ASIA: 'Brain Reclaim' as talent returns from West

For at least a decade Asia has been the main source of international students to universities in the West, with many graduates and researchers of Asian origin staying on as academics and scientists, never to return home. But as Asia's economies boom and its higher education and research sector expands at the same time as the West has suffered an economic downturn, the flow of talent is no longer going in one direction.

"The rise of Asian economies is affecting the direction of the student flow," Tony Chan (pictured), President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told a recent conference in Hong Kong. "Another change is the availability of the Asian educational dollar. Asian governments are pumping more money into education."

This is particularly true for Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, China and Hong Kong where higher education is expanding swiftly, bolstered by huge public investment. But many Indian graduates and scientists are also heading home.

In the US the reverse flow has become pronounced in the last four to five years. "They are selling their homes [in the US] and buying a one-way ticket out," said Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate at Harvard, who has published widely on the reverse flow of talent from India and China.

A study published in March by David Finegold, dean of the School of Management at Rutgers University in the US and B Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai, found that the vast majority of graduate students studying in the US were open to returning to work in India. Only 8% said they preferred not to return and only half of those said they would take any job (in the US) to avoid returning.

The US has no hard data on returnees "but it is clear that tens and thousands are returning to India and China," said Wadhwa, who added that human resources personnel in several hundred companies in those two countries have seen a tenfold increase since the early 2000s of Indian and Chinese graduates of US universities applying for jobs in their home countries.

The Chinese government put the number of graduate and postgraduate returnees at some 44,000 in 2007, reversing years of outward flow - more than 1.3 million have left to study abroad since the 1980s. In 2009, the last year for which figures are available from the Education Ministry, the number of returnees rose to 108,000, most of them lured by better job prospects in China than in the West.

Some 80% of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 54% at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and 72% of chief scientists in 863 programmes are graduates who decided to return home after studying abroad, according to official Chinese figures.

But the trend is believed to have coincided with a downturn in the West rather than because of it. Countries like China, Malaysia and Singapore have policies in place to lure back scientific talent from the West with high pay packages and other perks, and their budgetary surpluses are giving them the means to pay for it.

China is attracting prestigious names by offering six-figure sums, state-of-the-art laboratories and other incentives in a drive to obtain brains for cash.

High profile recruitment to China includes French Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier, who won the 2008 prize for his discovery of HIV, while three out of four university vice-chancellors in Singapore are from Europe or the US.

James Wilsdon, director of science policy at the Royal Society in London, said: "There is an acceleration of the geography of science and technology shifting East. The UK environment is flat in terms of cash, but when set against the telephone number offers [China] it looks less and less attractive and it does create a challenge."

But Chan told University World News last month: "There is probably a lag effect, but we see very little link between the Western downturn [and the move East] at the moment. The biggest draw is the rise of Asia in general."

"Asian students see good reasons for staying in their region, which gives them cultural advantages and occupational rewards in terms of internships and subsequent job opportunities," Chan said.

"The push factor is not the downturn [in the west]. It is undoubtedly the fast-growing emerging markets themselves," concurred Tim Gore, Director of Global Networks in the University of London's international programmes division.

This reverse flow is seen by many as being accelerated by higher education and research cutbacks in the West, and a popular view is that once higher education spending recovers the Asian advantage may be less pronounced. But others think the rise of Asian higher education is neither dependent on a Western downturn, nor temporary.

"Right now going back is a no-brainer. The fact is that those [Asian] economies are growing 8% to 9% a year and the US is stagnant. If the US got back to aggressive growth it might slow down the numbers returning, but it won't stop them altogether," said Wadhwa, who sees a culture shift:

"Before, study in the US was a gateway to a green card [residency], now it's just a university you go to before going back home. Those from China are particularly in a hurry to get back and start businesses."

US universities have understood what is happening, even if the US government has not, maintains Wadhwa. If they can no longer lure Asian talent they want to go where the talent is. In particular, they are keen to build research and development collaborations and huge laboratories in Asian countries. To some extent they are tapping into the Asian boom rather than sitting out the Western downturn.

Duke University in the US has been developing collaborations in India, China and Singapore and the work began well before the downturn. "There is a high level of interest from our faculty to teach and do research in India," said Gregory Jones, Duke University's Vice President and Vice Provost for global strategy. "How we develop our presence [in India] is not yet clear, but it is a very high priority to be present there in the next three to five years."

Meanwhile, few are characterising the return of Asian talent as a permanent loss comparable to the brain drain of scientists from Europe and elsewhere to the US in the 1970s and 1980s. The world has become smaller and more globalised.

Instead it is now seen as part of the essential building of global networks of researchers. Those who head for Asia maintain strong contacts with their home countries. Indeed, in countries like China and Singapore they are hired because of those international contacts.

"If our researchers don't go out and develop networks to emerging parts of the world, we will be isolating ourselves and that might be to the emerging world's advantage," said Gore.

"I am an optimist about the globalisation of research. The flow of ideas around different countries and systems is a source of strength," said Wilsdon. If Asia is brought into research networks in the West, it cannot be seen solely in terms of a decline of Western dominance in research.

"It is hard to replicate the intellectual research hub of established players such as Cambridge University or Silicon Valley in California. We have to recognise the value we have alongside the availability of raw cash. That is one of our strongest advantages."

Wilsdon added: "People are watching the dynamics of migrating scientists in and out of the UK and some are worried. But I don't think as yet it is having a tangibly negative impact on the ground. I don't get the sense that top science is struggling as a result of losing talent to emerging economies."

Others are less sanguine.

"The future belongs to Asia," said Christopher Brown, Director of the International College of Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, at the Hong Kong conference last month. Discussions of brain drain would soon be replaced by talk of 'brain reclaim', he said, and the focus will increasingly be on how to attract valuable faculty members back home.