Elite emigrants

Slovenian scientists, university professors and academics working beyond the borders of Slovenia and overseas represent an extraordinary intellectual potential.

November 2010

It is estimated that at least 10% of all Slovenian researchers work abroad – assuming that there are 12,000 researchers in the Republic of Slovenia. A large number of scientists and top experts are the descendants – of the second or third generation – of Slovenian emigrants to countries such as the USA and Argentina.

In recent times we have seen ambitious young scientists, mainly from the natural sciences and technical fields, leaving the country to continue their careers abroad, mainly in the USA and Canada. The USA already has the Washington-based Slovenian-American Science and Technology Association (SASTA) and the Cleveland Slovenian Business and Professional Association (CSBPA). There are currently around 200 young experts working abroad who have left Slovenia in recent years.

The 'brain drain' is not a problem – the problem is getting them to come back to Slovenia

Dr Aljaž Ule. Photo: Personal archive, Shutterstock

Experts working in other countries do not all share the same opinion over whether a 'brain drain' is taking place in Slovenia. This concept is entirely appropriate and we should not try and console ourselves for the departure of an expert by referring to globalisation and modern trends.

Noted expert from Slovenia, Dr Jure Leskovec, a professor at Stanford University at the tender age of 29, recently told Sinfo that this is a more or less empty construct. 'Probably the easiest thing to do is to sit in Slovenia and whine about how the brains are draining. I think that it would be better to focus on the good side of this phenomenon and try as a nation to take the best advantage of it that we can'.

In the opinion of Dr Aljaž Ule, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Econometrics at the University of Amsterdam and the Faculty of Mathematics, Science and Information Technology at the University of Primorska, 'brain drain' is an unfortunate term, since – he says – it gives the impression that there is something wrong with smart people leaving the country.

'There is nothing wrong with this. I would go further: it is excellent for Slovenia, since this is the best way for Slovenians to learn about the latest advances in science and technology at good universities and institutes and companies around the world and to gain experience and knowledge which is lacking in Slovenia. The problem, in his opinion, is more to do with 'brain return'.

'I believe that Slovenia should encourage people to go abroad but also try and ensure that as much as possible of the knowledge obtained in this way is exploited in Slovenia,' says Dr Ule, adding: 'Current approaches to this are often unsuccessful. The Bank of Slovenia uses the threat of fines to force its foreign scholarship holders to return. Getting experienced Slovenians to return to Slovenia or at least collaborate with Slovenia is something that needs to be motivated, not compelled.'

Web directory of Slovenian scientists online from September

Dr Breda Mulec. Photo: Personal archive, Shutterstock

In order that these and other opinions of Slovenian experts living and working abroad can be heard in Slovenia, and above all in order to take advantage of their knowledge and experience in the home country, the Government Office for Slovenians Abroad has this year begun implementing ambitious plans. Their aim is to connect Slovenians abroad, not only via culture but also via science.

Last month , the web portal for Slovenians abroad published a web directory – a list of prominent Slovenian scientists, above all university professors – in an effort to encourage closer cooperation with Slovenian scientists.

'The list, to which new names of scientists and other experts of Slovenian origin are being added on a daily basis, is a publicly accessible directory of scientists with an indication of the expert fields in which they work. The list is of course published with the consent of the people involved,' explains Dr Breda Mulec, secretary in the office of the Minister for Slovenians Abroad.

'By the end of the year,' says Dr Mulec, 'a Science Committee will be founded at the Government Council for Slovenians Abroad. This committee will consist of top experts and scientists working abroad. In the next phase we want to invite them to collaborate on the preparation of strategic (government) development documents. Greater cooperation with universities, public institutions and research institutes can be achieved by promoting contacts, networking, etc. A large number of scientists have, for example, shown interest in taking part in the reform of higher education.'

Dr Mulec warns that closer cooperation with Slovenian experts from abroad is not a project the results of which will be visible overnight, and points out that the Office is aware that in order for major changes to take place in this field, the cooperation of several state institutions at different levels is needed. A positive response from Slovenia's universities could also significantly affect the success of the project. After all, we have to start somewhere.

Text by Sanja Prelević, Sinfo, November 2010