Italians abroad: the nightmare of “brain drain”

Asked what he thought about the future of Italy, the ‘greatest’ journalist Indro Montanelli answered that “Italians will stand out, but Italy will not”. He believed Italians to be capable of shaping their own fortune elsewhere, and at the same time he feared Italy to be bound to fail as a nation, withdrawn onto the “nostalgic memory of its glorious past”. His prediction came to be true soon.

Today, plenty of pages could be filled while talking of young Italians choosing every day to leave their country, going abroad in order to seek for better studying,working or living conditions. “Italians in the World” is a report which has been running since 2005. According to it over the past decade the number of Italians abroad has swelled by almost 50 percent. Those aged between 18 and 34 pack more suitcases: in 2016, they were 48.600, with an increase of 23% respect to 2015. Among them, PhD students and researchers form a consistent fraction. Reasons of this process are numerous, and must be seriously taken into account; if not by us, at least by our government.

In a OCSE report dated by 1997, the term “brain exchange” was added to the traditional “brain drain”. It is defined as the flow of intellectual resources between one country and another, with a balanced shift in both directions: if many researchers leave, many enters too. This movements could be unbalanced in different productive sectors, but even if a country finds to be poor in one field, it will be richer in an other, and the equilibrium is maintained. On the other hand, “brain drain” refers to an ‘evergreen’ unbalanced flow of human capital. When this goes towards a single direction, it is not reasonable to speak about an “exchange” anymore. If countries like Germany and UK are really experiencing the former, it can not be said the same of Italy. Our problem is that there isn’t anything like an exchange and we can only speak of an escape, a real “drain”. Losing highly-skilled people is not the only matter. Indeed this also means wasting the moneys a state has spent in their education. In the past year, a study of Confindustria disclosed that italian “brain drain” accounts for an annual loss ,in terms of human capital, of 14 billions in state’s cash, which is more or less equivalent to 1% of GDP.

Despite this tragic numbers, studies reveals other bad consequences. Students and researchers who move produce innovations that will be owned by the country where they take place. At this point, their country of origin will be able just to buy them. This explains why “reverse technology transfer” is usually known as synonym of “brain drain”. In a recent article of the national newspaper “La Repubblica”, it is shown that those researchers previously educated in italian academics, are now bearers of prestige and funds to foreign universities and foundations. Among the others, Maurizio Corbetta, graduated at the University of Pavia, has become one of the 100 scientists more known all over the globe. The Washington School, where Corbetta carries on his studies on the functioning of human brain, is enriched by scientific papers with his name. Federico Capasso, 68, graduated in Physics at the Sapienza University of Rome, then signed more than 300 publications and 50 patents in the United States. Annamaria Lusardi, graduated from Bocconi University in Milan, today settled in George Washington University, leads the Committee for Financial Education, a worldwide point of reference on the topic. These are just few of the names of italians who ‘shine’ abroad.

A country which puts no attention to the “brain drain” issue has lost his vision of the future. By saying so, I do not want to seem too negative. Rather I strongly call for a different approach to the matter. We can no longer consider mobility as it was 50 years ago when it was just a business move from Rome to Milan. Mobility is a natural part of this era. But if mobility becomes a vehicle of the decline of a country, or of the serious difficulties it encounters, it is necessary to run for cover in time before it’s too late. To do so, the State must play a central role. Italy is spending just the 3.9% of GDP in education, a poor number if compared to the average EU spending of 4.8%. This analysis gets even worse if we think that it allocates just the 0.4% of that 3.9 in funds for universities and research. I really hope the future legislature will put the issue back at the core of the political debate. If this do not happen, we will carry on this negative trend.


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