Editor’s note: This article is part of a package of five articles about the obstacles that researchers in Arab countries face. Readers can access all of the articles on this page.
Although the vast majority of researchers in Arab countries want to emigrate, Arab universities and research institutes can fight back, says one research administrator. The American University of Beirut’s department of medicine has developed a strategy to lure back Lebanese faculty members who live abroad.
Kamal Badr, a professor of medicine at AUB, says that “if you create the right atmosphere, people will come back.”
Badr was involved in an initiative that sought to persuade Lebanese doctors and scientists who lived abroad to return to Lebanon to work at the university. He has published his findings in a book chapter, which he says could be used as a starting point for other universities or even governments that want to repatriate their skilled diaspora.
“It’s doable if you really want to,” he says. “But no one said it’s easy or cheap.”
An Al-Fanar Media survey found that 91 percent of researchers working in Arab countries would like to emigrate, with Europe or North America being the most desirable destinations. (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)
In trying to recruit the diaspora back, says Badr, the first step is to study the problem. “You need to do an analysis and figure out where your targets are and what it would take for them to come back,” says Badr. He and his colleagues surveyed 286 Lebanese-trained physicians living in the United States, asking questions about their willingness to return and work in Lebanon. More than 60 percent were open to the idea.
The nationality of a spouse turned out to be one of the most important factors driving potential repatriation—a Lebanese physician who had a Lebanese-born spouse was more likely to consider coming back to work in Lebanon.
Governments or universities can’t do much about the nationality of a spouse. But they can work on the next most important factor—improving the environment a researcher might be returning to, says Badr. Like many other professionals, researchers want to feel like they are moving up in the world or at least staying even. They don’t want to downgrade their institutional home.
“There has to be an investment. … Ultimately, somebody needs to spend the money,” says Badr.
The American University of Beirut has upgraded its medical center over the past few years and also created more jobs for its diaspora to fill. As a result, the center has brought back over 200 Lebanese physicians. The latest president of the university, Fadlo Khuri, is an oncologist.
Another doctor who has returned is Rana Sharara-Chami—she left Lebanon with her husband, also a physician, for Boston in 2000. “I was at Harvard and my husband at Boston University,” she says. “We had great jobs and we were doing fantastic research, but we were exhausted and lonely. It was so expensive to travel back home.”
So when an opportunity back in Lebanon arose, she and her husband were eager to take it—even though it meant Sharara-Chami had to change her focus from basic science to medical-education research.
“We came back because we both got jobs at AUB and we both had family here,” she says. “Also, the weather! We were freezing in Boston.”
This, says Badr, is proof that there are Lebanese expatriates looking for an excuse to return.
Over the past ten years at the American University of Beirut’s department of medicine, he says, “we’ve created an atmosphere where expats want to come back.
“It’s an incredible number for just a department within an institution,” he says. “But it’s just a model and there are so many Lebanese researchers and experts all over the world that are smart and educated. If this country got its act together and stopped and then reversed the brain drain, it could be a gold mine for technology and innovation.”
Those goals could not be attained on the cheap, he says. They require a coordinated effort from academia, government and business to make the investments in infrastructure, and create the high-paying jobs to lure people back.
But Lebanon has the third highest national debt in the world. Many other Arab countries outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are similarly burdened, which hampers their ability to make the sorts of institutional investments Badr is calling for.