A study by South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has confirmed earlier findings regarding the under reporting of emigration by highly skilled South Africans to major consuming countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, with the flow up to four times higher than the official figures of Statistics South Africa.
Releasing the study, entitled Flight of the Flamingos, the Study on Mobility of Research and Development (R&D) workers in Cape Town on Wednesday, the HSRC said a key finding was that, although emigration figures of highly skilled researchers remain high, the greatest mobility of high-level skills is now within the country.
The study was commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI).
We used the flamingo metaphor to understand our pool of skills. Flamingos migrate only to return when the brackish waters are replenished, explains Professor Michael Kahn, executive director of the HSRC's knowledge Management Research Programme.
He says a well-functioning science and technology system is a recognised contributor to economic growth and is in turn dependent upon a competent and productive R&D workforce.
The loss, gain and circulation of this workforce presents both a threat (when it entails permanent loss) and an opportunity through brain gain and career development.
While official migration statistics show that 16,725 highly skilled South Africans emigrated between 1994 and 2001, this represented less than 1% of South Africa's highly skilled human resources in 2001.
However, the study found evidence that movements of R&D workers within South Africa were significantly more of an issue than international mobility.
The pull of management and financial occupations was noted as being particularly strong, with many organisations referring to this as the 'MBA drain'. Data from the 2001/2 R&D Survey supported this, as only 11% of R&D personnel departing from the science councils were reported as going overseas.
R&D worker mobility - a much wider concept than the emotive phrase 'brain-drain' - is a complex phenomenon that concerns policy makers of all countries, explains William Blankley, the study project manager: It's about developing, attracting and retaining skills, while at the same time recognising that
knowledge workers are necessarily mobile people.
The world of professional football understands this: train and play abroad, support the national team, and consider transferring the latest technology of the great game through the genius of a foreign coach.
Thomas Pogue, senior researcher at CSIR, says the study approached the issues of brain drain, brain gain, brain circulation, and brain development not as disasters, but as component realities of mobility that must be managed for what they are, both good and bad.
The main conclusion of the study is that mobility needs to recognised and managed proactively by making the domestic environment attractive and simultaneously maximizing the participation of the research diaspora, Pogue said.
South Africa, like other emerging economies such as Russia and India, faces special problems in managing mobility. Moreover, re-emergence from isolation, the restructuring of the economy and the impact of globalisation have altered our international trade relations, financial position and the mobility of human resources, especially in the science, technology and innovation fields.
Kahn points out that mobility is an important means of technology transfer and expanding the knowledge base. Questions such as why trained researchers leave their research fields for management positions, why top researchers emigrate permanently or temporarily and where the next generation of science and technology workers will come from need to be understood.
At the same time, mobility is a worldwide phenomenon. Industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom and France express concern about movement of their top researchers to the US. Emerging economies like India and China see many of their most talented young knowledge workers going abroad for greater research career opportunities.
Until now there has been an 'information chasm' concerning the data needed to inform our thinking on R&D human resources, Kahn said.
This study and the national R&D Survey 2001/2 (published early in January 2004) that HSRC carried out for the Department of Science and Technology, go some way to addressing these problems. (Source: Lynn Bolin, Business Day, 28 January 2004)