Should we fear a scientific brain-drain?

Recent wailing and gnashing of teeth within the UK science community has in the past couple of days been tempered by leaked indications that the funding cuts to be announced later today will impact relatively lightly on this sector of British society. Still, cuts there will be, and that will mean jobs not being replaced when existing contracts expire. Tough times lie ahead for some, but scientists and engineers are educated and often resourceful people.

When it comes to comment on science policy, I have won myself few friends by refusing to join the chorus of hyperbole in response to every government change in the science funding base. I’ve even received indignant emails from very senior professors who have happened upon my blog following Google searches, and reacted with disgust at my refusal to concur with their sky-is-falling theses.

Talking of newspaper opinion pieces commissioned of senior scientists in order to spice up  political debate, Sheffield astronomer Paul Crowther has written of his fears of a ‘brain drain’ of young British science talent. Crowther makes a few good points in his BBC News online article, including, for example, the absolute level of science funding in relation to public spending as a whole, and the need to wean the economy off its dependence on the financial services sector. However, the argument about the impact of science funding cuts on economic growth is one that needs to be made, rather than merely stated in normative terms.

Crowther’s focus is on the human resources of British science, and in particular the early career scientists and engineers known as postdoctoral research associates. Such people typically spend upwards of five years, and in some cases as much as a couple of decades, working on a succession of short contracts at various institutes. If needs be they are expected to up sticks and relocate to different continents, with spouses and children in tow. The sensible ones jump ship after the first postdoc job, if their chances of securing a university lectureship do not look good. The majority of PhD graduates will cease doing science following their postdoc years, and for those whose science careers stall, major career changes beckon, including into the financial services sector.

But what of this so-called ‘brain drain’? The picture being painted by Paul Crowther and others who voice such fears is that armies of brilliant young minds will flee the shores of Albion for scientifically greener pastures. This talent will be lost for good, say the critics, thereby causing irreparable damage to the British economy. Does this terrible vision reflect the reality?

No. The brain-drain argument relies on there being a surplus of job opportunities elsewhere, but such a surplus simply doesn’t exist. True, some countries spend more of their GDP on research and development, but the differences tend to be small, as is the absolute number of job openings for PhD graduates. There will not be a brain drain from British science as there is nowhere for these brains to drain into.

An interesting fact: in real terms, public funding for science and engineering doubled under the previous Labour administration. If off-the-record government media briefings are to be believed, the cuts to be announced later today will amount to some 10%. You do the arithmetic.