From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation and Linkage

The development community has increased its focus on higher education over the past two decades, recognizing that education can contribute to building up a country’s capacity for participation in an increasingly knowledge-based world economy and accelerate economic growth. The value added by higher education to economies—job creation, innovation, enhanced entrepreneurship, and research, a core higher education activity—has been highlighted by an important body of literature. 

Yet experts remain concerned that investing in higher education in less-developed countries may lead to a “brain drain”--highly educated students and professionals permanently leaving their home countries. In the 2016 Kauffman report on international science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in the United States, for instance, 48 percent among a randomly sampled survey of 2,322 foreign doctoral students in the United States wished to stay there after graduation, with only 12 percent wanting to leave and 40.5 percent being undecided. In fact, high percentages of foreign students in the United States with doctorates in science and engineering continue to stay in the United States, creating a brain drain problem for the sending countries. 

Because students tend to move from developing to developed countries to study, brain drain is more problematic for developing countries. In addition, given accelerated talent flows around the world and the increasing integration of less-developed countries into global value chains, the negative impact of brain drain could be further amplified. As demonstrated by the studies reviewed in this paper, the migration of high-skilled professionals from developing countries may indeed create brain drain for them, but at the same time can significantly enhance the social and economic development of their home countries, regardless of whether or not they decide to return home, thus complicating what used to be seen as a straightforward case of brain drain. 

From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation and Linkage examines how brain drain can contribute to development for the sending countries through brain circulation and linkage. It provides an overview of the conceptual framework to map out high-skilled labor flows, identifies empirical cases and policies in Asia that demonstrate high-skilled migrant professionals actually make significant contributions to their home countries (beyond monetary remittances), summarizes key social and economic enabling factors that are important in attracting and motivating migrant high-skilled professionals to return or engage with their home countries, and concludes with policy implications and suggestions for further research based on these findings.