Italian and Spanish researchers returning from
abroad deserve more support.
Most European nations bemoan an academic ‘brain drain’ that flows mostly in the direction of the United States. But the situation is not uniform. Germany, for example, is prone to grumble, but it has a well-funded, well-organized research infrastructure, and a regular supply of new academic positions. More than 80% of German scientists who go abroad for their PhDs or postdocs eventually return home. Not all countries are so fortunate. When the infrastructure at home is poor, few migrants will return to the nest. Italy and Spain have both endured a prolonged haemorrhaging of talent. Having failed to invest properly in basic research for decades, both nations have recently attempted to plan a better future. In 2001, they each launched programmes specifically designed to entice well-trained scientists back home, by providing an attractive salary and research funding for up to five years. Italy’s ‘Rientro dei cervelli’ (‘Brain gain’) programme has so far brought back over 460 scientists; Spain’s Ramon y Cajal scheme has attracted more than 2,000. The initial idea of both programmes was that researchers returning home would then be ideally placed to compete for local, permanent jobs. But thanks to bad planning, few of the returnees are as well-integrated as they had hoped. In the underfunded systems they found themselves in, few jobs became available. The next step was therefore to encourage universities to create the required positions. Last year, Italy made an offer that, although modest, seemed to provide a solution. The government allocated €3 million (US$3.9 million) a year to pay for 95% of the salaries of returning scientists who were deemed worthy of a permanent position by their university departments. But much of the money remains unspent. Many universities did not nominate candidates — partly because they see the ‘Brain gain’ programme as institutionalized queue-jumping, pushing returning scientists ahead of those who stayed at home waiting for jobs to show up. Most of the nominations were blocked on technical grounds by the similarly unsympathetic National Committee of Universities, which has to verify the eligibility of all candidate professors.
Two years ago, the Spanish government made a similar offer, to fund the full costs of the first three years of 900 new academic posts. But uptake by universities has been patchy. Full cooperation from the universities is essential if such schemes are to work. It would not have been easy — universities hate being told who to hire — but it should have been sought from the start. Measures to bring in new talent are essential if Spain and Italy are to meet their scientific aspirations. It is now up to the universities to see the bigger picture and show more flexibility in supporting returning scientists.