“Brain drain”

Definition: Exodus of highly educated and skilled workers from developing countries to more advanced industrial countries

Significance: Brain drain oftentimes pulls the best and the brightest from their homelands as workers seek more lucrative job opportunities abroad, where they believe their marketability will be rewarded. Brain drain usually occurs in developing countries where there is religious persecution, political instability, economic turmoil, or civil conflict. The emigrating workers are skilled specialists (researchers, technicians, medical professionals, engineers, and educators) who perform crucial services that contribute to global competitiveness in medical or scientific research, entrepreneurship, and technological advances for the host country.

The London Royal Society coined the term “brain drain” to describe the mass emigration of preeminent scientists from East Germany and the Soviet Union to the United States and Canada afterWorld War II. The advantages of brain drain include knowledge flow, global cooperation, and international mobility, which allows professionals to exchange management experience. However, critics have contended that such an exodus of talented persons has negative consequences for the emigrants’ home countries, which are left behind in an economic sense. Migrants from developing countries are likely to stay in advanced countries, since certain fields require expensive equipment and labs that the host countries have, and because such amenities are not always available or accessible in developing countries.

The negative economic consequences of brain drain are substantial. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, one study found that an estimated 20 percent of skilled South Africans had left their homeland and that brain drain cost the country about $250 million annually. India was producing 178,000 software engineers each year, and four of ten programmers worked in the United States. In 1998, the Indian Institute of Technology sent 30 percent of its graduates to the United States. In 2001, the United Nations estimated that India was losing $2 billion per year because of brain drain, a devastating loss for a country in which 40 percent of the adult population is illiterate.

United States

The United States attracts more foreign-born professionals than any other country in the world. American colleges and universities have traditionally recruited foreign students in the hope that they may return to make significant contributions to their home countries. However, higher education has been an important means for American companies to recruit such workers. In fact, fewer than one-half of foreign doctoral and postdoctoral students who study in United States return to their home countries after graduation. Surveys showed that 88 percent of doctoral graduates in science and technology from 1990 to 1991 still resided in the United States five years later, leaving home countries with shortages in the fields of medicine and engineering. Since the early 1990’s, approximately 900,000 skilled workers have emigrated from India, China, and Russia under the temporary visa program, and only a few countries have been successful in luring their talented, well-educated young people back home.

Reverse Brain Drain

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States began losing scientists and engineers to Asia, confronting a “reverse brain drain,” in which individuals legally enter the country to work or study but, due to a limited visa quota and numerous delays in processing, return to their home countries to work for global competitors of the United States. Amid the global recession that began in 2008, these professionals have been returning to countries such as India and China, whose economies are booming, applying their knowledge and experience gained while living in the United States. These countries have learned that the best method for attracting and maintaining professionals is to improve working conditions and career advancement opportunities.

Reverse brain drain could have serious implications for the United States. In 2006, 25.6 percent of all patent applications in the United States listed foreign national as inventors or coinventors, an increase of 18 percent from 1998. The loss of such innovation in the fields of medicine and engineering could be devastating unless the immigration policy for skilled workers is improved. On an annual basis, more than one million skilled immigrants compete for only about 120,000 visas allotted by the United States, fueling the brain drain reversal.

Gayla Koerting

Further Reading

  • Beine, Michel, Frédéric Docquier, and Hillel Rapoport. “Brain Drain and Economic Growth: Theory and Evidence.” Journal of Development Economics 64 (February, 2001): 275-289. Utilizing a quantitative analysis of data, the authors address the impact of migration on human capital formation for small developing countries. They conclude that migration does foster advancement in educational levels, but because of economic limitations in the native country, such immigrants will not have an incentive to return home.
  • Cervantes, Mario, and Dominique Guellec. “The Brain Drain: Old Myths, New Realities.” OECD Observer no. 230 (January, 2002): 40-41. Addresses how native countries cope with the brain drain phenomenon by developing government policies to attract and retain highly skilled workers or researchers.
  • Cordis Corporation. “Should We Plug the Brain Drain? The Pros and Cons of Scientist Mobility.” Times Higher Education Supplement, July 20, 2006, 1-2. Summary of a discussion by panelists at the Euroscience Open Forum held in Munich, Germany, debating the costs and benefits of brain drain in the sciences, information technology, and business.
  • Miyagiwa, Kaz. “Scale Economies in Education and the Brain Drain Problem.” International Economic Review 32 (August, 1991): 743-759. Argues that brain drain is more detrimental to professionals possessing intermediate-level skills regardless of whether this class chooses to emigrate or to remain in their native countries.
  • Solimano, Andrés. Globalizing Talent and Human Capital: Implications for Developing Countries. Santiago, Chile: CEPAL, 2002. Solimano provides facts, trends, and empirical evidence that emigration of human capital often depends on the country of origin. Poor countries and economies suffer the most from emigration of highly skilled researchers or entrepreneurs. The author also suggests how governments can develop policy initiatives to stem the outflow of talent from these countries.
  • Wadhwa, Vivek. “The Reverse Brain Drain.” BusinessWeek Online, August 22, 2007, 22. In this editorial, the author surmises that poor immigration policy, low visa quotas, and numerous delays in this process drive talented foreigners away from the United States to global competitors.
  • Webber, Alan M. “Reverse Brain Drain Threatens U.S. Economy.” USA Today, February 23, 2004, p. 13A. The author contends that restrictions on talented foreign researchers migrating into the United States and the outsourcing of jobs formerly held by highly educated Americans overseas has serious implications for the U.S. economy.

See also: African immigrants; Argentine immigrants; Australian and New Zealander immigrants; Economic consequences of immigration; Economic opportunities; Education; Emigration; Globalization; Higher education; Return migration; Science.

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