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Brain Drain
Susan Böhmer © October 2006

1. Background

"Brain Drain" is the term used when highly-qualified specialists and professionals decide or are encouraged to go abroad to work. Conversely, immigration to Germany by top-level staff and researchers or the repatriation of German specialists is called "Brain Gain".

Due to companies becoming ever more global and increasingly relying on scientific research findings, Germany is becoming more and more concerned by the long-term or permanent brain drain of highly-qualified experts and professionals, including from the field of academia and science. The brain drain issue has been attracting ever greater attention in research policy discussions since the end of the 1990s. Germany's competitiveness as an industrial and research base seems jeopardised by high losses of "intellectual-innovative potential."

The following research policy conclusions are repeatedly derived from this (see sources):

  1. The conditions for highly-qualified specialists have to be improved in order to be able to use the potential of top-flight Germans for scientific research in Germany.
  2. Germany's appeal as a centre of science and research must be strengthened in order to be able to actively recruit specialists from abroad.
  3. Incentives to encourage German researchers working abroad to return to the German science system have to be created.

Yet, how strong is the brain drain really? From what point onwards can we begin to speak of a "permanent loss" of specialists? What motivates researchers to work in another country? What makes a country attractive as a centre of science and research?

2. Facts and Figures

Fears that Germany's status could be permanently weakened by more top-rate scientists and researchers leaving the country than coming here have not yet been substantiated by concrete data. The first quantitative conclusions on the actual amount of brain drain or brain gain among holders of a university degree are shown in the latest OECD Migration Report (2006).

Source: OECD 2006: 46ff. (here: Selection of important industrial countries)

The OECD's internal comparison places Germany somewhere midfield. "The winners are" (unsurprisingly) Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the United States. Major losses of scientists and researchers can be seen in Eastern European countries, which are losing their staff both to the United States and to the "old" Europe. Furthermore, these countries hardly attract any "brain gain". These statistics do not reveal any such dramatic findings for Germany. However, since these tables provide no sound figures on movement from OECD countries to other countries, no final conclusion can be provided.

The recruitment of highly-qualified staff from other countries has taken on greater political relevance over recent years and has led to the development of measures to promote immigration in many countries: visa conditions have been adapted, work permit formalities revised and relaxed, through which it has been made easier to bring along close family members. In the EU, too, directives were adopted in October 2005 aimed at facilitating the entry procedures for researchers from non-EU countries. Current developments in Britain show that an unfavourable net migration balance need not stabilise as a form trend and can be positively influenced by political measures.

The interpretation of migration statistics is made much more difficult by the fact that it is almost impossible to draw the boundary between brain drain, on the one hand, and the international mobility that is greatly welcomed by academia and research, in particular, on the other. This is also seen in the various directions taken by programmes that have been launched by federal government, by the federal states, and by research funding organisations on "young and early-stage researchers". The introduction of the junior professorship and the creation of similar intermediate career stages for experienced researchers on the way to professorial appointment aim to improve the career prospects for excellent scientists and researchers and to make structures more flexible. International networks and periods abroad have meanwhile become an absolutely essential prerequisite for the typical career path of aspiring academics, scientists and researchers. Aware of this, various research funding organisations offer a wide range of grants and scholarships specifically to promote stays abroad. The "international visibility" of German research, such as currently promoted and funded by the Excellence Initiative, for instance, is but one example of how strongly the areas of "international cooperation" and the upgrading or strengthening of the German science sector interact.

A survey of former DFG fellowship holders (Enders and Mugabushaka 2002) was unable to find any dramatic signs of the active funding of stays abroad leading to increased brain drain effects. Only 15% of those surveyed were working abroad four years after the end of their fellowship, of which not one researcher came from the field of "engineering sciences" in which the greatest problems in recruiting young researchers are experienced. Nevertheless, the authors did find signs of a weak trend towards an increased willingness among researchers to go abroad: among the young survey cohorts, more researchers were to be found who have been working abroad for 12 months and more.

The following examines the question of what countries are attractive for German researchers and why this willingness to move abroad could be identified.

3. Preferred host countries for German researchers

The chart of countries which German researchers prefer to move to has a number of surprises in store: the United States, Britain, and Switzerland are the most popular target countries for German researchers.

Source: Stifterverband 2002; Enders und Mugabushaka 2002 (here: Selection of host countries named most often)

These results correspond with the above OECD statistics on migratory movements within the OECD – including when we change the perspective and ask where foreign researchers working in Germany come from (brain gain).

Source: Stifterverband 2002 (here: Selection of host countries named most often)

4. Reasons for working abroad

The reasons for taking a position in another country are very much the same for German academics abroad and foreign researchers in Germany. As a rule, they are made up of a mixture of perceived deficits in the home country and the appeal of the working conditions and opportunities in the host countries. Research-policy discussions in Germany emphatically focus on the rigid and limited career opportunities for young and early-stage researchers as one of the driving forces behind the brain drain. Although this represents an important reason for German researchers going abroad, it is complemented by the appeal of the chosen institutions and their core research areas.

Source: Stifterverband 2002 (here: Selection of motives and regions of origin named most often)

All survey cohorts stated that an institution's reputation and the opportunity to position their own research topic played a key role in their decision. While US scientists very often come to Germany for private reasons, researchers from Eastern European countries are strongly motivated by the comparatively good material, equipment and working conditions in Germany. Reliable confirmation of the research-policy canon that limited career opportunities and prospects induce German researchers to go abroad cannot be identified here. Similar results can also be found among the surveyed former DFG fellowship holders. Even when asked about the retrospectively-assessed benefit of a stay abroad, the priority focuses strongly on aspects relating to their research topic.

