Battle for the Brains?

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Science  09 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5754, pp. 1585
DOI: 10.1126/science.1122664

Scientific talent is always attracted to the heights of excellence, and those can often reside in world locales other than where the talent burgeoned in the first place. The result has been a global mixing of minds that has nurtured many splendid contributions to human knowledge based on expertise from all corners of the world. So it is disturbing to hear politicians, economists, and academicians frequently bemoan a country's loss of young talent, describing a “brain drain” that could damage national self-interest. This is an unfortunate description, leaving the impression that a society should not encourage its people to learn and work in countries that offer an opportunity for further intellectual and social growth on many levels. However, this is exactly what societies should do if we are to be successful in solving the world's frightening problems such as climate change, sustainable energy supplies, water management, and epidemic infectious diseases. What we need is the most talented scientific minds, whatever their origins, for a battle of—not for—brains.


The past few decades have seen the development of internationally organized programs in astronomy, climate, biodiversity and global ecology, and the health sciences. By bringing together scientists, economists, and politicians from different countries, significant accomplishments have been made that would have been impossible without some concentration of human resources in particular places. That can't happen without some drainage in others.

The participation of its best and brightest talents in these international efforts to solve humankind's common problems constitutes a future guarantee for every nation, which then becomes part of the self-organizing network of international cooperation. And the contribution yields benefits when their nationals return home (either temporarily or permanently) to strengthen their country's own innovative capacity, economy, and social capital. When politicians complain about losses from a brain drain, it conjures a view of scientific talent as some kind of national heritage or even property. They describe a “loss” of intellectual talent as a threat to competitiveness and say that the depletion of intellectual human resources must be reversed. But these human resources are individuals who should be able to decide for themselves where to settle, to learn, and to work, either for a period or permanently. There are many different and often personal reasons for scientific emigration; no single attribute of a particular destination explains why it occurs.

According to the German Research Council, about two-thirds of all German postdoctoral fellows who go abroad (including more than 70% in the natural sciences, biosciences, and engineering) spend their training period in the United States, as compared to some 15% in member states of the European Union. Of the approximately 15 to 20% that remain abroad, only 40% do so in the United States (and about the same proportion in the European Union). Decades of experience have convinced me that the 85% of the German scientists who return from the United States bring improved expertise, knowledge of other languages and cultures, and many excellent connections with scholars from all over the world. I cannot think of a better way in which to link my country with leading developments in science, humanities, and technology in the rest of the world.

Science as a global social enterprise needs continuous stimulation through diversity of cultural traditions, languages and literatures, styles of education, gender, and giftedness. The United States alone receives many thousands of young foreigners every year in its higher educational system, which is often perceived as a one-way street. The United States should encourage its own rising talents to go abroad, expose themselves to foreign cultural influences and languages, and even risk being more permanently attached to those other societies. Although some of the highest ground in certain disciplines may be found at home, that won't be true for all; some U.S. scientists who have ventured abroad have become their own foci of attention. At the Max Planck Society, more than one-quarter of the 278 scientific directors are foreigners, many of whom are American.

So let's worry less about brain drain and instead strengthen scientific ties by encouraging drainage in both directions. “Mind swapping” across the ocean unites intellectual forces for the common pursuit of knowledge, and that, after all, is the better part of the “pursuit of happiness” for scientists. Let's focus on gathering together to confront the troubling challenges that await scientists who now serve a global society.

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