Can Brain Drain Be Beneficial?

Three years after the start of its new Science Without Borders program, Brazil isn't the only country benefitting.


Vinicius Munaldi Lube is from Vitoria, Brazil, a small city on the southeastern coast, about 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. He studied wood engineering, the discipline of using wood in the best ways for construction and manufacturing at Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, until September 2012, when he started an internship at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. He was one of the first Brazilians to receive a grant from the new federal program Science Without Borders, which is designed to send 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students to international institutions to study the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

Lube was thrilled to go to Vancouver. “I already knew UBC had the best department of wood science in the world,” he said. (He had been reading the names of UBC researchers in trade journals since he started college.) Lube had been working with oriented strand board, a type of pressed wood composite used in the majority of house frames in North America because of its strength and durability. “[This material] has a big problem if it rains during construction, so I wanted to know how to address that,” he said, hoping to make the material useful in places with heavy rainfall. “If I get some insight I can implement that in Brazil and use it more for construction there.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Science Without Borders changed Lube’s life. The grant gave him enough money to live well and buy a laptop for school. After receiving his degree in Brazil, he went to UBC to get his master’s in wood composites. “Science Without Borders was the best chance I have ever had to succeed in my life,” he said.

Although the long-term effects of the program won’t be seen for some time, educators around the world already agree with Lube: that Science Without Borders has been a huge success. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently pledged to send another 100,000 students abroad starting in 2015. The program was a huge experiment in the effort to raise Brazil’s scientific prominence and boost its manufacturing economy—and it was expensive, costing the government over $2 billion U.S. dollars already. Science educators around the world can interpret Brazil’s program as a case study for how federal governments around the world are promoting STEM education and demonstrates just how international the disciplines have become. The number of Brazilian students who enrolled in international institutions, and the fact that they thrived there, indicate the program’s short-term success, which has some American educators wondering: Can the U.S. government ever sustain a program with the express purpose of sending its students away?

Since inflation and stagnation of its currency in the late 1980s, Brazil has been an economic powerhouse over the past decade. This year Brazil had the seventh-highest gross domestic product in the world and, as one of the “BRIC” countries, it’s positioned to play an even larger global role by 2050. With a wealth of natural resources ranging from minerals to lumber, Brazil has one of the strongest industrial sectors in the Americas, making up almost 30 percent of its GDP.

Even though Brazilian education emphasizes STEM fields, politicians and industry professionals wanted to see the country’s innovation taking a larger role on an international stage. Brazil has some of the top universities in Latin America, but policy makers quickly saw that giving its students training at could help boost the country’s mastery. So Science Without Borders, or Ciencia sem fronteiras, was born. In July, Rousseff said of the program: “This is a program designed to ensure Brazil is able to be innovative, and to generate interest in the sciences and the application of technology in all areas including industry and agriculture and especially to facilitate research in basic sciences.”

The program was met mostly with enthusiasm, but some educators had concerns. Eduardo Gomez, now a professor of International Development and Emerging Economies at King's College London, wrote a critical op-ed for the BBC shortly after the program’s launch. He wondered if Brazilian students would try to stay in their foreign institutions instead of returning to Brazil and expressed concerns that the government was spending too much money on students who had already made it through the school system and not on the students earlier in their educational careers. “Before aspiring to build a world-renowned, technically sophisticated workforce, perhaps President Rousseff should invest more in her primary and secondary schools, where the future of Brazil's scientific and technological progress truly resides,” Gomez wrote.

Gomez is correct in arguing that  Brazil’s schools need attention; the country spends five times more on college students than on elementary-school students. But it’s not clear that more money would help. “The problems go much deeper than that,” said Jerry Davila, a professor of Brazilian history at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “To give you an idea, across Brazil, elementary school education is handled by municipal governments and secondary education is handled by state governments. You don’t even have a single school system in most cities.” While various universities, he noted, are supported by a mix of funding sources, the best are federally funded. International educators have suggested that primary and secondary schools manage funds inefficiently at best (as Davila suggests), or corruptly at worst. A 2012 study indicated that deep problems in the infrastructure and facilities mean that increased funding won’t necessarily improve student achievement.

But Gomez’s other concern—that students would try to stay abroad—hasn’t emerged as much of an issue. (Lube is, by his own account, a rare exception.) The U.S. government grants Brazilian students a particular kind of visa that requires the student to return home after a designated period, Davila said. (Lube got special permission from the Brazilian government to continue his education in Vancouver.)

Despite the concerns, Science Without Borders appears to have been a success. “This is a brilliant thing the president of Brazil has done,” according to Allan Goodman, the president and CEO of the Institute for International Education, a New York City-based non-profit. Undergraduates get the education they need but still receive their degrees from their Brazilian institution. “[The program] is really efficient—it immediately satisfies the needs of employers,” he added.

Davila agreed: “Within the limited timeframe that we’ve seen, it’s worked tremendously well.”

Although they agree that Science Without Borders has been successful, Goodman and Davila are doubtful that a program like this could happen now in the U.S. Just as Brazil has ramped up Science Without Borders, the U.S. has decreased federal funding for exchange programs such as the US-Brazil Higher Education Consortia Program. Study abroad is more popular than ever at U.S. institutions, but not much of the money is coming from the federal government (through loan subsidies or grants, for example) the way it is in Brazil. “I think the outcome of Science Without Borders will be that not only will Brazilians know about America, but the other way around. And I think it will happen,” Goodman said. “I just wish there were more countries making the kind of investment in this kind of international education that Brazil is doing.”

His horizons sufficiently expanded, Lube hopes to return to Brazil someday, perhaps to work for a manufacturer. But his time in Canada has shifted his focus. “I don’t think anymore about nations—I don’t think I belong to Brazil, I belong to the world,” he said. “My wish is to enhance the lives of people everywhere, not just in Brazil.”