Taking steps now to retain and regain the best minds in the Middle East will pay off when it's time to rebuild.
Brain drain from the Middle East and North Africa has escalated during the past five years, with waves of refugees escaping conflicts and political instability. Before the Arab spring, the Arab world accounted for about one third of graduates emigrating from developing countries. The number is now rising as difficult conditions force many more to find opportunities in the West, including thousands of research scholarships offered by developed countries.
Will countries mired in conflict continue to lose this treasure? Or will they strive to keep their graduates, so they can be prepared to rebuild when the time comes? SciDev.Net's Middle East and North Africa edition convened an online discussion around these questions on 27 December 2015, exploring strategies that countries could adopt to win back their best brains.
Two panelists led the debate: Fatiha Sahnoun, a researcher at the Renewable Energy Development Center in Algeria, and Rafid Alaa Alkhazay, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, Iraq. In an opinion article published in the run-up, Alkhazay wrote about how a country like Iraq could work on reversing the brain drain that has so far lasted for more than a decade. And in another article, Sahnoun outlined many initiatives that Algeria is using to tap into expatriate researchers' knowledge, and the obstacles these initiatives face despite a decade of political stability.
The debate itself highlighted deficiencies in governance systems for higher education and research that drive highly qualified researchers away - but it also identified conditions that should be created to get them back.
Support to stay
Many comments on social media during the debate were pessimistic. People feel that it is very hard to reverse the brain drain under the current conflict and insecurity. But other comments were more positive about actions that could at least reduce the number of highly educated researchers emigrating from the region.
A message emerged from most of the views shared in the debate: that the priority now is to support highly qualified researchers to stay, instead of investing in strategies for gaining back those who have already gone.
Alkhazay said the best way to retain the top brains is to secure political, economic and social stability. But in the meantime, adapting policies to link higher education with market needs can at least offer fair opportunities that encourage researchers to stay - decent salaries that match their qualifications, for example. This could be particularly attractive while economic crises are restricting job opportunities in most developed countries.
One participant in the debate saw a partial solution in reconsidering the systems that govern scientific research. In most of the region's countries, researchers are hired as official employees whose performance is assessed with formal measures such as the time they arrive and leave the office, not by the amount and quality of the science they produce.
Another comment flagged up the failure of many countries in the region to set science priorities. Priority setting is important for managing researchers' work and securing effective links between science and industry - which in turn provides attractive job opportunities for local researchers.
But such reform may not be enough on its own, Sahnoun suggests. In Algeria, one of the few countries in the region that is trying to set priorities for scientific research, a law was finally passed in December 2015 to set up a governmental body responsible for gathering research priorities from the various departments of the state. But low oil prices in recent years have affected Algeria's economy, restricting financial support for initiatives to reverse the country's brain drain, even if priorities are identified.
From drain to gain
Planned migration between countries was also raised as a fair solution and a way to develop more scientific capacity in the region. It would enable governments to regulate a 'market' for exchanging qualified candidates according to the participating countries' needs.
Sahnoun was in favour of the idea, suggesting that such a move would enrich the pool of qualified candidates not only between countries in the region, but also between countries in the global south. Under such a scheme, researchers could move between countries according to priorities and needs, but also maintain direct links with their homeland. Migration would be manageable and well planned.
Another message that emerged from the debate is that repatriating researchers is not the only way to turn a brain drain into a brain 'gain' and make use of experiences gained abroad. One alternative, according to Sahnoun, is to establish effective networks that let expatriate researchers exchange experiences with local researchers. Collaborative research projects can be another way.
Alkhazay pointed to the experience of Qatar and UAE, which both successfully encouraged networking with Arab expatriate scientists to improve the state of national science. They did this by inviting the scientists to help mentor local researchers and review ongoing projects for a few months every year, or by asking them to lead high-profile research institutes.
The Middle East and North Africa region has been a conflict hot spot for a while now. No one knows when the situation will settle. But taking positive steps is essential if highly qualified researchers are to survive the difficult conditions, and even thrive. Governments - where a government can be found - should aim to secure the basic conditions that would be acceptable to local researchers, and so help them get through this difficult period. But if researchers choose to emigrate, then the way to avoid losing their talents is to keep them linked to their homeland and make good use of their experience.
Bothina Osama is regional coordinator of SciDev.Net's Middle East and North Africa edition.
Heba Nassar Migration of skills, the Egyptian case (Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration, Analytical and Synthetic Notes 2010/29)