Is 'brain drain' a thing of the past?


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Lately, I’ve noticed several bloggers and news sites have picked up on an interesting trend migration trend that many have dubbed "reverse brain drain" – the return of skilled immigrants to their home countries. With rising unemployment and an often-difficult U.S. immigration process, the notion of looking back at home for work has reportedly appealed to foreign nationals working in the United States for technology, finance and other industries.

World Bank economist Sonia Plaza writes on the People Move blog about the shift in terminology over the years caused by new trends. In the 1990s, the term "brain drain" – so called because developing countries lost their best and brightest people – in some places became "brain gain"(pdf), writes Plaza, because of the increase in practices like return migration and remittances (money sent by immigrants to family in their home country). Plaza goes on to cite a U.S. Census Bureau report (pdf) that indicates "a larger percentage of foreign-born than native-born residents had a master’s degree or higher in 2007."

Interestingly, China's largest financial institutions have apparently started traveling to Western countries to recruit talent from abroad (via CDT). The video below from is about Chinese companies that are trying to recruit those who have been laid off in the financial crisis.

(via The Big Picture blog)

Are we witnessing a sea change in recruitment and migration practices from China and other growing countries? Or will such practices not last as the world economies come out of the financial crisis?

Join the Conversation

BC Albaghetti
February 15, 2009

I would like to comment on your article.

1) Ms Plaza claims "[a] new report from the U.S. Census Bureau on Educational Attainment states that “a larger percentage of foreign- born than native-born residents had a master’s degree or higher in 2007.”"

Her claim is rather misleading. What the report says is that more foreign-born than native-born adults reported having an advanced degree (11% and 10%, respectively), noting that advanced degrees "include master’s, professional (e.g., M.D., J.D., D.D.S.), and doctoral degrees". Although many adjectives come to mind for qualifying a mere 1% difference, a "larger percentage" (with its connotations in English of a considerable or relatively great size or extent) is not one of them.

2) She then follows her claim by saying that those numbers lead her to ask "[w]ill foreign students continue to choose the U.S. as a place to study or will they prefer other countries?"

Somehow Ms Plaza makes an all-encompassing connection between foreign-born residents with advanced degrees in the census and students who travel to the US to obtain that degree. To pose her question as being derived from the percentages of that report borders on uninformed non-sense. The report does not indicate the origin of the advanced degrees of foreign-born residents. The approach used by the US for many years of facilitating, or at least difficulting less, the immigration of high-skilled people suggests that the advanced degree of a significant part of those foreign-born residents was had a degree from a foreign university. It stands to reason that immigrants with a foreign doctoral degree, such as PhD or DSc, are more likely to immigrate to keep working in their field of training than to study new ones. Further, the large part, if not all, of the immigrants with foreign professional degrees based on curricula similar to those of counterpart US degrees, e.g., MD or DDS, are also more likely to immigrate to keep working in their profession, instead of studying new fields. That is the case for foreign MDs, who are much in NEED in the US -- the number of US-educated MDs in primary care (internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics) has been decreasing since the mid-1990s, so the system relies partly on foreign-med school graduates (after they have revalidated their degree) as well as PAs to provide primary care to the population. Though some foreign grads are US nationals who went to study abroad due to the cost and other admission difficulties of US medical schools, it is not likely they make a significant part of the foreign med-school cohort working in the US.

3) Regarding actual foreign students in the US, to focus solely on the Census report, which aggregates immigrants from different countries into a single group, bypasses the important fact that these data are not one-size-fits-all when considering brain drain issues.

The stay rate differs widely among country of origin. Prior to the terrorists attacks of September 2001 in the US (after which changes affecting the entry of some foreign students more than others biased the statistics), the stay rate for Chinese and Indian PhD students graduating in the US was ca. 50%, while it was half of that for those from South Korea or Taiwan, and only of 8% from Japan. Similar disparities also occurred for other regions of the world -- for Western Europe, the stay rate of doctoral students from the UK was higher than those from Germany; for South America, the stay rate of Argentines was much higher than those of others. While these proportions changed a bit after 2001 (due to the general delays because of stricter, new entry processing rules, caps in H1-B visas, and country-of-origin biases in such approaches), rate disparities still exist. Hence, generalizations on brain drain not taking into account country of origin have a dubious value.

4) Regarding programs to lure back high-skilled, foreign-born nationals to their countries of origin, the following points seem germane.

First, unlike what the article seems to imply, these programs are not new. Still in the 20th century, Taiwan was the first country to implement a number of economical incentives for the return of emigrated scientists or engineers; so did later Singapore as well Ireland. Both Taiwan and Singapore have plans for stem-cell research likely to attract medical researchers in the US (where this type of important research was put on hold by retrograde political and religious views). David Heenan in "Flight Capital" (2005) gives more details on these countries.

Second, regarding China's reverse brain drain plans, one should note they have not been free of controversy. In 2005, Shing-Tung Yau, a Chinese-born mathematician and Harvard professor who has been helping China to attract "overseas Chinese" researchers, complained that many of those being hired failed to do full-time research, some using their professional time to travel around attending academic meetings, while others simply repeated work already published abroad. Because those hired overseas receive salaries significantly higher than native Chinese, it will be interesting to see what happens in the near future.

BC Albaghetti
February 15, 2009

Where I wrote "the immigration of high-skilled people suggests that the advanced degree of a significant part of those foreign-born residents was had a degree from a foreign university"
in my prior post, the text should be "the immigration of high-skilled people suggests that the advanced degree of a significant part of those foreign-born residents was from a foreign university." Sorry about that.

A. Roubaix
February 22, 2009

Well said.

Regarding China, the efforts to bring back those who went to study high-skill fields abroad are nothing new indeed. In some form or another, they are essentially coeval with China's decision to allow [some of its] citizens to study abroad after the Cultural Revolution, that disastrous experiment estimated to have cost the country ca. 1M undergraduates and 100K graduate students. China has had to keep trying new ways of brain-drain reversal because its overseas students in the developed countries, and especially in the U.S., have had the highest stay rates among foreign students. (The Chinese Humboldtian students - that is, those participating in the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation study programs in Germany - might be an exception to such rates).

Among the efforts to reverse drain brain one should note : the Financial Support for Outstanding Young Professors programme, and the Overseas Study Service Centers started in the late 1980s ; the Seed Fund for Returned Overseas Scholars, the Cross-Century Outstanding Personnel Training, and the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars programmes established in the early-to-mid 1990s ; the Hundred Talents programme of the CAS, the Postdoctoral Stations of the Ministries of Education and Personnel for overseas graduates otherwise unable to find jobs in China, and the Yangtze River Scholar Awards of the Ministry of Education (and a Hong Kong entrepreneur) established in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Many such programmes have been successfully expanded in the dawn of this new century. The most recent effort, the One Thousand Talents programme, aims to bring in scholars with full professorships or equivalent university status abroad. What distinguishes this plan potentially the most from prior ones is that it may also target scholars of a non-Chinese origin, as recently reported in the 29th January issue of Nature ; if true, it will represent a significant departure of national policy.

Finally, as you note, the huge disparity between the salaries offered to overseas Chinese and those of their domestic peers is likely to become another thorn in China's policies to bring back overseas doctoral students or Chinese scholars who have taken foreign citizenship.


PS. Nice to see you are back commenting in this interesting blog.