Opinion: Encouraging Brain Migration

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

Daniel Calto
Aug 14, 2012

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...

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.