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Reversing decades of brain drain

The growing significance of intangible resources to the social and economic development of modern societies has underlined the importance of enlarging the pool of talent, particularly at knowledge-based institutions, such as universities.

In times of growing global uncertainty, scientific and academic institutions strive to build critical mass by attracting and retaining highly qualified people resulting, above all, in increasing competition for talent worldwide.

Doctorates are among the most sought-after highly qualified human resources, and it is well known that scientific and economic powers across the world act as magnets for talent from developing countries and emerging regions around the world.

As a consequence, developing countries and many emerging regions alike suffer from brain drain, with dire consequences for the build-up of their own scientific and higher education systems.

But this does not have to be so. We argue that science policies emphasising the advanced qualification of human resources, together with institutional capacity building and the internationalisation of the science base, can help create the necessary conditions driving brain gain over time in many of those regions.

Our evidence comes from a new set of data and analysis of the flux of doctorates in Portugal over the period 1970-2010, based on nominal data. It shows a positive flow of doctorates in Portugal in 2010 (that is, a ‘brain gain’ in the technical literature), after four decades of consecutive lagging behind in terms of scientific capacity.

Out of a total of 19,876 PhD holders who completed their PhD at a Portuguese university, only 669 (or 3.4%) were found to be working abroad, while 1,836 foreign PhDs were working in Portugal, of whom 83% were engaged in R&D activities.

An interesting case study

Portugal represents an interesting case study because it faced the challenge of overcoming a gap in scientific and technological development over decades, indeed centuries, to surpass the average OECD level in terms of researchers per thousand people in the workforce by 2010.

Yet this was accomplished by public investment in science associated with policies facilitating the co-evolution of human capital formation and institutional capacity building. As a result, the number of doctorates grew more than 74% between 2000 and 2010.

In 1970, the number of new doctorates per year was below 100, surpassing 1,000 by 2003 and 1,600 by 2010, and highlighting the relevance of time in attaining the necessary capacity to start attracting skilled human resources.

The process to attain a brain gain of doctorates requires time, commitment and, often, counter-intuitive science policies. Until the mid-1980s, the Portuguese higher education system did not have the capacity to train doctorates in general, and there was a lack of critical mass in many scientific areas.

Thus, science policies continually fostered advanced training abroad, resulting in an ongoing process of relative brain drain. But, after some two decades from the 1990s, the mobility of human resources at doctoral level was clearly assumed as a policy strategy to create the foundations of a scientific and academic basis in Portugal.

This led to the return of people with doctorates, as well as the means of internationalising the Portuguese scientific and academic communities. As a result, brain drain and brain circulation coexisted over time although leading, many times, to ‘academic inbreeding’ practices at the oldest universities.

Still, the percentage of academic staff holding a doctorate degree reached 68% in public universities by 2009, whereas it had been only 48% in 2001. Growth was also observed in the number of publications per total population, which reached 703 articles per million people in 2009, up from 373 in 2004.

In other words, Portugal’s science base in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is becoming internationally competitive. Yet it took almost four decades to achieve reasonable international levels of investment in science and technology and to overcome a situation of continual lagging behind the international scene.

This is shown to be associated with patterns of relatively sluggish or fluctuating investments in R&D for many years, reaching unprecedented levels of development only after 2008. We argue that other regions worldwide may accelerate this process, if adequate policy measures were systematically taken to facilitate the co-evolution identified in this article.

Counter-intuitive measures

In Portugal, the number of researchers grew with relatively low levels of R&D funding per researcher but at a level attractive enough to foster brain gain. In this process, some counter-intuitive measures and scientific policy instruments were particularly relevant.

Our research suggests the key factor is a major, long-term public funded and centralised programme of research grants for doctoral and post-doctoral projects, based on independent national evaluations of individual proposals and independent of any university or research institution.

We argue this is particularly important to be implemented at earlier and middle stages of development of science and higher education systems, to avoid the investment being absorbed by hierarchically and change-adverse environments that characterise many universities in developing environments.

In the case of Portugal, such instruments were complemented by public programmes to fund research units based on multi-annual contracts established through national research assessments, also totally independent of internal university hierarchies.

The aim was to build the necessary institutional capacity leading towards knowledge-based societies. This is, again a long-term process, requiring different institutional speeds and types of multi-annual contracts.

Finally, our analysis shows that promoting the absorptive capacity that emerging regions and countries worldwide need in order to learn how to use science for economic development requires a commitment of public policies and investment.

This includes the importance of a range of public policies, such as those counter-intuitive measures mentioned above, as well as facilitating a research career path in universities, independent of traditional faculty careers and internal university procedures.

* Manuel Heitor, Hugo Horta and Joana Mendonça are based at the centre for innovation, technology and policy research at Instituto Superior Tecnico, Technical University of Lisbon. An extended version of this article will be published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
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