Coping with Brain Drain

How are governments addressing the problem of brain drain when designing innovation policy? To be sure, “brain drain” is the situation where a country suffers a net loss of highly-skilled labour force during an extended period of time.

Highly-skilled labour force includes those with high education levels, highly specialised skills, and research abilities. It naturally includes scientists and researchers, but also entrepreneurs, experts and innovators more generally.

“Brain drain” is a problem for the home country for two reasons. Firstly the public investment on education and research training does not revert into the local economy. And secondly because brain drain limits the long-term possibilities for that economy to develop high-end, high-value industries in the globalized economy. Put simply, “brain drain” limits the possibility of developing a knowledge-based economy.

Naturally, the notion of “brain drain” bears a negative view on the emigration of highly-skilled workers from the home country. For its part, other notions bear a more positive view. This is the case of “researchers’ mobility” or “brain circulation” put forward in different contexts and for different purposes. “Researchers’ mobility” is a political goal put forward by the European Union, which supports the cross-border mobility of researchers as pathways for integrating and creating communities of researchers in Europe, and for strengthening the European Union as whole rather than specific countries. “Brain circulation” is a scholarly concept put forward in the mid-2000s by different sociologists, most notably AnneLee Saxenian (2006). The concept aims at capturing a phenomenon by which young talented Indian and Chinese technical students in Silicon Valley became innovative entrepreneurs at a global scale by linking with their home country. Hence, the “circulation” part refers to these global networks, making Silicon Valley a true global hub of research and innovation.

Regardless of these negative or positive views embedded in these concepts, it is important that policy-makers examine and address the reality of their innovation systems with open mind. This is so because, denying the fact that there is “brain drain” can be as counterproductive as to exaggerate it. An upfront denial of “brain drain” can result in obscuring or negating the existence of a problem that might have deep consequences for the real possibilities for innovativeness and economic growth in a country. Likewise, exaggerating it might trigger over-protective political reactions that run counter one of the essential features of scientific knowledge and innovativeness, namely, its free movement and cross-border fertilization.

What can governments do to cope with “brain drain”?  To be sure, “brain drain” is a complex phenomenon that has to do with individual/personal choices, as well as with the overall innovation system. Therefore, it is very difficult for policy-makers to deal with it, even when the phenomenon is well documented.

Generally speaking, policy-makers can approach the problem in two ways: One is by trying to reverse the flow of highly-skilled individuals, diminishing the net loss of “brain drain”. The second approach is by trying to reverse the consequences of brain drain, rather than the brain drain itself.

An example of the first approach is the ICREA program from the regional government of Catalonia in Spain. This program attracts top-scientists worldwide offering them excellent working conditions in Catalonia. Even if the program does not target nationals only, during 2001-11 more than 50% of their excellence-based grantees were of Catalan origin (Technopolis_Group 2011), and on this basis it can be said that the program has indirectly served as a platform for reintegrating good Catalan scientists from abroad.
An example of the second approach, addressing the consequences of brain drain is the Chinese government policy since 2001. Many years of concern regarding the loss of talent, particularly towards the Silicon Valley the Chinese government set up a program in 2001 encouraging its students settled abroad to return for short visits and relate to ongoing research activities in China even if continue staying abroad. This “diaspora option” recognized the difficulties of reversing brain drain as such, and hence it has used the strong ties of the Chinese scientific diaspora to develop innovativeness in China (Zweig, Fung et al. 2008).

Perhaps some Southern European countries could consider the second line of action in view of their double problems of brain drain and budgetary constrains.


Saxenian, A. (2007). The New Argonauts. Regional Advantage in a Global Economy. Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press.

Technopolis_Group (2011). Evaluation of ICREA 2001-2011. Brighton, Technopolis: 53.

Zweig, D., C. S. Fung and D. Han (2008). “Redefining the Brain Drain: China’s “Diaspora Option”.” Science Technology & Society 13(1): 1-33.

Photo credit:”>CaptPiper</a


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