The reason for this whole shebang is a problem called ‘brain-drain’ – the large-scale emigration of skilled and educated people out of certain countries.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs did a bit of statistical digging in 2013 and published a report called ‘World Migration in Figures‘. They say that brain-drain is particularly high in certain areas of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But Africa suffers the worst – one in every nine people with a tertiary diploma packs up their brainy ideas and moseys off overseas.
One in every nine. That’s insane.
These smart folks are jumping ship for better prospects, taking their skills to countries like the USA, Russia, Germany, and Australia, where they have WAY better career opportunities.
As a scientist, I really can’t blame them for legging it to greener pastures. I honestly can’t at all – my experience going from the dizzying heights of fancy-ass research in Sydney to the slightly ramshackle and very disorganised Italian university system makes me sometimes yearn for those days of highly-functioning science. Sometimes. A good Italian vino and a pizza usually quells those thoughts.
The problem with brain-drain is that the loss of skilled professionals is hindering national development back in their homelands. A mountain of resources go into educating people, and if they all take that education elsewhere, it’s a spanner in the works of economic growth.
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” – Kofi Annan
Brain-drain is considered one of the greatest obstacles to the development of Africa.
So what can we do?
First and foremost the brains that have emigrated need a bit of incentive to come back to the motherland. In the context of science, that means good universities, labs, and resources. Obviously there’s an absolute bucketload of other variables, from cultural to economic to personal factors, but we’re here to focus on the research side of things.
This is where organisations like TReND come into play. Coordinated efforts by African Universities and volunteers worldwide act to bring experienced scientists to partner universities, to help grow the kind of environment that attracts researchers. We go, we teach workshops, we teach lectures, we help students and work with local scientists.
Basically we do a lot of nerdy frolicking.
TReND has made some great progress, hand-in-hand with partners in Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. They’ve already made a great impact on African research, not only through the efforts of their volunteers, but also through generous donations of equipment, resources, and money from external sources.
These efforts to reverse brain-drain are impressively creative, and aim to establish large-scale low-cost approaches to give research institutions a running start. My favourite so far is the use of 3D printing technology (unfortunately that’s not available in all locations…yet). With a bit more time and money, 3D printers could be established in every partner university, giving an immense amount of freedom to researchers.
Need a piece of equipment to finish that important experiment? BAM! 3D printing to the rescue.
In the end, every drop of knowledge, every slice of a skill, and every tiny donation can make a difference to brain-drain in countries like Ethiopia.
Let’s make science global.