Brain Gain, Brain Drain

Study compares countries by percentage of their scientists who were born elsewhere, and tracks their origins.

May 15, 2012

Scientists and politicians regularly debate the impact of researchers who cross borders to live and work in other countries. Some countries boast about the talent they are attracting, while others worry about the talent they are losing. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) provides data on just which countries are gaining and which are losing talent.

Switzerland has by far the greatest percentage of scientists from other countries (56.7 percent), while India has the lowest (0.8 percent).

The unique factor of this study is that -- unlike analyses prepared by individual countries, which frequently try to demonstrate that brain drain is a problem -- a consistent method was used. The study was based on an analysis of the scientists in 16 countries working on biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, and materials.

For researchers in each country, the study asked where they were at age 18, yielding data both on which countries rely on immigrant talent and on which countries are supplying that talent. Here are the data for the 16 countries in the survey:

Mobility Patterns of Scientists, 2011

Country % of Scientists Who Lived Elsewhere at 18

Countries Supplying at Least 10% of Foreign Workforce

Australia 44.5%

Britain: 21.1%

China: 12.5%

Belgium 18.2%

Germany: 15.2%

France: 15.2%

Italy: 13.0%

Brazil 7.1%

Argentina: 16.0%

France: 14.0%

Colombia: 12.0%

Peru: 12.0%

Britain 32.9%

Germany: 15.2%

Italy: 10.4%

Canada 46.9%

Britain: 13.5%

U.S.: 13.5%

China: 10.9%

Denmark 21.8% Germany: 24.4%
France 17.3% Italy: 13.8%
Germany 23.2% None
India 0.8% Size too small to analyze
Italy 3.0%

France: 13.0%

Germany: 11.1%

Spain: 11.1%

Japan 5.0%

China: 33.7%

South Korea: 11.6%

Netherlands 27.7%

Germany: 14.6%

Italy 12.5%

Spain 7.3%

Argentina: 12.6%

France: 10.3%

Italy: 10.3%

Sweden 37.6%

Germany: 11.9%

Russia: 10.2%

Switzerland 56.7% Germany: 36.9%
U.S. 38.4%

China: 16.9%

India: 12.3%

Some of these findings are, of course, not surprising, given the public discussion of the influx of scientists from China and India to the United States. But the data show interesting patterns far beyond the typical tale of scientists leaving countries with less-developed research universities for those with top institutions. There is considerable movement within regions for example, with European scientists and South American scientists crossing borders within their regions. German scientists are playing key roles in the work forces of Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. But scientists who started out in Russia are a major force only in Swedish science.

The study also asked immigrant scientists a series of questions about the relative importance of certain factors in motivating them to make their careers elsewhere. The answers were similar, regardless of the country in which the researchers made their homes or where they were born. The top two answers were: “opportunity to improve my future career prospects” and the chance to work with "outstanding faculty, colleagues or research team." Tying for third were "excellence/prestige of the foreign institution in my area of research” and the “opportunity to extend my network of international relationships.”

Immigrant scientists clearly value their careers over other factors. Among the factors that were least important: family reasons or fringe benefits.

The study was done by three economists: Chiara Franzoni of Politecnico di Milano, Giuseppe Scellato of Politecnico di Torino and Paula Stephan of Georgia State University.

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top