A healthy circulation of talent mobility boosts quality

When we talk about talent flow, the term brain drain often comes to mind. The term originated in the 1950s and came about as a result of the large influx of immigrants to the United States. As technology brings the world closer and collapses geographical distance between countries, the term ‘brain drain’ or the more neutral ‘highly-skilled migration flow’ is becoming an ever more critical issue in education, politics, economics and national development.

The race to attract and retain international talent is getting more competitive since it is believed that these ‘new brains’ will be able to generate the kind of ideas that will have a huge impact on innovation, industry and national development.

I firmly believe that governments should not constrain academic mobility, but provide more flexibility for students and academics to develop their professional abilities. However, there remain questions about whether there is an inherent danger if governments do not limit student outflow.

Knowledge flows

For some developed countries like the United States, Australia and Canada, student outflow is never an issue. The OECD has shown how knowledge flows related to the emigration of skilled talent can provide benefits to both sending and receiving countries.

Sending researchers and scientists abroad can create a conduit for the flow of knowledge and technology back to the country of origin. Social and other connections also increase the probability that knowledge will continue to flow back, even after talent moves back or moves away. For some developing countries, diaspora networks play a vital role in developing their science and technology capacity.

As president of one of the leading universities in Taiwan, I strongly support the international mobility of students, faculty and staff. It provides more opportunities for international co-authored academic articles. Measured in terms of citations, the impact of collaborative work is higher than the average impact of work that is purely national.

International collaborations directly contribute to the quality of our research outputs and also bring innovative ideas and advanced technology.

Furthermore, all of this adds value to the university’s reputation and ranking, which indirectly assists in attracting funding resources and other opportunities.

So, maybe a more proactive way to support talent outflow is to view it as a positive catalyst for brain circulation. People have often argued that brain circulation will harm the originating country, in particular developing countries. Yet, speaking from a global development perspective, the movement of skilled people to places where they can be more productive adds value to both the originating country and the country they move to.

In addition, the potential number of skilled people leaving their countries of origin is greater than the job opportunities that actually exist in destination countries. In other words, the mobility phenomenon has an added value to education in the originating country for those who do not succeed in finding a job abroad and who remain in their home countries.

Economically, the often circulatory flows of individuals create networks and exchanges between countries of origin and those countries which have hosted them. Finally, these skilled people also contribute to a net increase in the formation of human capital in their country. Brain circulation is therefore a win-win for both countries.

I would therefore argue strongly against any reduction in the international outflow of academic talent.

An unstoppable force

Recent OECD reports show that international mobility will continue to grow. From an academic perspective, the international nature of the research community makes this outflow an unstoppable force. Knowledge sharing, collaboration, research networks and research mobility are now vital concepts for our research and professional communities.

In addition, researchers’ interest in international collaboration and in relocation are motivated by a desire for better infrastructure and the opportunity to work with excellent partners. We all know that collaboration increases citation numbers and that it has become one of the main drivers of our universities.

Collaboration also provides researchers with access to external funding, resources and opportunities to work in international teams. The main driver of researcher mobility is a rewarding research experience.

It would be naïve to think that there is no risk involved in encouraging talent flow. However, since mobility is now the trend in the research community, we need to ensure that there is a healthy circulation of talent.

The key to this is for us to build the infrastructure that promotes frontline innovation, for instance, establishing centres of excellence for scientific research and framing the conditions for innovation in ways that attract highly skilled researchers. Increasing the salary and research funding for early stage researchers is another way of recruiting high potential researchers.

A country’s mobility strategy should focus on enhancing talent inflow, encouraging international collaboration and improving the infrastructure needed to facilitate research and collaboration with industry. In this way, we can create opportunities for research and innovation in the home country and catalyse a return flow of human capital. In turn we will build an international innovation network for a better, common future.

Dr Huey-Jen Jenny Su is president of the National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan. She recently debated this issue at a QS in Conversation event in London.