Policy ForumMigration

Countering European brain drain

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Science  19 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 695-696
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3920

Researchers who are internationally mobile during early stages of their academic career display, on average, higher scientific productivity (e.g., increased number and quality of subsequent publications) [e.g., (1)]. Using large-scale survey data on European researchers who have been mobile after their Ph.D., we found similar self-reported effects on productivity but also positive effects on their research career, such as access to a network of experts. Mobile European researchers who went to the United States were significantly more likely to report strong positive career effects than their mobile peers who moved within the European Union (EU) (up to twice as high) (2). Taking into account personal, field, and home-country characteristics, researchers who moved to the United States are particularly more likely to be strongly career-motivated compared with their intra-EU-mobile peers. Once this selection is accounted for, there are no longer significant differences in productivity effects between U.S.-mobile and intra-EU-mobile researchers. These results suggest that the United States manages to attract career-motivated EU researchers who are more likely to experience positive effects from mobility.

In search of a possible “elite” brain drain from Europe, we examined return rates for a sample of Europeans pursuing Ph.D. degrees in economics in the United States (3). Those better students who received Ph.D. degrees from top U.S. institutes are more likely to stay in the United States, conditional on finding a first job at a top institute. The probability of these individuals returning to Europe later on becomes very small. The results suggest a catch-22 regarding U.S. openness: To continue to attract elite researchers, the United States needs to continue to be at the scientific frontier with leading experts, often foreign-born. Making the United States a less-welcoming and convenient destination for the frontier-pushers may set in motion a downward spiral, by reducing the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for career-motivated top researchers. For Europe to promote effective intra-EU mobility, it needs to address the selection issue and to support research environments, like European Research Council hubs, that will induce the best researchers to choose the EU for their mobility destination. Mobility support policies should target early-stage Ph.D. students, as researchers with mobility experience within Europe as Ph.D. students are more likely to remain internationally mobile within Europe post-Ph.D.

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