Can Iran convince its brainiacs to return?

Iran’s government has shifted its take on ‘brain drain’ but is the change enough to reverse the flow?

Iran's government estimates that '150,000 highly talented people' leave each year [AP]

Thirty-four years ago, former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini told Iranians not to worry about all the professionals fleeing the country. “Let these educated people who constantly talk of science and Western civilisation leave,” he declared. “These hypocrites say there is a brain drain. Let them go. We don’t need this kind of Western science and civilisation.”

That was a prologue to Iran’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1980 – when large numbers of Iran’s educated elite left. The International Monetary Fund estimates that around 250,000 engineers and physicians, along with some 170,000 highly educated Iranians, are currently living in the United States.

But now, Iran’s government under President Hassan Rouhani, who has been hailed as a moderate leader capable of implementing substantial change, is worried about “brain drain” and is trying to slow the trend. 

Last November, Hassan Ghashghavi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister in charge of consular affairs, announced that a committee has been formed to encourage the return of Iranians in the diaspora.

And in January 2014, Iran’s science minister, Reza Faraji Dana, said that brain drain was one of the most damaging trends facing developing countries. “About 150,000 highly talented people emigrate from Iran every year, equalling an annual loss of $150bn to the economy,” he claimed (although the World Bank estimate the amount to be $50bn).

Talk won’t turn into action

Hazhir Rahmandad left Iran after winning an international award in chemistry in 2002 and is now a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Most of the students who leave Iran are seeking proper education in the most prestigious universities in the world,” he told Al Jazeera. “They believe by moving abroad, they will have better access to facilities and opportunities on both an educational and career level.”

Even if I was able to return to my country, I wouldn't.

by - Foad Sojoodi Farimani, PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology

Saeed Peivandi, a sociologist and professor at the University of Lorraine in France, lists four factors that cause the migration of skilled specialists from Iran: a lack of research facilities, low wages, social restrictions and an unstable political situation – all of which affect academics in the country.

He believes that as long as these factors exist in Iran, talk of stemming the brain drain won’t turn into action.

Foad Sojoodi Farimani was a PhD student at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran. He registered two inventions, both related to robotic surgery, but was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to eight years in prison, for insulting Islam, “acting against national security” and insulting Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. He fled Iran in 2011 and is now a PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

“Even if I was able to return to my country, I wouldn’t,” he said. “The salary and benefits of research and education here are much better – normal budgets are hundreds of thousands of euros, while I remember that I was begging for a few hundred dollars for research in Iran.” Farimani adds that in Iran, academia are not allocated suitable work environments: “They don’t have access to free Internet, public spaces or free contemplation – while other countries don’t even recognise Iranian patents.”

The Chinese model

The previous Iranian administration often downplayed Iran’s brain drain. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ignored the issue – while Kamran Daneshjou, the science minister during his administration, argued that fears of a brain drain were overblown. But some attempts were nonetheless made to persuade Iranian professionals to come back – in 2009, Sharif University of Technology invited all Iranian students with scholarships to the world’s top universities to continue their education at the school without an entrance test.

The first problem is if these academic elites return to Iran they must join the military service for two years.

by - Shirzad Abdollahi, education expert

Earlier this year, Dana recommended emulating the Chinese model for attracting professionals living abroad. “By offering talented people wages three to four times above the average level, China is convincing its people to return to the country,” he said.

Peivandi, the sociologist, told Al Jazeera: “The countries which are successful in controlling the migration of [skilled professionals] experienced a democratic change  – their political and economic situation changed, which made the process of migration slow or reverse. China is the only country where the economic and social aspects of its situation have improved without a change in its political aspect.” 

He said the Iranian government is interested in China’s example because it offers a way to resolve the issue of brain drain without making political changes.

Iranian academics abroad have heard about the government’s efforts to bring them back. “The new government has shown its obsession with this phenomenon and also has some plans which can be effective,” said Rahmandad, who believes that providing better conditions and workplace facilities will encourage researchers to return to work at the country’s universities. 

‘Inquisitorial’ filters

But Shirzad Abdollahi, a Tehran-based expert on education systems, believes the government’s proposed plan is “ambiguous and disappointing”.

“The first problem is if these academic elites return to Iran, they must join the military service for two years,” he told Al Jazeera. He added that university salaries are currently lower than the average rent for apartments in Tehran.

“Employment conditions in the government make these elites feel that, even if the country needs their profession, they would not meet the criteria defined by the government – which are not just academic but inquisitorial,” he said, referring to requirements related to faith and political affiliation. “To be a faculty member, they must pass through several inquisitorial filters.”

Even if it plans to copy the Chinese model, Iran’s research budget is less than $1bn – compared to China’s estimated $284bn in research spending for 2014. The big question remains: How will the Iranian government secure the funds to convince its talented people to return?

Source: Al Jazeera