From Brain Drain to Mutual Gain: Sharing the Benefits of High-Skill Migration; A Global Economy Built on Policies That Foster Mutual Gain Would Be Both Richer and Fairer Than One Premised on a War for Talent

By Hart, David M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

From Brain Drain to Mutual Gain: Sharing the Benefits of High-Skill Migration; A Global Economy Built on Policies That Foster Mutual Gain Would Be Both Richer and Fairer Than One Premised on a War for Talent


Hart, David M., Issues in Science and Technology


The news on high-skill migration (HSM) is good and getting better. More highly skilled people are moving across borders for education and work than ever before. Judging by figures on graduate-school applications from abroad that were released in March 2006 by the Council of Graduate Schools, the United States is recovering from its overreaction in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and reestablishing its position as the most desirable destination for the world's talented and restless. HSM benefits the migrants themselves, the knowledge-producing community, and the global economy as a whole. Managed wisely, HSM might also benefit many of the countries in the developing world that traditionally have been thought to be hurt by it.

Although the aggregate benefits of HSM outweigh the aggregate costs, these benefits and costs are unevenly distributed. Indeed, at the national level, HSM has typically been seen as a zero-sum game, a brain drain that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Attachment to the brain drain metaphor these days, however, obscures as much as it illuminates. New research suggests that knowledge acquired abroad by talented migrants and the benefits that derive from that knowledge are returning home more often than in the past, even when the "brains" themselves do not. What's more, under some conditions, the prospect of migration may enhance, rather than reduce, human capital formation within source countries.

Before consigning the brain drain to the dustbin of history, though, a heaping helping of caution is in order. The incipient shift toward mutual gain is limited in scope and may prove fragile. Small developing countries remain vulnerable to human capital flight. Larger ones confront constraints on their capacity to absorb and use new ideas effectively. Migrants from all source countries face the prospect of a potent backlash within the receiving countries, animated by anti-immigrant sentiment and concern about the off shoring of jobs.

Policymakers around the world should seize emerging opportunities to expand the mutual gains that might be made through HSM. To do so, they will need to change the way they think about the issue and let go of the zero-sum metaphors of "brain drain" and "war for talent." Having done so, they will be better prepared to take creative steps toward achieving two objectives: strengthening the capacity of source countries, especially small ones, to absorb knowledge and extract benefits from it, and nurturing knowledge spillovers from receiving countries to source countries.

The first rule of migration studies is to visualize large error bars around virtually every statement one reads. Data are spotty at best, limiting researchers' confidence in comparisons over long periods of time, across many countries, and among ill-defined subpopulations such as the highly skilled. Researchers sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and World Bank, among others, have only just begun to sort out and systematize information that has been collected by diverse national border control and census agencies.

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The data, such as they are, suggest that there is a rising tide of HSM. IMF and World Bank studies consistently find a high correlation between education and legal migration. In 2000, for instance, a person with a college or graduate-school education was six times more likely to migrate legally than was one with less than a high-school education. 37% of the legal immigrant stock in OECD countries, more than 20 million people all told, fell into the high-skill category, compared with 33% a decade earlier. Another 600,000 or so highly skilled people work outside of their native land on temporary visas at any given moment. And some 1.6 million men and women are studying abroad at the undergraduate or graduate-school levels, a number that has approximately doubled during the past 20 years. …

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