Viewpoint: We need directed policies to transform brain drain into brain circulation

30 Jan 2020 | Viewpoint

Making moves to encourage researchers to move around Europe is the way to promote excellence overall

Brain drain, or as it is often euphemistically termed these days, ‘brain circulation’ is one of the key priorities in research and education for the Croatian presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2020, according to Tome Antičić, Croatian state secretary for science and education.

No doubt, there has been a mass exodus of talented researchers from eastern European countries to their western neighbours. And after all, why would the best scientists stay in central and eastern Europe when they have better opportunities, better infrastructures, better facilities and yes, better salaries in the west?

Of course, as more researchers leave, the excellence potential of EU-13 member states decreases, and the east - west innovation gap widens.

It would be easy to place the blame firmly in the lap of the EU-15. After all, many of these countries voted for a focus on excellence over widening participation in the Horizon Europe. This is seen by some as an unfair attempt by western European universities to keep the majority of EU research funding and the prestigious Horizon grants for themselves.

Studies carried out by Pierre-Alexandre Balland, Ron Boschma and Julien Bayet published in the Journal of European Planning Studies, have shown that the percentage of connections between so-called EU-15 participants and EU-13 participants has remained below 15 per cent in all applications in Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and in Horizon 2020.

One interpretation of this is that the emphasis on excellence promotes consortia consisting only of well-established, prestigious western universities and excluding willing EU-13 partners.

“Sometimes [western universities perceive] the best institutions are those that are the most well-known. That in fact closes the door to widening,” says Anna Wisniewska, a native of Poland, who is coordinating the NET4 Mobility+ initiative, a programme that provides support for host institutions of Horizon funding.

But the brain drain is not solely the fault of the EU-15.

Between 2014-2017, in my role as expert innovation advisor in META Group and being a native of Croatia, I was involved in MIRRIS, an EU-funded project that analysed the research ecosystem in central and eastern Europe to understand why these countries are so far behind. The aim was to find out why the innovation gap is so big, and what can be done to resolve the situation from the bottom up.

The analysis was revealing, concluding many countries did not prioritise research, had a victim mindset, saw no value in networking, and were not using EU structural funds to their full potential when reforming research institutions.

It became clear that many countries, although they may do well in terms of R&D facilities, did not have measures in place to develop the researchers’ soft skills or to support their long-term careers.

Many institutions, for example, had no technology transfer office, or dedicated staff to provide knowledge transfer and IP services to their researchers. Since MIRRIS, META Group has been working with the European Commission to resolve this problem, by providing technology transfer and intellectual property services to universities and public research organisations throughout Europe. Examples include the Common Exploitation Booster and IP Booster, which is currently running. 

No incentive to go home

For many EU13 ex-pat researchers however, working conditions in their home countries are just too uncertain for them to consider moving back.

As one case in point, in Portugal, a big disincentive to move back home after working abroad is the lack of proper working contracts. In 2017 there were only 208 career researchers with full-time, tenured contracts. By contrast, there were 722 researchers on short-term government grants and a whopping 2,377 doctoral scholarships. Overall, there are 15 times more researchers on precarious contracts in Portugal than have steady, permanent roles.

“Many researchers are perceived to be students. So they are not entitled to a proper working contract or standard working benefits,” said Fernanda Bajanca, a researcher from Portugal who is currently pursuing her career in France. In fact, she says, in many cases researchers end up working for free. Research grants are often won by younger researchers, who need a supervisor’s experience, though the supervisors themselves may not have funding. So supervisors are staying on in a voluntary role, though they may not be able to afford to do so. 

Meanwhile, in Hungary, the political situation and restrictions on academic freedom are making the research environment increasingly unattractive. 

“I’m brain drained to the west. I lived for 12 years in Amsterdam and for the past two years I’ve been living in Germany,” said a representative of the Marie Curie Alumni Association. “Once you get used to the type of working environment [in EU-15 countries], it’s really hard to go back. The working culture is very different in Hungary. It’s an environment where creativity and innovative capacity is getting more and more limited. More and more people leave, and I can totally understand.”

In Macedonia the latest survey shows almost 80 per cent of young people want to leave the country, as they see no prospects for professional development. Apart from working in the public sector, opportunities are scarce and very limited. This type of brain drain is devastating for the country, and the situation is not very much different in the rest of the Western Balkans either.

The 17th International Youth Conference held in Krusevo in North Macedonia in September 2019 was very much focused on the issue of the brain drain of youth. Delegates concluded that greater integration of the south eastern Europe region with the rest of Europe is the only way this problem will be overcome. For this to happen, common challenges must be clarified and the dialogue with European institutions must progress. At the conference, I spoke about the EU’s role in that regard, and incentives for young people to stay in their respective countries.    

In my opinion, for young people - and the rest of society in the Western Balkans - the focus should be on EU integration. As a native of the newest EU member state with historic links to the Western Balkans, I can clearly see the positive impact EU membership has had on Croatia, and how important is to “be part of the family.” It is also evident how much this spillover effect is needed in the rest of the region.

Youth is the future

The young generation is our future and will be shaping tomorrow’s agenda. Young people need to be included in the policy making now - there is much to learn from them. Re-skilling and upskilling are the words that we use a lot nowadays. Do we actually know what do we mean by them?  The jobs of the future will be done by the youth of today, so we do not have the luxury of postponing the dialogue.

Estonia and Romania are making strides in this respect, putting policies in place to encourage skilled talent to come home after periods abroad. The new Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, aims to “revitalise” eastern Europe and begin to tackle brain circulation. She should look to these two countries as examples to follow.

“We consider that brain circulation and Estonian researchers moving abroad is inevitable, because we are such a small country,” says Kristin Kraav of the Estonian Research Council. “It’s just a healthy way of getting the knowledge needed to launch an independent research career.”

Wisniewska notes that Romania has a one-month grant for scientific diaspora to come to Romania and look around. That allows them to “make some contacts with the researchers staying in Romania and to think about different types of proposals, not only for the Horizon but for the Framework programmes, also for the national grants,” she says. Wisniewska is currently pushing for a similar programme to be rolled out in Poland.

At its core, the European Union is about mobility and brain circulation, and these values should be further nurtured. Every European citizen is benefits from mobility - and should have the right to exercise it.

Brain circulation becomes brain drain only when national governments fail to stimulate talent and provide conditions and incentives that entice them to stay, or return to, their native countries.

If we embraced the fact that mobility and brain circulation are a key part of professional development, leading to knowledge exchange and innovation inputs to the system as a whole, we would have a different approach towards policy-making.

Estonia and Romania are providing good examples of applying this thinking. We need to join forces and - based on these examples and successes - start creating a Europe that is the hub for talent, for the benefit of all.

A native of Croatia, Anita Tregner Mlinaric was invited to become vice chair of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions following the success of the MIRRIS project. MIRRIS was coordinated by META Group, with the aim of increasing the effective exploitation of research results in less well-developed European countries.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up