Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Plumbing the brain drain

Nancy Gore Saravia & Juan Francisco Miranda


Opportunity is the driving force of migration. Unsatisfied demands for higher education and skills, which have been created by the knowledge-based global economy, have generated unprecedented opportunities in knowledge-intensive service industries. These multi-trillion dollar industries include information, communication, finance, business, education and health. The leading industrialized nations are also the focal points of knowledge-intensive service industries and as such constitute centres of research and development activity that proactively draw in talented individuals worldwide through selective immigration policies, employment opportunities and targeted recruitment. Higher education is another major conduit of talent from less-developed countries to the centres of the knowledge-based global economy. Together career and educational opportunities drive “brain drain and recirculation”. The departure of a large proportion of the most competent and innovative individuals from developing nations slows the achievement of the critical mass needed to generate the enabling context in which knowledge creation occurs. To favourably modify the asymmetric movement and distribution of global talent, developing countries must implement bold and creative strategies that are backed by national policies to: provide world-class educational opportunities, construct knowledge-based research and development industries, and sustainably finance the required investment for these strategies. Brazil, China and India have moved in this direction, offering world-class education in areas crucial to national development, such as biotechnology and information technology, paralleled by investments in research and development. As a result, only a small proportion of the most highly educated individuals migrate from these countries, and research and development opportunities employ national talent and even attract immigrants.