Brain gain initiative lures back academics - virtually

High hopes are pinned on new technologies to staunch the brain drain of academics from developing to industrialised nations. But funding remains a serious drawback to sustainability, the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education heard last week. While pilot projects do get off the ground, they are not always able to stay in the air.

In a project reflecting the philosophy that improving conditions in home countries is the best way to deter migration, UNESCO formed a partnership with Hewlett-Packard called the Brain Gain Initiative and was presented at a panel discussion at the conference.

The goal of the project is not to lure expatriate academics back to their home country but rather to coax them into cooperating on teaching and research projects via information and communications technology, said Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic from UNESCO's division of higher education.

The project was spurred by the realisation that during the 1990s, up to 70% of the skilled professionals in South-East Europe left the region, Uvalic-Trumbic explained.

In 2004, the universities of Split, East Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Montenegro and Belgrade set up a grid cluster, allowing the universities to pool certain resources such as professors, research results and databases. A year later, they were joined by the University of Skopje and the Polytechnic University of Tirana.

A second, more challenging, pilot programme kicked off in 2006 in five African countries: Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe. The ambitious aim is to expand the programme to 20 universities by the end of this year and to jump to 100 African and Arab institutions by 2011.

Countries selected for the project are those where Hewlett-Packard has a business interest, Michel Bernard, Director of University relations at HP told the panel. UNESCO then approaches the government to obtain a list of the best-qualified higher education institutions and they are contacted by UNESCO and the local Ministry of Education.

"UNESCO gets us in places we could never get to," Bernard said. The short-listed universities then propose a project and several are selected in a final cut. Two of these were detailed during the panel discussion.

Dr Ibrahim Niang presented a computing grid set-up at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal - the first such grid in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the UCAD grid was not that powerful, Niang explained, its potential was enhanced by being linked to the European Grid for E-sciencE, vastly improving access to computing power, storage capacity and applications.

UCAD also built databases and contacted members of the African diaspora to obtain their cooperation. The grid was seen as the first step towards creating a National Research and Education Network, he said.

In the second project, the University of Nigeria used ICTs to establish a biotech laboratory working on developing genetic engineering strategies for indigenous crops. The programme draws on diaspora scholars to conduct classes and perform sophisticated laboratory procedures unavailable at the University of Nigeria, said Professor Ben Ogwo.

The Brain Gain initiative is an effort to draw on "human remittances" - nationals who are overseas and want to give something back more than just cash. The project included some training on how to use the technology and was aimed primarily at PhD students who mainly watched experiments performed in foreign laboratories.

Niang said that phase one "was about setting up the infrastructure, phase two will be about common research projects. This is not so easy. We have to find the projects and we have to find the financing".

The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana is included in the project and was enhancing the quality of research, education and services in renewable energies, said UNESCO's Uvalic-Trumbic.

Professor Cephas Idan, a lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah, questioned the sustainability of such programmes. His university had developed a new course in aeronautics but now the pilot programme was finished they had no money to pay the air fares for teachers to come and teach the classes.

A further obstacle to tapping into the diaspora was that the institutions where expats teach wanted their "take" for the loss of faculty time, Ogwo from Nigeria pointed out. To ensure the viability of its project, the University of Nigeria is now contacting scholars directly, by-passing the university system.

Providing sustainable funding for the programme is a perennial problem. The scheme is supposed to link 100 African and Arab universities by 2011 but there is no funding beyond this year.

UNESCO and HP are working with the African Development Bank to find sustainable funding and other initiatives are under discussion, Bernard said. HP and UNESCO are "open to all discussions," he added.

Emailed requests for information from UNESCO about current and future funding for the initiative went unanswered, and the websites mentioned in available documents provide no details while one site is no longer available.

Past projects of a similar nature were not funded as such. Instead, industrial partners were encouraged to donate products and training time; the business partner benefits from the prestige accrued through association with UNESCO.

But if there is no continuity in business partners, there will be none in the provision of equipment and maintenance supplied to the recipient. This can lead to haphazard development when, to be cost-efficient and user-friendly, an integrated, long-term approach is necessary.

* The UNESCO/HP Brain Gain Initiative: Digital infrastructure linking African and Arab universities to global knowledge.