Toward a Definition

Among the terms often used to describe skills migrationbrain drain is the most prevalent. The term skills migration is employed in this article instead of the more commonly used skilled migration in order to indicate a migration or movement of embodied skills instead of incorrectly suggesting that migration has or can have skills. The term brain drain was coined by the Royal Society of London in a 1963 report to refer to the exodus of British scientists to the United States and Canada following World War II. Since then, with the rise of skills migration from less to more developed countries, the term is usually used to refer to migration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to North America and Europe, but the concept is not confined to these contexts or directionalities. For example, the movement of skilled professionals from Canada to the United States is often represented as a brain drain by scholars and the media. A sound and inclusive definition of brain drain is the emigration of educated and skilled labor power, professionals or intellectuals outside of their native country, be it developing or developed. A few variations persist in the way the term is defined, including just the movement (especially permanent) of highly skilled migrants from the developing to developed world, to the actual overall depletion of skills from developing countries, to clear evidence that migration flows have had adverse consequences for the sending economy. Brain drain is not used to describe migration from colonial powers to colonies, international movement of talent within a transnational firm, or migration of individuals with relatively little education or skills training.

A difficulty in providing an easy definition of brain drain is how to determine whether or not someone is skilled or highly skilled. Most authors use these terms to refer to individuals with some university or postsecondary education, but sometimes highly skilled refers only to science and technology workers. Others have suggested that any individual who is part of the functional core of the economy is potentially a brain drain candidate. Brain drain concerns have been extended to include public sector professionals such as nurses and teachers, as well as students. Indeed, the term is now used most often in the context of the health and education sectors.