The argument is that developing countries make a valuable investment in the education of these elites, but when the time comes for their return, they fly to developed countries which profit free of charge from the human capital accumulated in these elites. This claim is only partly true. The literature of institutional economics has held for a long time that to benefit from the crème de la crème in a developing country, one needs a developed academic and research environment that is lacking in developing countries.
That said, the actual question in the development debate is how we can reverse the brain drain. The Turkish government recently raised this question and tried to formulate an answer. The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), a governmental body in charge of financing research projects, decided a short time ago to offer financial incentives for the return of Turkish academics and researchers working in developed countries.
According to Science and Technology Minister Nihat Ergün, interviewed yesterday by the Radikal daily, applications for the TÜBİTAK grant have increased fivefold this year over last year. The number of individual applications has reached 117 this year, 74 of which have been accepted while 31 are still under evaluation. Of these applications, 75 percent came from Turkish academics established in the US while the rest were from various countries such as Germany, the UK and Italy. Almost 90 percent of applicants preferred top universities such as Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), Bilkent University and Sabancı University.
Although the number of applicants has multiplied by five, their number (117) is still quite small for a country of 75 million inhabitants. I do not know how many Turkish academics are working abroad, but I estimate they must be in the thousands. We should take TÜBİTAK's step as a starting point that shows its intentions. According to Radikal, the grant offered is limited to $1,650 per month over two years. A fund of $12,500 is available for various expenses related to the research project. Frankly speaking, I do not think these financial incentives are sufficient for a Turkish academic or researcher who is well-integrated into the research facilities of another country to decide to return to Turkey. Associate Professor Şükrü Sadık Öner, who returned from the US, told Radikal that “the incentives must be increased to accelerate the reversal of the brain drain, as the existent incentives are persuasive only for Turkish academics who are already hesitant about remaining in the US.” Öner added that “there are also other obstacles, for example the procurement of research materials which are available in the US the day after the request is made, while in Turkey, procurement through public contracts take too much time.”
Clearly, financial incentives must be increased, but they should also be differentiated according to the research record of the applicant as well as the nature of the project proposed. Nonetheless, larger financial incentives will not be sufficient to start a strong reversal of the brain drain. Here we return to what I noted at the beginning of the article: The institutional framework matters more than financial incentives. Returning academics need to find an environment that is amenable to their research agenda. Such an environment cannot be created in a top-down, centralized manner. This environment needs a competitive market structure that should be composed of financially and academically autonomous universities and research centers, either private or public. The establishment of such an environment requires a radical reform of tertiary education, a big bang that will reverse not only the existing centralized and authoritarian system but also our mentality concerning the duty of the state in tertiary education.
The basic principles of such reform are repeated every year in the Medium-Term Program, but no action has been taken up until now. In any case, this is better than nothing; we can at least continue to hope.