Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies

Brain Drain in Putin’s Russia

In 2010, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”, a material that could have a myriad of high-tech applications. Both are Russians, but with a Dutch and a British citizenship respectively. Russian experts could only say disappointedly that it was a pity that Andre and Konstantin made their discoveries abroad. These two pioneers working on graphene are not the only talented scientists Russia has lost. In 1998, Maxim Kontsevich, a French scientist of Russian origin, was awarded the Fields Medal, which is often called the Nobel Prize for mathematicians, for proving the Witten conjecture. Andrei Linde, a Russian-American theoretical physicist, the father of “eternal chaotic inflation”,  won the Fundamental Physics Prize, awarded by the Milner Foundation. There are many other such examples. In 2014, the official business magazine for BRICS (an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) came up with a list of “The Greatest Minds of the Developing World”, which included twenty-two Russian scientists (out of fifty-four). Out of these great minds, fourteen were living and working abroad.

“Brain drain” began in Russia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, financing of scientific and technical developments practically ceased; no attention was paid, and no support was provided to design bureaus and research centers. Leading scientists and academics in Russia’s scientific community – the most talented specialists, researchers and developers – decided they would be more successful in other countries and simply left Russia.

The loss of high-skilled labor with high production and scientific potential has had a negative impact on Russia`s economy and its competitiveness in the world market, while countries to which Russian specialists emigrated (primarily the United States, France, Israel, Germany, Canada) acquired valuable human resources. Gradually, Russia has lost its ability to compete internationally in the science and technology field. Presently, Russia ranks in 43rd place for exports of high-tech with an almost twofold decline in ranking since 2002.

Unfortunately, the mass outflow of scientists has shown no signs of stopping. The main reason for the “brain drain” is that the Russian society has lost interest in the scientific area, and professions in this field have become less appreciated and poorly compensated. The results of  a survey of professors and researchers in Moscow universities show that the main push factors for migration is the decline in prestige of intellectual labor and low salaries. For example, the salary of medical professionals in Russia is on the same level as the earnings of secretaries and janitors. In the United States, medical specialists are one of the highest earning professions.

As with all migrants, high-skilled laborers are similarly motivated by more favorable working conditions, higher wages and a higher quality of life. It is common sense that academics, scientists, and educated people would move from a country where their skills have little value.

To compare average academic salaries, in 2013, an average monthly gross salary (PPP, purchasing power parity) in Canada was $7196, in the United States – $6054, in the United Kingdom – $5943, in Germany – $5141, Israel – $4747, in France – $3484, in Japan – $3743 and in Russia … $617. With such an enormous discrepancy, it comes as no surprise that skilled workers are continuing to leave the country.

The recent 2014 currency crisis in Russia has made the situation even worse. In a matter of months, the ruble exchange rate against the dollar dropped more than 200%, making already low salaries even lower, and allowing job opportunities abroad to become even more attractive.

In addition, among other causes of “brain drain” from Russia is the decline in the funding of scientific research. According to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Russia`s expenditure on research and development in 2015 was only 1.13% of total GDP, while in other developed countries it was twice as high or more: Germany – 2.87%, France – 2.23%, the United States – 2.78%.

To address the problem, it is necessary to motivate scientific workers and persuade the government to develop an effective set of measures that will ensure that the most valuable and qualified personnel remain in Russia. Without high-skill labor, the country will not be able to withstand global competition in the context of globalization. It is also necessary to increase funding for Russian science and innovation developments. On research and development instead of 1.13%, around 3% of GDP should be directed, and these investments need to be effectively managed in order to get successful results. Financing for training technical specialists and the status of universities and academics should be considered as well. It is necessary to train skilled workers who will be able to manage modern machine tools as well as to raise the overall level of engineering staff training, which has drastically decreased because of the massive outflow of skilled professionals.

Moreover, it is necessary to have a sufficient number of first-class laboratories and innovation centers like “Skolkovo”, where young students can conduct scientific work after graduation and improve their qualifications, at the same time receiving a decent salary. Second, scientists and other skilled workers must have the freedom and flexibility to conduct their own research and experiments. Third, salaries for Russia’s skilled professionals must keep pace with inflation. Finally, more affordable housing is needed. Today urban housing prices are so high that purchasing a house is often out of reach for many young workers.

Although a persistent problem, there is still hope for addressing Russia’s “brain drain” and encouraging specialists to return to the homeland. However, the Russian government must take this issue seriously and implement effective solutions before it is too late.

Written by

Ekaterina is a Ph.D candidate at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies majored in International Cooperation. Ekaterina graduated from Moscow State University, African and Asian studies department with a BA in Korean language and Korean Studies, and MA in International Economic Relations. Ekaterina has interned in the Ministry of Economic Development of Russian Federation, The Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Russia, Korean Cultural Center in Moscow, and has taught Korean language, “The development of political systems in Korea”, “Capital flows and economic development in Asian and African countries” courses in State Academic University for the Humanities in Moscow. Her fields of research interest are international economic cooperation, international security and human rights.

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