From brain drain to brain regain. Two African scientists on the road back home | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.07.2017
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From brain drain to brain regain. Two African scientists on the road back home

Facts on brain drain are either hard to find or old. But one thing remains clear: those who can travel will do so to expand their professional horizons. The question is whether they return and share their experiences.

If you're fortunate enough to have access to a good education, whatever your financial background or country, there's a good chance it will open your eyes to worlds beyond. And it stands to reason that if you get that education and have a little cash left over, you will want to explore some of those new worlds up close.

Over the years it has happened a lot. A UNESCO Science Report "Towards 2030" cites brain drain as still being an issue for some countries, like Burkina Faso in West Africa. But this is not the complete picture.

There are many reasons for leaving. For some it might be financial prospects. And for others, like Abayomi Ogunjimi, "it was knowledge."

"I need new ideas, new ways of doing things and I need to fit myself in this broad landscape of science to get something done in my country after," says Ogunjimi. He's a PhD student from Nigeria, currently with the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.  

As Ogunjimi's outlook suggests, brain drain is no longer a one-way trip. It can be a round-trip, and some just don't feel the need to leave for an education at all.

The UNESCO report suggests, for instance, that Djibouti has experienced a fundamental turnaround since the University of Djibouti was founded in 2006. Two years later, the global economic crisis even "provoked a reversal in brain drain." It either discouraged scientists from emigrating in the first place, or they decided to return home as Europe and other countries turned a pale shade of economic death.

Abayomi Ogunijim Student aus Nigeria (DW/Z. Abbany)

Ogunjimi says he knows his country Nigeria has the money for research but the government spends it elsewhere

"Returnees are today playing a key role in STI [science, technology, innovation] policy formulation, economic development … even those who remain abroad are contributing," write the report's authors. 

Brain circulation

So we've gone from brain drain to brain (re)gain, and today we're seeing a "brain circulation." Some countries, like Sudan, that previous suffered from brain drain are now even attracting researchers. Or take Kenya: its plans for a Silicon Savannah could soon be a major draw card for the country. 

All these developments rely on returnees bringing back expertise from across the sciences - and not only that, it's their local knowledge that counts as well. But sometimes it's precisely that knowledge that slows your return.

"It's often difficult when you go back because there's nothing to work with," says Ogunjimi. "I plan to go back because I have a position at the university, but I'm already seeing challenges, like funding, facilities, government policies."

Ogunjimi focuses on pharmaceuticals, researching drug delivery and nano technology. And he will always keep the door open with a view on the world outside Nigeria.

"If I get funding and can do some good research, I'll stay. But if not, I'll move out," Ogunjimi says. 

Inspired by the problems at home

It seems young scientists from Africa are often inspired by those very problems, which they know all too well at home.

Vision Bagonza was selected for a position at the National Medical School in Tanzania, but she felt a need to get out into the world.

"I knew that a lot of the problems I was seeing in my village would not be solved by just a medical education, so I traveled and I found what I was looking for," says Bagonza, who has just graduated from the Augsburg College in Minneapolis, USA.

Bagonza also plans to return home, but says the solution to her country's problems will take more than that.

Vision Bagonza Wissenschaftlerin aus Tansania (DW/Z. Abbany)

Bagonza says when scientists move around they learn to see other people as important humans they should fight for

"I see the solution as being about going home with people, collaboration, and a lot of back and forth until we can establish the things we need to be successful and fruitful in Tanzania," says Bagonza. "That involves equipment, workmanship, and capacity building in research."

The shopping lists are long and varied, ranging from lab instruments like PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines to mentors, interdisciplinary work, or even just having the ideas. Things are "not as stable as they are in the United States," says Bagonza.

"Yes, there might be a lot of research on tropical diseases," she explains, "but once we hit a certain point, we can't get any further." 

Clearly, scientists need tools. And when Ogunjimi first went to Brazil, technically itself a developing country, he was able to use equipment he had never seen before.

"We have facility deficiencies in Nigeria and the biggest fund [for research] says I can't use more than 15 percent of my funding to buy equipment," says Ogunjimi.

Awareness everywhere

Don't forget, though, whether the scientists return or not, they can have their own educational impact in the countries they adopt. By sharing their stories in America, Brazil, Europe or Australia, local science communities there will surely gain some new brains and understanding themselves about lives and issues in Africa. Perhaps if more people had access to such exchanges, it would reduce the risk of western populations failing to act, or act fast enough, when diseases like Ebola break out.

"Well, we live in a technological society, so it's really impossible to say you don't know what's going on in the world," says Bagonza. "but the key thing that happens with exchanging scientists is seeing them as important humans that you should fight for until they can fight for themselves, or indeed fight with them." 

And it is indeed a fight for Ogunjimi, a fight he says he will take to the top of his institute if he has to. Okay, so both his parents are educators and his father is a top ranking university professor, so he's got the walk to go with the talk. But, still, he concedes, "it is tough."

"I'm not proud when I ask about collaborations and facilities because I'm from Nigeria, and I know my government has the money," says Ogunjimi, "it can do more than this. But they just channel the money to something else."


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