Brain Drain Program: Emigration of Highly Qualified Junior Scientists? 1999 – 2006

Against the background of the very pithily named «war for talents» in the late 1990s – above all in the US – the newly established Gebert Rüf Stiftung launched the brain drain theme: Is Switzerland really facing a tacit emigration of highly qualified junior scientists?

Objective: A Spectre Under Scrutiny

Support for innovation means supporting the next generation, especially the most highly qualified individuals. No good curriculum is complete without a post-doc stay at a top university in the United States – «where things happen». Young Swiss researchers are encouraged to leave the country for a few years after earning their doctorate. Substantial funding is available from the public purse, particularly the Swiss National Science Foundation. At regular intervals, the question of whether this «outward subsidy» is sustainable for Switzerland as a location for science is raised. Are highly qualified young scientists emigrating, supported by tax money, to foreign universities? Is Switzerland experiencing a brain drain?

Result: Circulation Not Drain

A number of small projects sparked a wide-ranging debate in the media during the course of the program. At times the debate took on a sentimental/nationalist tinge: are the best Swiss brains really leaving our country? And do they never return? However, the program saw the spectre of a Swiss brain drain dissipate, to be replaced by the image of brain circulation: the mark of a globally oriented academic milieu and of Switzerland as an attractive place for science with strong international ties. So there is no call for alarmism.

A Positive Brain Balance

The question central to policymaking in the area of promoting young academic talent is whether Switzerland as a location for innovation can offer enough attractive positions at universities and research centres for junior talents. Whether or not they are Swiss seems hardly relevant. The crucial factor is whether Switzerland's brain balance in terms of highly qualified junior scientists is positive or negative. However, for as long as there are no statistically relevant figures available on the migration of mid-level faculty, for as long as the Swiss National Science Foundation, for instance, does not keep «track» of its grantees, we can only speculate – and it will not be possible to objectify the «brain drain» spectre.

Approved projects reBrain