The Brain Drain, under debate

Xartec Salut (CREB UPC) puts on the table the main challenges of the brain drain, one of the current challenges of the R+D+I ecosystem.

The brain drain is a reality, also in the field of HealthTech. Spain, together with Italy, leads this outflow of professionals at European level, with more than 20,000 PhDs leaving our borders. Experts point to several reasons: lack of investment and promotion of the industrial fabric, insufficient retention policies and cultural reasons. But what is the economic impact of this situation, what specific measures should be implemented to reverse this situation, and what key elements will encourage the return of talent? These are some of the questions that have been resolved at the round table “Brain Drain on the Spanish framework”, based on the first report of the Observatory of Xartec Salut, a leading Catalan network in HealthTech. The report concluded that the mobility of PhDs is four times higher than the mobility of the population with tertiary education (VET, bachelor’s and master’s degrees). It also highlighted that 57% of PhDs living abroad have studied technical careers (25% Science, 17% Health and 15% Engineering and Construction). Approximately 8.4% of the total number of PhDs in Spain are established in other countries in search of new opportunities. It is worth noting that this 8.4% differs significantly from the 1.32% of the highly qualified Spanish population who move to another EU country and the 2.35% of Spaniards who move to another OECD country. It is also estimated that €0.5 million is lost for each PhD that leaves the country (€10,000 million in total), without taking into account the economic and social impact that they could be generating in our country if they were doing research here.

The meeting was attended by specialists from different fields; Xavier Aldeguer, Director General of Knowledge Transfer of the Generalitat de Catalunya; Andrea Granero, Senior Consultant Healthcare & Life Sciences at Michael Page; Enric Álvarez, professor at EETAC and researcher of the BIOCOM-SC group at the UPC; Eva Ortega-Paino, General Secretary of RAICEX- Network of Associations of Spanish Researchers and Scientists Abroad and CNIO researcher, Miguel Ángel González Ballester, ICREA professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Alexandre Perera, director of CREB UPC and Xartec Salut.

Most of the specialists agreed on the positive impact of mobility with return, which improves internationalisation and can attract knowledge for the country and new opportunities. “It would be interesting to generate official records through embassies, for example,” says Eva Ortega-Paino, Secretary General of RAICEX. A high economic gap, researcher profiles with a lot of uncertainty in their professional careers, as well as a lack of employability of PhDs in the private sector. Against this backdrop, the speakers insisted on the need to develop an environment that allows talent to be retained, proposing several solutions. “Recruitment and retention is very important, but we also need to implement policies that include social benefits and family reconciliation. Employer branding is indispensable,” says Andrea Granero, Senior Consultant for Healthcare & Life Sciences at Michael Page. For his part, Enric Álvarez, professor at EETAC and researcher in the BIOCOM-SC group at the UPC, emphasised not only the reality, but also the message that students receive and how they perceive it. “The problem is not economic, but also narrative. The student has a totally different narrative, with a fundamental myth that in Spain we are “bricks and tourism” and this can only be changed through an industrial policy”.
On the same point, Xavier Aldeguer, Director General of Knowledge Transfer of the Generalitat de Catalunya, commented: “we must change our system to evaluate it beyond academia, measuring our researcher profiles by their ability to generate impact and changing the narrative. This transition does not happen from today to tomorrow, but in the long term, so it is essential to continue to drive it forward”. Aldeguer also highlighted the importance of differential tracks, such as ICREA: valuing researchers also for their transfer and spin-off activity, not only for their academic base.

One of the reforms highlighted in the draft bill of the Law on Science, Technology and Innovation is to facilitate the direct generation of start-ups derived from research results, as a boost to knowledge transfer. In this sense, the need for a greater ecosystem of technology-based companies has also been one of the solutions put forward by the specialists. Miguel Ángel González Ballester, ICREA professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra pointed out: “we want knowledge to be put to real use, but our business model generates research and, above all, talent. We are delighted when our students have a successful career, and we want to continue supporting initiatives to ensure that this is the case. There is an entrepreneurial restlessness among our doctoral students. There is a change in mentality and dynamics”.

The conference addressed some of the main actions to reshape the R&D&I ecosystem and promote the attraction and retention of the best talent. Increasing the employability of PhDs (outside academia, connecting with companies), creating transfer profiles and seeking double affiliations in the university with foreign centres are some of the proposals discussed by the experts. As well as greater flexibility in the system, the creation of more versatile profiles, active return policies, stability in professional careers and help in reconciling work and family life.

Recording of the live-streamed event now available here

This project has been co-funded by the European Union through the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and has the support of the Secretariat of Universities and Research, Ministry of Enterprise and Knowledge of the Government of Catalonia.