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Advancing Science for Global Health
Advancing Science for Global Health
Home > Global Health Matters Mar/Apr 2022 > Focus: Scientists in the Diaspora Print

Rethinking the scientific diaspora

March/ April 2022 | Volume 21 Number 2

Illustration of a global with arrows representing the movement of people from Africa to other places in the world.Image courtesy of NHGRIAs the global conversation has shifted focus to health equity and decolonization, many in scientific diasporas are now leading the movement for more equitable partnerships.

The concept of "brain drain" from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been getting a reassessment in recent years. As the global conversation has shifted focus to health equity and decolonization, many in scientific diasporas are now leading the movement for more equitable partnerships in LMICs, benefiting both U.S. and LMIC institutions. 

Fogarty's 2009 publication, "The Globalization of Health Research: Harnessing the Scientific Diaspora," outlined the challenges and opportunities many diaspora scientists face in their countries of origin. Some of the challenges that persist today include lack of access to baseline research infrastructure and limited administrative and local government support. Add in security issues, economic policies, and political instability. These issues can make pursuing research in some LMICs unattractive.

Many of Fogarty's scholars, fellows, and grantees are part of diaspora communities in the West, often holding senior leadership positions in government or U.S. universities, seemingly proving the point that the brain drain is real. However, many diaspora scientists return to their country of origin at some time or another. Such homecomings enable what some call "brain circulation."

Dr. Olugbenga Ogedegbe, a professor at NYU Langone and FIC advisory board member, is originally from Nigeria and has led two separate capacity-building projects in West Africa. He says, "the tension between brain drain and giving back can be difficult, but it is reassuring that diaspora scientists often contribute and give back to their home country."

Diaspora scientists' unique perspective and connection to their country of origin allow them to reach the talent there exponentially faster, build training and infrastructure, and pursue work that addresses the public health issues in that country. 

Dr. Wondwossen Gebreyes, a professor of molecular epidemiology and Executive Director of the Global One Health initiative (GOHi) at Ohio State University, started his career in his native Ethiopia. Knowing the culture and having colleagues there has helped him immensely in working with other East African countries as he leads capacity-building projects in the region. "It is much easier when you know the culture, how people think, and what mechanisms work best in that setting. That skill set is critical to establishing mutually-beneficial partnerships."

According to a 2014 World Bank report, "A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics Research," diaspora scientists who return to their country of origin in East and sub-Saharan Africa significantly increase the citation impact of the work done there. While diaspora scientists make up less than 4% of the research base in that region, the impact of their research, which measures the number of times other researchers cite their work, is between 4% and 27% higher than that of the average researcher in East and sub-Saharan Africa. 

In the 13 years since Fogarty's publication on harnessing the scientific diaspora, research on diaspora scientists' direct impact on their country of origin is still lacking. A recent study led by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, Los Angeles found that the literature on diaspora engagement is limited, leaving them unable to measure the true impact of this "brain circulation." That said, diaspora scientists have proven to be an essential resource in global health research and play a pivotal role in creating truly equitable partnerships between the US and LMIC institutions in the future. 

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Updated April 19, 2022

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