Viewpoint: a wave of new MITs is key to reversing eastern Europe’s brain drain

12 May 2022 | Viewpoint

To encourage its brilliant computer scientists to stay in the region – and attract those from outside – it is necessary to create the right conditions. A new AI institute in Bulgaria is showing the way

Martin Vechev, ETH Zurich professor in computer science. Photo:

Schoolchildren in Bulgaria can tell you that John Vincent Atanasoff, the father of the computer, was their countryman. They also know his success came in the US, thousands of miles away.

Every year 30,000 Bulgarians follow the path trodden by Atanasoff’s family to find work and opportunities abroad.

For too long, eastern Europe has been exporting its brightest minds to the west. This brain drain has cost it in lost opportunities for economic development, compounded by the pain of fractured families and hollowed out communities.

It’s time for this to change. And, fittingly, it is computer science that holds the key to reversing the trend and bridging the divide between east and west.

International Innovation

Computer science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) offer an opportunity for the region to attract the world’s best scientists and researchers to eastern Europe and to bring back those who have left.

The internationalisation of technology in recent decades means Silicon Valley is as much a state of mind as a location – particularly since the pandemic has further accelerated the digitisation of everything.

Innovators and their inventions don’t have to migrate to the west coast of the US or the digital centres of western Europe. Hubs of excellence are springing up across the world.

Europe saw the creation of 85 tech unicorns – companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more – last year, compared to 17 in 2020, a sign of the growing opportunities across the continent. And investors from outside Europe are increasingly recognising the value of staying headquartered where they were first established.

Establishing Excellence

The rise of Europe’s new tech giants is supported by forward-looking centres of excellence, such as the Max Planck Institute, MIT, ETH Zurich and Cambridge University, which bring together computer scientists and researchers and spur the innovation that creates viable, ambitious startups.

If eastern Europe wants to encourage its brilliant computer scientists to stay in the region – and attract those from outside – it needs to grasp the nettle and create the conditions which will make it possible. Science needs to be seen as something you can pursue close to home rather than having to travel the world to find recognition and success.

That means tackling an academic system in eastern Europe that has been left behind by its western competitors. Its structures, recruitment, salaries and opportunities for promotion need to be reformed and the status of science in society returned to its celebrated past.

Some of the changes require a combination of state and private funding, while others – such as tackling antiquated application procedures and fast-tracking visas for world-class talent – will need legal and political reform.

However, with the right conditions, eastern Europe could quickly become a centre for world class research, helping the regional economy to drive a transition from service-led to IP-powered; retaining its brightest minds while building the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.

Recipe for Success

The best international research institutions, such as MIT, Max Planck and Berkeley, share a series of common factors which can be emulated to help reinvigorate science in the east.

They all have long-term strategic support from government, focus on hiring only the best candidates, and pay good salaries while funding strong research programmes. They are located in attractive places to live, and are assessed solely on the quality of scientific advances that they achieve.

Most crucially, they carry out teaching and research in parallel, based on the two-century old Humboldtian principle that when scientists teach, it benefits their research, and when teachers research, their students get better quality education.

The freedom for exploration provided by those conditions have enabled the world’s best institutions to establish centres of innovation and nurture ecosystems that incubate startups, attract the world’s best scientists and draw funding from established companies looking to tap into their expertise.

Silicon Sofia

The Bulgarian government – in collaboration with some of the biggest names in technology – is already blazing a trail for such institutions in eastern Europe. Its goal is to turn the country into a world leader in computer science and AI research by 2032, while demonstrating the massive untapped opportunities across the wider region for innovation, skills development and economic transformation.

The poster-child for the initiative, INSAIT, will open its premises in Sofia later this year. Multi-year investment from the Bulgarian government, Google, DeepMind and Amazon Web Services will allow the new institution to offer market leading salaries to attract computer scientists and academics from around the world, while providing generous scholarships for PhDs and high-level research into AI’s toughest challenges.

INSAIT will be the first institution of its kind in eastern Europe, both in terms of its 10-year $100 million endowment from the Bulgarian government and the unprecedented investment for the region from global tech giants. The project backers’ goal is to ensure that it is the first of many.

Bringing it Back Home

John Vincent Atanasoff, inventor of the first electronic digital computer, was the son of a Bulgarian electrical engineer who had emigrated to New York. Peter Petrov, another adopted American who worked on the US moon landings and gave us the digital watch and wireless heart monitor, was born in Brestovitsa, a village two hours southeast of Sofia.

They are both celebrated as Bulgarian technological innovators.

In future, their compatriots shouldn’t need to travel to succeed. They should be able to stay and change the world from their own country, accompanied by the best minds from all over the planet.

Martin Vechev is Bulgarian national and an ETH Zurich professor in computer science. He helped launch the INSAIT artificial intelligence research centre in Sofia, and is now planning to split his time between ETH Zurich and chairing the supervisory board of INSAIT. ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne are also partners in INSAIT.

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