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Brain drain of Finnish researchers continues into second decade

Last year roughly 500 researchers left Finland to work abroad. In turn, Finland was only able to attract a few hundred experts during the same period.

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Image: AOP

In recent years, Finland has seen an accelerated pace of departures for greener pastures abroad by highly-educated professionals. According to data by Statistics Finland some 274 individuals trained as researchers – or PhDs – left the country in 2011, compared to nearly 500 in 2016.

During the same period, just a couple hundred of similarly-trained people relocated to work in Finland, suggesting that Finland is not seen as a magnet in the world of science and research.

Acatiimi magazine, a publication put out by members of the scientific, higher education and academic communities has looked into the phenomenon of the widening gap in Finland’s skills exchange with the rest of the world. The magazine concluded that although the problem has been evident for some time, the country’s brain drain continued unabated.

In the magazine, Education and Culture Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen said that Finland could attract more overseas experts by boosting the level of education and research, moving to the forefront of developing skills ecosystems, and promoting internationalization, opened and providing a productive working environment.

However the reality of short-term contracts and resources cuts in the sector mean that Finnish universities do not in any way resemble the picture that the minister painted.

University of Eastern Finland rector Jukka Mönkkönen said that the atmosphere created by the ongoing belt-tightening must be replaced by a culture of development and investment in research.

Many reasons for emigration

There are many factors driving the departure of highly-educated people from Finland. Doctorate training has increased over the past few decades and roughly 1,000 new doctorates graduate every year, many of whom end up working for no pay given the stiff competition for paid research positions.

After young people complete their thesis research, they are often encouraged to seek valuable international experience abroad.

Docent Tuomas Martikainen, chief executive of the Institute of Migration said that declining employment prospects is one of the main reasons behind the flight of researchers overseas. He said the trend is especially evident in the humanities, social sciences and to some extent in the natural sciences.

He added that a ministry-driven pressure to internationalise is also feeding interest in looking beyond national borders.

"Post-2000, the Education Ministry has systematically attempted to increase international mobility among both students as well as researchers," Martikainen pointed out.

He said that in principle, he has a positive view of researchers internationalizing, because new scientific advances are constantly coming from abroad. Additionally, some of those who leave return to contribute to the development of Finnish science and business life.

"Permanently becoming a nation that exports the highly-educated should not be a target. It indicates that the conditions in Finland are not seen as sufficiently attractive. This means that more often than not, the best ones will leave," Martikainen told Yle.

Finland lacking sex appeal

According to the agency director, Finland is nowhere near the top of countries considered to be tempting, despite some attempts and units devoted to the purpose.

"On the other hand, for example, there has been strong growth in the number of foreign students, but that is a global trend," Martikainen outlined.

Finland’s remote location and climate are limitations – to some extent. Resources available for universities to use are tight compared to the world’s top institution's and the career prospects they offer. On the other hand, the main reason many researchers settle in Finland is family ties.

"The typical reason for coming to Finland is a Finnish partner. People then start thinking about where to live together. In such cases Finland is seen as attractive: it is safe, has a clean environment and the standard of living is good," the institute head said.

According to a 18 December 2017 publication from Statistics Finland, emigration of Finnish citizens with at least upper secondary qualifications has outstripped immigration for the last decade, a trend that has been gaining speed since 2009. The state-owned number cruncher says annual migration loss has increased rapidly in recent years among those with upper secondary qualifications, and posit that this is at least partly linked to Finnish young people studying abroad.

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