Opinion: Encouraging Brain Migration

Countries with a healthy import and export of scientific talent lead the world in research and innovation.

By Daniel Calto | August 14, 2012

Jpatokal" > Wikimedia Commons, Jpatokal

From the early days of humankind, scientific discovery and technology development have been the basis for building civilizations and economies. Scientific talent has a long history of migrating from one country to another in search of like-minded collaborators, better financial and institutional support, and public acceptance for their work.

Today’s shifting R&D landscape, while vastly different from the days of such early pioneers as da Vinci and Newton, shows that migration of scientific talent, both into and out of the country, ultimately generates the fresh ideas that lead to innovative, high impact, scientific outcomes.

At the recent 2012 Global University Summit held in Chicago this spring, Nick Fowler, managing director of A&G Institutions at Elsevier, presented the preliminary findings of “Global Brain Migration,” a report that tracks the movement of scientific talent around the world over the past 15 years.  The data provide a lens on how international students and faculty are reshaping the global scientific enterprise.

While a rising Asia—namely India, South Korea, and especially China—is gaining traction as an emerging research power, the United States still leads the world in measures of scientific impact by a substantial margin.  This is partly due to America also remaining by far the leading destination for research scientists emigrating from other countries. This tilt is especially evident in Asia. More than 50 percent of all foreign PhD graduates in the U.S. come from three countries—China, India, and South Korea—and more than 80 percent of the STEM professors at the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) obtained their PhDs in the U.S.  This deep symbiotic relationship between scholarly talent on both sides of the Pacific has existed for more than 20 years, and serves to connect the U.S. to the world’s most dynamic R&D and economic region.

Researchers in the European Union (EU) typically migrate within other EU member countries, but do so at higher rates than APAC (Asia/Pacific) or US researchers. And while the impact of their migration may not be measured in miles, it certainly can be measured in terms of contributions to global R&D.  On a per capita basis, Northern EU countries are extremely productive contributors of high quality papers.  Switzerland leads the pack with one scientific paper per 30 people (1:30) and 2.6 percent of the world’s citations from only 0.11 percent of the world’s population—23.6 times average citation contribution.  Switzerland is followed by Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Finland.  By comparison, the U.S. ranks 9th, with China and India coming in last.

Migrating scientists also contribute to the rise in collaborations, both between researchers in different countries and between those in industry and academia.  A growing number of international researchers (whether they are transient or permanent) provide numerous opportunities to connect peers in related disciplines, increasing collaborations that then translate into papers with a higher overall scientific impact, as measured by paper citations. Canada and EU, for instance, have the highest rates of international collaboration with 45 percent or more papers having at least one international coauthor, and are among the small group of countries with the highest scientific impact.

The US rate of international collaboration of around 30 percent is lower by comparison, partially because of the size of its installed research base, but it dominates in industry/academic partnerships, which are shown to produce papers with even greater impact than those with international co-authors.  This mutually beneficial relationship provides the necessary balance for research to drive innovation in the long term.  Academia provides the basic and applied research discoveries for private sector investment, and industry, in turn, provides the infrastructure to bring resulting discoveries to market.

In the field of life sciences, the U.S. still remains the dominant player, publishing nearly six times more papers than its nearest competitor, the U.K.  While the government of China is making significant investments in biomedical life science research, and has one of the largest genetic sequencing facilities in the world, the country’s research output (as measured by paper citations) still lags behind that of developed research economies. China’s published paper quality and outputs are improving rapidly, however, especially in the applied research fields of chemistry, engineering, computer sciences, and materials sciences.

Countries that lay out the welcome mat for foreign research talent and allow their own researchers to go abroad freely do better than closed research economies in every sense.  Science is a global enterprise and free brain migration should be encouraged by all nations.  Only through expanding the shared global knowledge-base will we be able to ignite the spark of innovation behind new industries that will create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and solve the world’s most pressing problems, resulting in more vibrant, prosperous, and peaceful societies.

Daniel Calto is a director of the SciVal Consulting team at Elsevier and an expert in R&D policies and their relation to economic growth. He is part of a global team currently studying brain circulation and its long-term implications. 

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Avatar of: Brian Olson

Brian Olson

Posts: 1457

August 14, 2012

"From the early days of humankind, scientific discovery and technology development have been the basis for building civilizations and economies."

In the early days of humankind, there was no scientific discovery. What is the author talking about? Is this sloppy writing or historic revisionism?

Avatar of: EllenHunt


Posts: 74

August 14, 2012

Of course there was. It was primitive, but it was there. One can see it evidenced in the progress of stone tool-making. Eventually, roasting the material in fire was added to make the material work better. Our science today is an extension of the skills of observing, trying things and recording what works.

Avatar of: EllenHunt


Posts: 74

August 14, 2012

That map looks like a map of airline routes.

Avatar of: steinp2


Posts: 33

August 14, 2012

The premise of this article incorrectly focuses on a correlation, not a causation. It is not the migration of brainpower that increases innovation and productivity, but what caused that migration to begin with. Remember Watergate? "Follow the money." Let's go back to the Renaissance for a moment. It was money from the wealthy families that funded art and science, and those two areas had an explosion of productivity that everyone still looks back on to this day.

