part of the UK, second Northern Ireland was the last arable area of Ireland to be colonized – due to the power and success of the O’Neill Clan is fending off successive waves of invaders – about 400 years ago, third, the language spoken in this part of Northern Ireland until recent times was really the Scots (aka Lallans) language – not English per se, but a close Western Germanic cousin.
    My family has lived in The Pale for centuries. I would go so far as to say that this area of Ireland was one of the seminal areas for the development of the Modern English language – as precursors to Modern English were spoken here, together with the rest of England, for centuries before the emergence of Modern English.

  • pconroy

    20 years ago ther were an estiamted 10,000 native Irish Gaelic speakers in Ireland, with the bulk of the population being to a greater or lesser extent bi-lingual, due to the fact that Irish Gaelic was a compulsory subject in High School. Now there are almost no native speakers left.
    The funny thing is that some people in the aformentioned Pale – especially Middle to Upper Middle Class types are trying to revive the language as an everyday spoken language again. My brother-in-law and sister are among this group, which I frankly think is laughable, as the language is on life-support as it is, and there is absolutely no economic reason for people to learn it, only a whimsical one.
    It’s like Americans being interested in the customs and cultures of Native Americans today, after past generations have devastated and virtually eliminated them off the face of the earth.

  • Iorwerth Thomas

    I thought as much. The situation in Wales is more complex, and depends a lot on class and other economic factors; however the long term trend seems a little depressing for Welsh speakers such as myself.

  • Boknekht

    yea, I mistakenly reasoned that N E Ireland might be where you were from because I had anglo influence on my mind.
    Anyway, thanks for the links & info you provided; informative:)


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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