News archive - Towards a decisive investment in Brain Circulation:an interview with Lucian Brujan

Lucian Brujan, Programme Director International Relations at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and Speaker of the Berlin Process Joint Science Conference, attended ESOF 2020 with a session dedicated to Brain Drain, Brain Gain and Brain Circulation. We took the opportunity to exchange some views with him.

In the following interview, Mr Brujan tells us about how to revert the dramatic brain drain and what kind of favourable conditions should be created to attract talents to the Western Balkans. He also tackles the new ERA by emphazising how it can be a strategic instrument to frame positive developments, and underlines how Europe, meant as EU, the Balkans and immediate neighbours, need a decisive investment in Brain Circulation.


How can we revert the dramatic brain drain and what kind of favourable conditions we have to create to attract talents to Western Balkans?

In order to deal with Brain Drain, first, we must understand properly its causes, the so-called push factors. Second, we need to detect its dynamic as best as possible, also in a borderless European context, which per se favours migration. Brain Drain – including that from South East Europe – is not a new phenomenon and is part of international migration. Migration is here to stay and cannot be stopped at the push of a button. Brain Drain is also a strongly personal story, so we always need differentiation. However, Brain Migration is a specific form of migration, as migrants here have more opportunities with their education and skills. What the Balkans are currently experiencing are two types of emigration overlapping: Brain Migration and Labour Migration. They show an uninterrupted ascending trend, and this is highly problematic, actually alarming. Looking only at the numbers for the entire Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe, we could conclude that this is a mass phenomenon. Yes and now. Yes, because in some cases like Bosnia and Herzegovina or Romania the numbers are very high. No, because it is only a temporary snapshot.

Most research on Brain Drain from the Balkans clearly identifies the main push factors: lack of chances for professional and personal fulfilment in the country of origin, low income and labour uncertainty, nepotism and corruption, over-politicisation of public institutions, lack of or dysfunctional freedoms, lack of trust in state and society, disappointment and frustration with the direction of development of the country. Most of those cannot be changed over night and by individuals – they require a critical mass and a societal consensus. Both are currently lacking in the Balkans, even there, where the need for change is widely acknowledged. Hence, the decision to leave instates quite early (even during school) and spreads throughout the age groups through contagion effects. Irrespective of sometimes “romantic” or “exotic” conceptions about emigration.

Policy-makers (not only those from science), civil society and business discuss much about Brain Drain, but seem to be lost in translation. Why? Because Brain Drain is being perceived differently depending on the standpoint. For the countries of origin, Brain Drain is certainly dramatic, a loss, a problem. For those (e)migrating and for the receiving countries, Brain Drain is a chance and ultimately a positive development. That is why making effective policies in this area is exceptionally elaborate and requires flexibility. Influencing one component of the migration system influences the systems as a whole. Therefore, what we need is a balance between Brain Drain and Brain Gain. Making this balance fair and stable is a huge challenge.

One thing is clear: even if – by utopia – we would remediate most of the push factors in the Balkans immediately, this would not stop Brain Drain. Because once emigrated, the decision to return is even more difficult that the one to leave. And because it is about trust in the system, and this is systematically lacking in the entire Balkan context. This lack of trust and the prospect of better chances in Europe or overseas (USA, Australia etc.) currently drives the Brain Drain from the Balkans, more and more intensively. Of course, the ones dealing with the Balkans know very well, that most structural problems show little, slow progress or even regress. Therefore, Brain Drain is fist a symptom of existing problems and then a problem when it reaches the dimensions of nowadays and those forecasted for the next decade.


How the EU should do more to promote circular migration as part of their ongoing pursuit of European integration?

One of the solutions to override Brain Drain is Brain Circulation. What is it? It is the temporary stay abroad of highly-skilled individuals for mainly professional enhancement connected with a return to the country of origin and a transfer of know-how, investment and mind-set. This has been the traditional understanding of Brain Circulation; it is losing grounds however. It has worked and still works in some cases, for example in Africa, India or China. But when it comes to Europe, this does not apply due to one two factors: the quasi borderless Europe and the European integration and convergence towards similar rules, systems and opportunities. This leads us to two new forms of Brain Circulation: the “commuting” engagement of emigrants between the country of resettlement and country of origin, and the creation of transnational networks and even of a transnational identity, between diaspora and the country of origin – not only in cultural terms, but foremost in terms of flows of people, capital and knowledge. Both forms are developing mostly by informal and personal agency and less by state-driven measures.