Funding, now mostly from governmental sources, is the lifeblood of productivity. Money alone. People desiring to work in science flock to where the money is simply to be in their avocation. Hence, if there was no migration at all, and the funding simply paid for more homegrown scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, I believe that the same level of innovation and scientific productivity would occur. This does depend on the institutional research and economic environments for sure, but the source of those "warm bodies" is inconsequential.

Paul Stein

Avatar of: Erin Hascup

Erin Hascup

Posts: 1

August 14, 2012

I also wrote a short blog about international scientific collaboration (http://blog.ratemypi.com/suppo.... I think it is a very good thing that has not gained enough support in the US. Compared to other countries, the US does not have as many scientist venturing out to do a postdoc or sabatical in foreigh countries, which I feel will limit our scope in the long run. Great article Daniel!

Avatar of: Malardj


Posts: 4

August 15, 2012

Sure, no money no research but the opposite isn' t true. There is something to be said about having the best minds as next door neighbors.

Avatar of: Malardj


Posts: 4

August 15, 2012

A little bit like equating folklore music with classical opera. One may ne as smartly conceived as the other, they still are different, ditto with bronze age discoveries.

Avatar of: NYPRPhD


Posts: 1

August 17, 2012

"In the field of life sciences, the U.S. still remains the dominant player..."

While that is certainly believable some parts of the field are to a greater degree lying fallow than others. In particular small molecule organic synthesis oriented towards early discovery seems to have suffered a relative decline with respect to the big push for "translational science". All the talk about taking discoveries "from bench to bedside" presupposes that there's something on the bench. How it gets there doesn't enter into the conversation as often. It is said by some that the heyday of small molecule driven discovery in biomedical science has passed and that we need to look elsewhere for the therapies of the future. Thus we see the USA awash in highly skilled but unemployed synthetic organic chemists and the lack of emphasis placed on this discipline within the firmament of NIH supported initiatives. No one is insensitive to the reality of constrained resources and it's perfectly appropriate for granting institutions to use their money as they see fit. Allowing the organic synthesis part of early discovery to wither due to inattention is a misguided strategy. Chemistry is important...or is it?

Avatar of: Martin Low

Martin Low

Posts: 1

September 12, 2013

Mankind, the species H. sapiens, has been in in existence for approximately 250,000 years. H. Sapiens inherited the technologies of stone tools and domesticated fire from H. ergaster and H. erectus. Around 200,000 BCE, clothing from hides and furs allowed for the migration of H sapiens into Eurasia and beyond. Sometime between 5,000 BCE and 3,500 BCE, in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, the inventions of agriculture and the wheel enabled greater progress due to less time being spent on hunting and gathering as well as improved transportation and use of energy resources.  In the intervening 246,500 or so years, the author would have you believe that like-minded scientists sought collaboration as well as institutional funding. There is a flaw in the premise of Mr. Calto's statement. Mr. Calto later states that he believes that the greater number of papers being published in the life sciences implies scientific leadership of the United States. The fact is that the United States has a regulatory environment that is not conducive to biomedical research because of laws limiting stem cell research as well as an entrenched bureaucracy at the FDA that stifles creativity with new drug research. The United States has a Surgeon General that helps to determine the pace and direction of biomedical research in the United States. The position of Surgeon General is a military one, as implied by the word "General". Having the Surgeon General determine the course of medical research and development by controlling federal funding makes certain that the Department of Defense has a say in the direction of medical research funding. Although there is no way to track the specific policies that have been shaped by this chain of influence, the imaginative can point to critical areas of medical research that are federally underfunded. With medical research funding being extremely competitive today, and tenured faculty positions waning in the United States, a drive for increased publication has been the necessary result. An axiomatic phrase of department chairs nationwide as advice to their newly-minted assistant professors is, “publish or perish”. It is axiomatic that in many other countries, tenure track is a more likely achievement for young investigators of talent than in the United States. This environment can easily be imagined to lead to a great many of substandard and derivative works being published. Mr. Calto refers to the relationship of biomedical science in the United States to South Korea and other countries as symbiotic because many of their scientists come to America to get their Ph.D.’s and then they return to their home countries. Mr. Calto is naïve to assume that this is evidence of better facilities or brainpower in the United States. For instance, in South Korea, their medical centers are far superior to anything the United States has to offer. The investigation into this matter by my cousin, a healthcare worker currently in South Korea shows this to be true. Far better medical treatment is available in South Korea, and as a healthcare worker, he states that he would hesitate to receive medical care in the United States when better facilities and expertise are available there. Videos I have seen of the state of health care and hospitals of South Korea have helped to convince me as well. Mr. Calto presents one of his employer Elsevier’s own director’s reports as supporting evidence for his assertions. He does not find additional sources of information to back up his assertions. Having read Mr. Calto’s writings, one can easily see that they are self-serving and derivative in character.

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