Conclusion 1

When German researchers first decide to take a position abroad they seem to be essentially motivated by considerations relating to their own career planning and only barely influenced by perceived deficits in the German science system. Rather, they are influenced by the choice of renowned institutions at which researchers can pursue their own research topic in greater detail and depth. This means that their decision to leave Germany could essentially be the result of the increasing internationalisation of research areas and the associated need for researchers to be mobile.

The second important problem area that we mentioned at the beginning in respect of the brain gain discussion was the inadequacy of the brain gain. "Brain Gain" means recruiting highly-qualified international scientists to work in German research. Fig. 4 presents a number of clues to what makes Germany attractive for researchers from various areas of origin. The chart shows that that no recruitment problems exist (yet) as far as attracting Eastern Europe top-flight researchers is concerned due to the working conditions in their countries of origin. However, aspects that play a key role for researchers from all countries are the reputation of institutions and the opportunity to study their own research topic in further depth and detail. It is difficult to find empirical data with which to identify Germany's international position in this respect. However, the results produced by the Donors' Association (Stifterverband) present a number of slight clues on deficits in Germany (especially in respect of the reputation of universities). US scientists working in Germany are particularly likely to give their host institutions only a marginally positive assessment, although the reputation of non-university institutes is slightly more positive than that of universities (Fig. 5.1). By contrast, German researchers working in the United States assess the US institutions at which they are working much more positively throughout (Fig. 5.2). Nor does the clear lead over non-university institutions appear here. To substantiate these signs, it would be necessary to draw on complementary analyses that allow subject-based differentiation.

Fig. 5.1: Review of German research establishments by scientists from USA
Fig. 5.2: Review of American research establishments by scientists from Germany
  (Measurement on a 5-stepped Likert scale: 'excellent'/'very good')

 not universitary      universitary
Source: Stifterverband 2002

Conclusion 2

As far as the question of why international researchers come to Germany or how these could be actively recruited is concerned, a differentiation needs to be made between the preferred comparative countries (US, UK, Switzerland) and other countries, particularly, in Central and Eastern Europe. While private reasons and the continuation of their own work at renowned institutions seem to play a key role for US and British researchers, scientists from other countries (especially Central and Eastern Europe) also attach importance to the better working conditions that they find in Germany. Since the reputation of the chosen institution has crystallised as a key element and signs have been found that the image of Germany's universities is not good enough, this is possibly where the greatest potential could lie for improving the German science system.

A final, but so far only indirectly-described aspect of the brain gain is the repatriation of German researchers working abroad. As far as the problem outlined here is concerned, these would seem to make up the most interesting target group, since they are scientists, academics and researchers who (1) have adequate (required) experience abroad, (2) generally maintain good networks with research groups working on the international stage, and (3) can be assumed to have outstanding researcher qualities and the personal ability to get themselves accepted, since they have been able to prove and assert themselves over a longer period of time "on unknown terrain".

What conditions need to be put in place in order to encourage highly-qualified German scientists and researchers to return? Here, too, the results produced by the Donors' Association deliver clues that have already appeared as key factors in respect of a location's appeal in the context of other questions: professional development and career prospects.

Source: Stifterverband 2002 (here: Selection of motives and regions of origin named most often)

Conclusion 3

While the brain drain of German scientists is only partly motivated by working and career conditions in Germany, these fields seem to provide the greatest potential for encouraging German researchers to return to the science system here. Above all, the perceived lack of adequate positions for researchers themselves as well as for their spouses or partners and the comparatively rigid career development opportunities could result in scientists deciding to remain permanently in the host country. Consequently, we can only confirm for this group of researchers that the research policy emphasis on a lack of career prospects for young and early-stage researchers in Germany is the main reason for the loss of these human resources to the science and research system and the associated negative effects on Germany as a centre of science and industry.

In summary, the analysis of underlying studies does not provide any clear indications for a dramatic loss of German top-flight researchers. The rightly increasingly-discussed working and career conditions for young and early-stage researchers in Germany seem neither to stand out as the main reason why researchers decide to take up a position abroad at all nor for the hesitancy among foreign scientists to move to Germany. However, when it comes to repatriating all those researchers who have already established themselves at foreign institutions, these perceived deficits do play a major role.

To draw any differentiated conclusions on the effects of implied brain drain trends, it is necessary (1) to set a timeframe that allows a definition (beyond that of gaining experience abroad) of what exactly permanent brain drain and brain gain are so that is it possible (2) to decide for each discipline to what extent their problems in recruiting young and early-stage researchers indeed result from a tendency for qualified staff to move abroad.


Allmendinger, Jutta, and Andrea Eickmeier, 2003: Brain Drain. Ursachen für die Auswanderung akademischer Leistungseliten in die USA. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung 2/2003: 26-34.
Enders, Jürgen, and Alexis-Michel Mugabushaka, 2004: Wissenschaft und Karriere. Erfahrungen und Werdegänge ehemaliger Stipendiaten der DFG. Bonn: DFG.
Janson, Kerstin, Harald Schomburg, and Ulrich Teichler, 2006: Wissenschaftliche Wege zur Professor oder ins Abseits? Strukturinformationen zu Arbeitsmarkt und Beschäftigung an Hochschulen in Deutschland und den USA. Kassel: INCHER.
OECD, 2006: Internationaler Migrationsausblick. (Original: International Migration Outlook)
Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, 2002: Brain Drain – Brain Gain. Eine Untersuchung über internationale Berufskarrieren. (Durchgeführt von der Gesellschaft für Empirische Studien: Beate Backhaus, Lars Ninke, Albert Over). Online [Retrieved 31.10.2006]