By Soroosh Mohammadi
For over half a century, many have immigrated to developed countries in hopes of a better future to nations with more sound and established ecosystems, and among these migrants are some of the smartest and most talented individuals. According to an article written by Frederic Docquier from IZA World of Labor, the proportion of foreign-born people in developed countries has tripled since 1960.
The question is where does this talent go?
Some basic figures from WIPO give us an insight on the flow of talent from the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania face. These figures are a mere preface to the tragic brain drain story for many nations.
Iran, in particular, has been facing the challenge of retaining talent for several decades.
The Migration Policy Institute published that in the 1970s, 67,000 Iranians left the country and during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the number rose to 281,000. And those are just the official figures. The 1990s however, saw the largest exodus when more than 2 million Iranians left the country.
These are staggering numbers with a direct impact on Iran’s economic development and prosperity.
Could it be that Iran’s largest export has not been oil, gas, minerals or other commodities but rather the country’s human capital and talent?
This trend carried through to this past decade as the International Monetary Fund estimates the annual departure of highly educated Iranians to be in the range of 150,000 to 180,000 individuals per year since 2010.
The IMF valuates it to the equivalent of a 150 billion dollar capital outflow.
To put it in context, 150 billion dollars is roughly the cumulative revenue of global giants the likes of Huawei, Zara, Baxter, ConAgra Foods Inc and Schlumberger combined in 2014. Iran, however, lacks such global champions.
Suffice to say, even with Iran being one of the largest exporters of human capital, there is still plenty of talent residing in Iran, including inventors in the field of science and technology.
In 2013, a total of 2,567,900 worldwide patent applications were submitted; 978,300 utility models, 7,045,140 trademark applications and 1,242,701 industrial design applications.
And Iran measured up pretty well across the competitive landscape.
Intellectual Property Filings of Select Countries in 2013 (Source: WIPO)
When it comes to patent applications, the United States, Japan, China, Germany, South Korea, France, the UK, Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden round up the top ten, making up 87% of the patent applications’ global share.
Iran just missed Sweden by a few hundred patents granted, positioning it 11th globally. Iran also ranked 16th in industrial design applications but only 32nd in Trademark registrations.
These numbers are significantly higher from a decade ago, when Iran had only 634 patents granted in 2003 versus 3,373 in 2013.
Iran also belongs to an elite group of countries with patent offices WIPO has recorded with the fastest rates of growth. The top five include China, Australia and South Korea, Hong Kong and Iran. As for the fastest rates of growth for the top industrial design offices, Iran came second after Ukraine, surpassing Turkey, Morocco and the United States.
An even more remarkable statistic is the sector specific industries Iran registers patent technologies in. The list is topped with the complex and advanced fields of pharmaceuticals, medical technology and organic fine chemistry.
So technological innovation in Iran is not the problem. It is the dwindling of a highly skilled and adept workforce that is. These are not only inventors, but corporate managers, entrepreneurs and creative talent that are integral parts of a knowledge economy.
Perhaps the ‘why’ is much more important than the ‘where’ brilliant scientists, entrepreneurs and Iran’s great thinkers emigrate.
Collectively, Iranians and Iran need to look at ways and solutions in retaining talent within the region itself. It is perhaps the only way the country can keep evolving in a new age environment when nothing remains stagnant. Imagine if a thousand years ago Avicenna, the father of modern medicine or Al Khwarizmi, the creator of Algebra were to emigrate to Rome, then the capital of the Roman Empire and their books, papers and research would bear the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus or better known by its acronym SPQR. Would their legacy have been a contribution to the Islamic Golden Age? Would their legacy have led to the next wave of great minds in the Middle East?
This is a much talked about discussion and it is important for us to address this harsh reality and see what the solutions in reverse engineering the brain drain are.
Would the lifting of sanctions have an immediate impact?
Would fostering new frameworks in educational and economic policies attract and retain skilled Iranians back?
Would large investments in research and technology development lure them back?
Would the ease of access to funding and financing keep the intellectual diaspora as well as the ambitious entrepreneurs stay in their country of birth?
There are more questions than answers at this juncture, but ones we need to openly discuss and talk about in order to come up with solutions our nation and other developing nations desperately seek and need answers to.