University of Leeds: Science Brain Drain - How some European countries attract the top scientific talent

(15.03.2004) Britain could miss out to other EU countries in attracting scientists from the EU accession countries unless it adopts more proactive policies, according to new research at the University of Leeds.

The project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, suggests that while Germany and France are actively recruiting undergraduate and post-graduate science students from Poland and other former eastern bloc countries, Britain has a tendency to rest on its laurels as the major magnet for top scientific brains.

First indications suggest that Germany and Austria are now the top choice for many of the brightest foreign students, who are being offered incentives such as university courses in English and favourable funding schemes.

The new study is an extension of the MOBEX project, which examines the factors that influence scientists to make international career moves. This research reveals that the UK, which relies on scientists from other countries because of skills shortages, is seen as a highly desirable place to work. This is chiefly because career advancement in the science field is directly related to excellence. "This is not always the case in other countries, where under-funding, patronage and protectionism can determine who gets the best jobs,” says Professor Louise Ackers, who led the research.

The MOBEX study, which was part of the ESRC Science in Society Programme, took an in-depth look at the science jobs context in Italy and the UK. "The brain drain of scientists from Italy is now on the national political agenda. It is a matter of concern that scientists need to leave Italy to advance their careers but they also face massive reintegration problems when they return,” Louise Ackers explains. Her Italian colleague, Sonia Morano-Foadi, attributes this paradox partly to the influence of the so-called 'barone', the professors who are allegedly the 'deal-makers' in the university jobs market, often requiring scientists to work for them for up to two years without pay in order to progress. This may also explain why Italy attracts few international scientists, the researchers claim.

The research encountered profound differences in the academic environment between one EU country and another. In Greece and eastern Europe, for instance, the team came across 'flying professors' who had several jobs, while in France, where the national centres of excellence attract many post-graduates, it is reputedly difficult for scientists to break into the protected permanent jobs market.

Louise Ackers warns that the EU policy of supporting centres of excellence to foster skills development and knowledge-transfer, could be at odds with the EU goal of creating balanced growth across Europe. "The ‘circulation’ of scientific talent does not in itself constitute ‘brain drain,’” she says. "The problems arise when rates of return are very low and when the country or region fails to attract scientific talent from outside. This could reduce the ability of weaker regions to regenerate.”

The Leeds research also highlights the declining mobility of women scientists as they get older. While women are more likely than men to study abroad as undergraduates through the ERASMUS programme, this mobility declines at the post-graduate level, particularly in dual science career families where it is not uncommon for woman scientists to defer their careers in order to move with their partner. "The chance of both people finding a job is greater in strong science clusters such as Cambridge, Oxford or London,” says Louise Ackers, "but in other regions there are fewer such opportunities. Women often move out of academic research into industrial or administrative jobs to achieve stability in their lives, particularly where there are children.”

For more details contact: Professor Louise Ackers, School of Law, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT. Telephone 0113 343 5065, 01535 632503, 07977 409985 (mobile)

Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon, ESRC Communications Division, Telephone 01793 413032, 413119 or 413122.

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