Brain drain anger

Germany's 'lost generation' of researchers say the brain drain problem is all too real

Oct 22, 2004
Ned Stafford(

Over the past year, Germany's scientific institutions have said repeatedly that brain drain is not a problem for the country. But German scientists who have left the country to find jobs abroad say these pronouncements reflect anything but the truth of the situation.

These scientists see themselves as Germany's "lost generation." Each time a new program is announced to lure young scientists to Germany, they grow more frustrated. Each time members of Germany's scientific establishment insist that brain drain is not a problem, they grow angrier.

In recent weeks, The Scientist was contacted by three expatriate German scientists who bluntly criticized the German Ministry of Education and Research, the German Research Foundation (DFG), and others in the scientific establishment they feel are trying to conceal a problem.

Thomas Michelitsch, a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said, "There is no doubt there is a serious brain drain out of Germany." Rainer Klages, a lecturer in applied mathematics, Queen Mary, University of London, agreed: "The problem is simply swept under the rug by the German government."

Florian Frank, a research ministry spokesman, told The Scientist: "At this time, we believe we don't have a brain drain problem." However, he acknowledged that combating brain drain presented Germany with a "permanent challenge, because the scientific world is not a static world."

Markus J. Buehler, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology, said he left Germany for what he feels is a better system for young scientists. In the German system, even after a scientist receives his doctorate, he or she basically remains in the shadow of a professor for the next 10 years, he said.

"I think I have more possibilities here in the US, a better chance to realize my vision," Buehler said. "If Germany wants to attract and keep good scientists, it needs to provide a better atmosphere."

A major complaint from the expats who contacted The Scientist was a severe shortage of permanent research positions in Germany. Klages said that a couple of new highly publicized programs from Helmholtz Association to combat brain drain typify the problem.

One of those programs, the Helmholtz Young Investigators, targets German and non-German scientists abroad no older than 36 years of age who earned doctorates in the previous 2 to 6 years. Only group leaders who fulfill contractual evaluation requirements are guaranteed permanent positions at the end of the 5-year program. A second program, administered jointly by Helmholtz and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), offers fellowships to 27 doctoral and 12 postdoctoral students to work at Helmholtz centers for periods of 1 to 3 years.

Klages said: "Germany is a paradise for people, foreigners as well as Germans, looking for short-term fellowships. There are plenty of sources of money for that, but rarely anything for permanent positions. This guarantees a big pool of highly qualified scientists that can be hired on a come-and-go basis, but there's almost nothing in Germany for a long-term scientific future after you have passed this postdoctoral period in your life."

And there is another problem for Klages. He is 38 years old: "For people like me and others of the 'lost generation,' this initiative doesn't apply because we are over 36."

Klages and Michelitsch were highly critical of a DFG-commissioned study released earlier this year that indicated brain drain was not a serious problem in Germany. The study, which followed career paths of recipients of DFG foreign fellowships, concluded that 85% of scientists who leave Germany for work or research abroad eventually return to jobs in Germany.

Michelitsch said the DFG study was defective because it focused only on people who had received grants to go abroad for limited time periods. "Certainly they have to go back (to Germany) after their grant expires," he said. And he added: "All those who went abroad without a DFG grant from Germany to occupy a paid position, as I do here in Sheffield, are ignored by the study." Michelitsch also claimed that many people counted in the study as having come back to Germany had in fact never left the country.

Cornelia Pretzer, a DFG spokeswoman, defended the findings of the study. She also provided The Scientist with a 4-page statement describing the design of the study from co-author Alexis-Michel Mugabushaka.

In an E-mail, Pretzer said: "We would like to state that the DFG is sorry about each and every brilliant researcher who has decided not to work in Germany. But nevertheless, we appreciate the way especially European scientists work together across borders. And additionally, the study Mr. Mugabushaka conducted states clearly that the problem is not as big as public opinion thinks it is."