The international migration of social scientists

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Laurent Jeanpierre


This paper describes recent efforts by national administrations, NGOs andinternational organizations to capture accurately the international mobility ofstudents, scientists, engineers and highly skilled workers, and shows that the data varyconsiderably between regions and are not in an appropriate format for social scienceresearchers. It also looks at some policies and initiatives developed to overcome thenegative outcomes of brain drain.


It is estimated that between the 1960s and the 1990s, around 1 million scholars and students moved from developing countries to Western centres (Kallen, 1994). Global flows of scientists and highly skilled workers have since increased. In 2001, nearly one in ten tertiary educated adults in the developing world lived permanently in North America, Western Europe or Australia (Lowell, Findlay and Stewart, 2004). The figure is several times higher for some countries in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, as well as for the developing world’s population of people trained in science and technology: 30 to 50 per cent of them live in the West (Meyer and Brown, 1999; Barré, 2003). In 2007, there were approximately 2.8 million international students studying abroad and, in principle, intending to return to their country of origin after completing their degrees. All these international migrations of highly skilled workers, researchers and students play an important role in the distribution of national research capacity. Under specific social conditions, they may also contribute to the internationalization of scientific disciplines. Nevertheless, given the current lack of consistent and comparable national and international data, it is impossible to weigh these two types of consequences and describe the overall flows of social scientists around the world.


In a number of countries, policies have been designed to improve the return rates of students and scientists (such as Austria, China, Germany, Finland, Canada, India, Japan and Singapore), or to promote immigrant and diasporic net- works (for instance, in Colombia and South Africa). Policies have also been formulated to foster information flows between host and donor countries, and to build trans- national intellectual networks. In 1999, 41 knowledge expatriate networks were identified (Meyer and Brown, 1999), their sizes varying from a few hundred to 2,000 members. NGOs and international organizations are also involved in similar initiatives (for example, the RQAN programme developed by the IOM to help African professionals to return to their home countries).
Whether these policies and initiatives will have the desired effect on the asymmetrical structure of national research capacities, and transform the directions and the importance of the flows of researchers and students in the social sciences, remains an open question.