Brain Circulation, be it ad hoc and informal or state-driven, continuously re-balances the migration system. However, and this is particularly problematic, the balance is currently disproportional, with more “losses” for the Eastern and Southern European countries and more “gains” for the Western and Northern European countries. For the past three decades, we have had this misbalanced situation on the European continent – a performance and development gap (not only in science) and a subsequent unidirectional migration. Neglecting or even whitewashing this imbalance is wrong. It will not solve the problem, but only make it worse. If we leave Brain Circulation only to informal networks or personal initiative of migrants, we might be lucky to reverse the trend in the next 10 years or not. Nevertheless, Brain Circulation in Europe will only work well, if addressed in an organised, European way and not relying on luck. We can and we must do this through targeted measures.

What we need in Europe – meaning the EU the Balkans and immediate neighbours – is a decisive investment in Brain Circulation through a dedicated toolbox, call it an investment programme. First comes the investment in people and then the investment in facilities, not the other way around – this has not worked so far and it will not work in the future. R&I investment is not like investment in roads, rails and bridges, and cannot be designed like traditional development aid of the 1980s. R&I lives from the scientists and entrepreneurs, from people. They are the capital and the main factor to produce change in the R&I systems, and this is especially valid for the Balkans. People are the ones who create knowledge and innovation, who affirm excellence and spread it into the whole R&I system. Those people are the pro-European drivers of change in the Balkans.

Therefore, we need an instrument that allows the birth of a critical mass of excellent R&I clusters in the Balkans and simultaneously connect them to European and global networks, as the R&I is a system of hub and spokes. A targeted structural instrument that offers financial stability to embark on the adventure of creating something new, qualitative, different, something disruptive of encrusted structures and mind-set. Such tools must be able to attract (even only for a determined period) bright minds and talents from all over the world to build-up structures that are performant and have a model character. We already have similar tool on the European level and in Member States. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but emulate those successful tools to Balkan conditions. Or to the conditions in the less R&I performant European countries. Emulation is essential, as no tool can be reproduced by copy-paste, because it need to be embedded in the local context. Otherwise, it will be “effective” only on paper. In conclusion, we need boldness for a people-centred investment frame for Brain Circulation, in science and in business.


ERA is about free circulation of researchers, knowledge and technology, how can we make the ERA more relevant for also those researchers outside the academic sector?

The ERA idea has been around for 20+ years. As desiderate, it is more than meaningful, but its implementation has so far been modest. And this is not only the problem at the EU-level; it is a problem of co-ordination and joining efforts by the European Commission and the Member States, as they have a shared competence here. And a problem of co-ordination with other policy fields, as R&I is not an isolated environment. It lives and thrives in a political, societal and economic setting, so we need ongoing synergies here. That is why I welcome the new ERA Communication of the European Commission. It is clear that we need an update here. The new ERA can only be an ERA for the next generations of researchers and innovators – and these next generations, 30 years from now, will be quite different from what we know. After COVID-19 and in the context of recurrent crises of different origin, R&I will change dramatically.

The new ERA can only be realistic, if we remediate the structural problems within Europe – and the performance gap is probably the greatest problem – and if we manage to join forces and not fall behind in national egoisms. We also need to adhere to shared core values and principles, e.g. research freedom and meritocracy. Easier said than done. I want to point out one success of ERA so far: the excellence principle is now prevalent. We need this principle to send out the right messages: R&I is both about creation and conditions – and the conditions can only be competitive, open and collaborative. Only in this way we can achieve structural improvement, meaning irreversible progress. However, investing in the best of the best must not mean leaving behind the less advantaged. We should not compromise European solidarity here.

The next generation ERA can make a difference, if it gains more proximity to the R&I community. We see a worrying trend of decoupling policy-making from the “real life” of the R&I community. We must avoid this by inclusion of scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs in policy co-design. This is a specific feature of R&I and this makes it successful in those countries, where this approach is self-understood. In many Balkan countries, if not in all, this is not the case, regrettably. The Commission is already testing this in the Horizon Europe Strategic Planning. But we need a more inclusive approach, as systematically and mandatory inclusive one. I see the new ERA primarily as a joint roadmap of the Commission and the Member States and the R&I community, i.e. a roadmap of all three stakeholders. It can offer predictability and security that policies and decisions will be the right ones. ERA can be a strategic instrument to frame positive developments, but those developments will be the sum of efforts from all its stakeholders. Let us not lose sight of this equation. This includes achieving both a genuine balance between fundamental and applied research and engaging the private sector, directly in R&D and by creating attractive conditions for those researchers and innovators that want to venture in the world of business. ERA can set the road for that, but needs to be adapted continuously. ERA can break borders, but we still need excellent individuals who are ready to push those borders.


Geographical focus
  • Europe
  • Western Balkans
Scientifc field / Thematic focus
  • General

Entry created by Admin on October 5, 2020
Modified on February 11, 2021