Understanding the brain drain

Article published on Sept. 19, 2005
community published
Article published on Sept. 19, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

As skilled workers from the new EU member states move to the old ones, why do Western Europeans continue to move to the US?

Europe is losing skilled workers every year. Some people blame the lack of investment in R&D (research and development) in the public sector; others would like to see a return of an elitist style university system such as America's Ivy League. In the US, an increasing number of skilled workers is required as the country's birth-rate is still decreasing. Their system has been turned into an international talent search which has strengthened their economy, whereas other countries have only recently become aware of the advantages of this kind of imported skill base.

Wasted skills

The emigration of talented individuals is doubly painful for their countries of origin as their skills are often wasted. All of Europe has at some point experienced this phenomenon, which is currently affecting Eastern European countries (100,000 Polish citizens live in London). This basically involves a massive loss of qualified workers prepared to go abroad to take jobs which are far inferior to their professional qualifications. Their migration is almost always for economic reasons, which reflects the fact that the home countries of these economic migrants need to concentrate their efforts on industrial and economical restructuring rather than innovation. The current situation in countries such as Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe is identical to the situation in Post-war Germany, Italy and France and also the last phase of the Franco regime and the beginning of democracy in Spain.

The conclusion to be drawn is that public effort and investment made by Eastern European states to educate and retain their best academics will benefit no-one. They are wasted investments and the Eastern European countries will undoubtedly suffer because of this loss of human capital.

The loss continues in Western Europe

Western countries are also losing valuable skilled workers. The motives of the migrants are noticeably different to those of the Eastern countries. In France, young people complain there is a lack of flexibility in the market to develop enterprise and investment opportunities. As this is a country that has completely democratised its university system and competition between many graduates is fierce, those who head for the US do so in order to work in the field they trained in and to be better paid. This is also the case for the UK and Ireland where the university system is different to other European countries and degrees are regarded to be of a higher standard. In countries such as Spain, where 87% of students who start a doctorate do not finish, the money put aside for grants is not very high. This means that, at least in the short term, state money is not wasted. However, according to the scientist Vincente Larraga, this means that “Europe is losing out because only scientists of the highest level are being targeted [for grants].”

The mixed funding structure of the British University system, which has both public and private investors, is regarded by many as the solution to this problem. But, as a consultant at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies in Seville points out, in reality it is not that simple: more than two thirds of Europeans who go to work in the US are British or Irish (81% of whom are executives and relatively few are scientists). Regardless of this, in 2004, Germany was second only to the US in the world market in patents (closely followed by France). This points towards a need to increase the level of public and private investment in R&D and the creation of an organisation to monitor and assist with this issue. It is not by chance that countries such as Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark or France which invest most heavily in research and development in Europe have the most registered patents in relation to their economic size. These leading countries spend around 3% of their GDP on research, whereas at the other end of the scale you have Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, which only spend 1%.

Is the brain drain actually beneficial?

In some ways, the fact that so many European executives head to the US means that there is currently a strong European influence on worldwide business strategy. According to Jean Pierre Lehmann (a founding director of the Evian group), the brain drain has been historically beneficial for the world as economic migrants often return to their countries of origin, bringing with them new skills and knowledge. Certain universities are starting to agree that the brain drain can instigate a new direction for Europe and a mechanism for change in the traditional local university systems on the continent.