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Brain Drain 2

The Anatomy of the 'Brain Drain' Debate in the UK

An ESRC funded research project


Although the scientific community frequently professes to be global and therefore indifferent to national boundaries, historians and sociologists of science have observed how science and technology are often regarded as important national resources (Pestre 1997). Since the end of the Second World War, science and technology have continually been invoked in government policies as essential to the economic, social and military well-being of nations (Elzinga and Jamison 1995, Gibbons and Wittrock 1985). Equally important in the Cold War context, science has been regarded as an important symbol of national prestige, with the ability of a nation to fund ‘big’ science or participate in international collaborative projects becoming surrogate flag-waving exercises (e.g. Agar 2003, Elzinga 1991, Abraham 1998, Galison and Hevly 1992). In Europe, expensive scientific collaboration has frequently been justified as a means of keeping apace with the United States (Krige 1997). While levels and types of scientific activity can matter to a sense of national identity, an emerging geography of knowledge has demonstrated how regional differences may affect the constitution and acceptance of scientific knowledge (e.g. Livingstone 2003, Shapin 1998, Agar and Smith 1998). Such findings reinforce the notion that the implications of scientific migration are more far-reaching than being merely ‘the same science, just done somewhere else’ (see also Hoch 1987).

Historical Context

Set against a broad backdrop of ‘declinism’, and the particular significance of science and technology for proponents of the ‘declinist’ mood in the 1960s, one can see how an analysis of the ‘brain drain’ debate may further illuminate the more general themes of science and national status discussed above. Heightened by the Suez debacle in 1956 anxiety that Britain had declined into ‘a stagnant society’ became increasingly widespread in the post-war period, but reached a much higher level of public awareness in the 1960s (Jefferys 1997). A contemporary article in The Economist remarked ‘…friends abroad…say that Britain is badly governed, badly managed, badly educated and badly behaved – and the striking thing is that more Britons are saying the same, more stridently still’ (1963, cited in Jefferys 1997, p110-11). Britain’s decline was perceived to be economic - Britain was failing in comparison to its competitors. The reasons given for this downward spiral were often centred on the assertion that there had been inadequate investment in science and technology, as well as improper industrial management. As Edgerton has shown the key proponents of such arguments relating to science and technology are typically inaccurate (Edgerton 1996), but it is against this backdrop of declinist rhetoric that the ‘brain drain’ debate was played out.

The ‘Brain Drain’ Debate

An intergovernmental programme of visits by UK-trained scientists to the USA began shortly after the end of WWII to allow British scientists to catch up with the latest ideas and technology, and bring their new knowledge back to Britain. However, the Government’s Advisory Council on Scientific Policy (ACSP) noted that by 1956, 40% of the postgraduate students who had taken up fellowships in the USA had never returned to Britain (see Crowther 1967). Not only that, but of British graduates, 6% of chemists, 10% of physicists and 8% of engineers were taking up posts in the USA. After Sputnik, the USA created many new jobs in the sciences, and with much better salaries than in Britain, thus creating plenty of rewarding opportunities for visiting British scientists, at any stage of their career. By the end of the 1950s, scientists in Britain were protesting about meagre funds and complex funding machinery in the UK, as compared to their colleagues in the USA, and some were using threats to emigrate to put pressure on the government.

Through the early 1960s, heavy demands on limited funding served to focus scientists’ dissatisfaction with working conditions in the UK. In February 1963, the Royal Society issued a provocative report entitled the Emigration of Scientists from the United Kingdom (Royal Society, 1963). The report highlighted the migration of scientists from the UK, claiming that, of the total science and engineering PhDs awarded in the UK each year, around 12% were being lost abroad, with 7% migrating permanently to the US. The stark conclusion of the Royal Society committee was that, in addition to the amount it had cost to educate these migrants, “we regard as much more serious the economic consequences of the loss to this country of the leadership and the creative contributions to science and technology which they would have made in their working lives”.

Although it is presently unclear why the Royal Society report had a greater impact than the ACSP reports, it was followed within the month by a House of Lords debate, in which Lord Hailsham introduced the notion of the ‘brain drain’. The term stuck, and throughout the 1960s a vigorous public and private debate took place over the existence and possible significance of the ‘brain drain’. Various Government committees were formed specifically to discuss the ‘brain drain’, and continued to meet until the early 1970s.

This debate was given extra point, at a time when science was more prominent than ever before in the mass media (Gregory and Miller, 1998), when well-known scientists were involved: for example, the astronomer Fred Hoyle repeatedly invoked the brain drain, and threatened to emigrate, as part of a fund-raising effort in the mid-1960s. In 1964, Hoyle went so far as to tell the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) that astronomers were contemplating moving en masse to the USA. This campaign by Hoyle over several years brought about a major volte-face in Hoyle’s favour from the DSIR, and not only did the government admit privately that keeping Hoyle in the UK was their main motivation, but they were also well aware that they had been manipulated, and prepared other stories about their funding decisions for public consumption (Gregory in press). The press however was quite clear: The Times reported, on this occasion, that ‘any danger that Professor Hoyle would be lost to America is thus averted.’ How typical this episode was would be a matter for investigation.

Towards the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s various governmental reports argued that there was no real problem, and that emigration was a normal process. It appears (although this may be challenged on closer examination of the documents in the National Archive) that such pronouncements marked the close of the debate. The main focus of our research will be the 1960s, but the cut-off point for our research would therefore be the early 1970s.

Research Questions and Methods

There is little known about the formulation and implementation of policy around the ‘brain drain’ in the 1960s, equally little about the dynamics of the debate within the scientific and engineering community and print media. Drawing primarily on a wealth of government documents that have been declassified in the past decade, on archival print media sources and on oral histories, this research will provide a detailed account of the development of the ‘brain drain’ debate in the UK during this period. The work will focus on the following questions:

1. How did the UK debate on the ‘brain drain’ develop during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s?

2. What roles did different groups and individuals involved in the ‘brain drain’ debate play?

3. What were the key similarities and differences between the ‘private’ debate within Whitehall and the ‘public’ debate in the media?

4. How did the UK ‘brain drain’ debate relate to wider developments in science, economic and other government policy?

We will be using documentary sources from archives, supplemented with a small number of oral histories.


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Crowther, J.G.(1967), Science in Modern Society (London: Cresset)
Edgerton, D (1996), Science, Technology and the British “industrial decline”, 1870-1970, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
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