Technology and innovation that drive economies are created by a relatively small cohort of talented researchers. The highest rates of economic growth, according to Timur Natkhov, are observed in countries where young people prefer engineering careers over careers in wealth redistribution (e.g. lawyers or civil servants). "Career choice is largely determined by the quality of national institutions, such as safeguards for contract and property rights," Natkhov notes.
He examined potential motives behind the decision either to return to one's home country or to stay abroad after graduation.
Between 1970 and 2010, the proportion of foreigners among doctorate (PhD) recipients from American universities showed a substantial increase from 23% to 58%, which was driven mainly by students from low and middle-income countries, particularly China and India. At the same time, the proportion of foreign doctoral recipients accepting employment and staying in the U.S. after graduation increased from 50% to 75% between 1992 and 2010.
In response to the question 'Do you intend to stay in the U.S. or return to your country of origin after graduation?' most students said that they intended to stay. The proportion of potential 'non-returnees' was the highest at approximately 90% among graduates from low-income countries, but it was also quite high at some 70% among graduates from middle and high-income countries.
Natkhov notes that earlier studies examining the individual and institutional characteristics that influence foreign graduates’ intentions to stay in the United States showed that doctorate recipients from the top 10 or the top 20 U.S. universities were the most likely ones to stay in the U.S.
Career choice also plays a role, as holders of degrees in mathematics, information technology, and bioengineering are more likely to stay in the U.S. than those who have chosen careers in construction or conventional engineering.
In 2010, students from Thailand, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates were more likely than others to return home after studying in the U.S., while students from Romania, Iran, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Ukraine, and China were the least likely to do so.
Taking a longer perspective – from 1992 to 2010 – a different picture is presented: the top country whose nationals did not intend to stay in the U.S. after graduation was Thailand, followed by Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Indonesia, while the bottom five with the lowest number of returning graduates included, once again, China, India, and Russia, but also the U.K. and Sri Lanka.
According to Natkhov, studies did not confirm earlier hypotheses on why young researchers return to some countries but not to others. For example, no statistically significant association was found between the number of 'returnees' and their home country's efforts to support domestic research. Similarly, there was no proven association between one's intention to return and the quality of education in his/her country of origin. There was, however, a limited association with the home country's per capita GDP.
The single most consistent predictor of the proportion of returning graduates, according to Natkhov, was the quality of governance and the rule of law in the country of origin. Looking at the data for the period between 1998 and 2001, one can see how changes in these aspects affected the proportion of returning young researchers.
Preliminary findings show that the main predictor of whether graduates will return is not the amount of spending on education or on research but the quality of such spending, i.e., the level of administrative barriers and red tape in their home country.