Highly Skilled Migration: “Brain Drain” or “Brain Gain”?
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Highly Skilled Migration: “Brain Drain” or “Brain Gain”?

Highly Skilled Migration: “Brain Drain” or “Brain Gain”?

Ernest Miguelez

This article is originally published in World Bank research Digest

As migration flows across national borders intensify, the oft-quoted broad figures hide an important variation: unlike in the past, highly skilled individuals represent a substantial and increasing share of international mobility flows. During the 2000s, the number of tertiary educated immigrants living in OECD countries increased by 70 percent compared with only 10 percent for the low-educated ones. And migration rates for the tertiary educated are higher than those for the rest of the population and generally increase with further education.

Moreover, bilateral flows are becoming skewed. OECD countries (especially the Ango-Saxon ones) are the larger receptors of global talent. Plus high-skilled migrants originate in a larger number of countries, including emerging and middle-income ones. This trend has brought back old concerns about “brain drain” and the depletion of skills resources in origin countries. However, high-skilled emigrants can also contribute to their home country’s development in a number of ways—referred to as “brain gain”—by sharing embedded knowledge and accessible resources, such as capital or the expatriates’ network of colleagues and acquaintances.

Against this backdrop, diaspora networks are being increasingly studied in the context of trade, foreign direction investment, international diffusion of ideas, and firms’ internationalization strategies. A recent study by Ernest Miguelez contributes to this literature by investigating how high-skilled emigrants activate their diaspora networks, overcome international barriers, and foster the internationalization of knowledge production. Specifically, it looks at inventor diasporas and the production of patents in international teams for a sample of developed, receiving countries and a group of developing, sending economies from 1990 to 2010. The use of inventor data offers two main advantages. Patent data (together with inventor information) are registered and so can be organized on a yearly basis—unlike census data, which are collected only every 10 years. Also, the level of education attained may differ markedly among tertiary educated workers.

Among this group, Canada, Australia, and, notably, the United States stand out as being the primary receiving countries, when compared to their resident stock of inventors from developing countries, while Japan is, and has been over the years, one of the developed countries with a smaller share of inventor immigrant population (figure 1). Meanwhile, technology-leading European countries (like Germany or France) lag way behind compared to the United States. And the share of inventors from developing countries is considerable—and it is on the rise in recent years.

Diaspora Networks Could Offer “Brain Gains”

The results show a robust effect of high-skilled diasporas on the internationalization of inventive activity between developed, receiving countries and developing, sending economies: a 10 percent increase in the inventor diaspora abroad is associated with a 2.0–2.2 percent increase in international patent collaborations. The evidence found survives the inclusion of a large number of controls, fixed effects, robustness checks, and identification issues. Moreover, the effect is stronger for inventor-to-inventor collaborations (co-inventorship) than for applicant-to-inventor co-patents (R&D offshoring), which suggests that diaspora effects specifically mediate interpersonal relations between co-workers.

These findings do not suffice to conclude that a “brain gain” exists that makes up for the loss of high-skilled human capital of sending economies. Note, however, that boosting international co-inventorship and team formation is only one of the multiple brain gain effects of emigrant inventors— which may eventually include the international diffusion of knowledge or the accumulation of human capital in sending economies.

These findings also support the idea that exploiting high-skilled diaspora networks in technology frontier economies might be an instrumental way of engaging in international innovation networks. This subject matter ranks high among policymakers in these countries, as witnessed by the 2015 visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Silicon Valley.

Figure 1. Some Receiving Countries Have a Much Higher Share of Immigrant Inventors from Developing Countries than Others

Immigration rates of inventors, 2001–2010, receiving countries