Editor's note: Is brain drain really an issue for the Netherlands? If so, what can be done about it? In Amsterdam this month, Ph.D. students tried to solve the puzzle, looking at the old story from a new perspective.

"T he Netherlands is dumbing down," scream the newspaper headlines, nourishing the impression that highly qualified people cannot be found for love nor money in the lowlands. Numerous vacancies are supposedly left unfilled, especially in science and technology. But is this really true? If so, what can be done about it?

To find out, a group of 24 science Ph.D. students gathered earlier this month on two separate days for a masterclass organised by the management consultancy firm McKinsey and Co. in their Amsterdam office. And although not a strictly representative sample, I saw no evidence for a lack of qualified brains in the Netherlands in the lively group of young scientists from all over the country.

Within the first 5 minutes, conversation ranged across football and string theory, hardly dumbing down by any standards. But was it realistic to expect new insights into one of science policy's most complex issues from a group who, instead of bringing decades of expert knowledge to the table, compensated with enthusiasm, intellectual creativity, and common sense?

Brain Drain in Europe

According to Hans van Luijk, the Netherlands is suffering acutely from a brain drain. In his introductory speech to the 2-day symposium, the chair of the senate of Delft Technical University underlined that Dutch investment in science and technology is below the European target and is growing only marginally. There is an annual decrease in the numbers of students studying science or technical subjects. The majority of students gaining Ph.D.s abroad in countries such as the United States do not return. At the same time, restrictive immigration laws prevent an influx of educated people that could boost the Dutch economy.

As a consequence, the Netherlands has a lower proportion of science and technology graduates and Ph.D.s than most other European countries and the United States. The number of people working in research, in proportion to the total population, is below the European average. Perhaps partly as a consequence, many large technology companies are moving their R&D centres out of the Netherlands. The financial implications of this are substantial. In total, the current shortage of university-level-qualified scientists alone costs the Dutch economy nearly 1% of its annual gross domestic product.

However, brain drain is by no means solely a Dutch problem, as similar trends can be seen elsewhere in Europe, as well as in many Third World countries. For example, in response to a lack of skilled workers, the United Kingdom is aggressively recruiting doctors and nurses from non-E.U. countries, in turn causing a brain drain in many Eastern European and African countries. In many European countries, the brain drain may well become more pronounced as mobility increases with the future expansion of the European Union.

A Taste of Management Consultancy

The McKinsey masterclass approach to the brain drain issue was typical of the way this management consultancy works: Pull together teams of motivated, bright people from a range of disciplines, and get each team to tackle different aspects of this multifaceted problem. A range of solutions is then synthesised into a streamlined set of recommendations.

For almost all masterclass participants, this was one of our first experiences of commercial consultancy. To me, it initially came as a shock to the system to work in rough estimates of billions of euros rather than high-precision measurements. Furthermore, the work was done under constant time pressure, in teams of people who had barely met each other. Yet, the general atmosphere was positive and lively. During the final feedback, many participants expressed "surprise at the range and originality of the suggestions thought up in such a short time by a small group of techneuten (geeks)".

After roughly estimating the financial impact of the brain drain, teams brainstormed for solutions. Initial proposals ranged from the outrageous (send every Dutch person abroad a pound of liquorice annually to instil patriotism, or import the Alps) to the more sensible: build a return policy into scholarships for going abroad, facilitate immigration for educated candidates, and integrate business into education by encouraging start-up companies on campus.

Women in Science

In the grip of enthusiasm, a spontaneously self-nominated team of female participants decided to give themselves some homework by looking at the part played by women in the Dutch brain drain. "Surely we can come up with something more original than just the need for more childcare," we thought. For the 2 weeks between the two masterclass days, e-mail inboxes quickly filled with hefty reports and articles, as everybody proved to have strong opinions on this topic, as well as a vested interest.

It turned out that the Dutch economy, too, is far from disinterested in the impact of a female brain drain: It stands to gain ?90 billion annually from increased female participation in the labour market. The team recommended, among other proposals, to rethink financial benefits for "traditional" families and instead create incentives for reentry and training, and to make applying for academic funding an anonymous process that is also open to part-time employees.

The Ultimate Recipe ...

The masterclass summarised its recommendations to a jury panel of three senior consultants. A Dutch brain gain could be achieved, we believe, by focussing science and technology on selective areas within which the Netherlands could be distinctive, raising the profile of this distinction internationally and creating excitement around it nationally, getting enough young and talented people involved from the secondary-school level onward, and creating a vibrant (economic) environment around those people. To achieve this, the masterclass recommends specific actions that would realise this target within a few years.

In a ballot, the masterclass participants voted for the best of the proposed actions. The actions deemed to be most effective and feasible were to create a top institute, MIT-style, and to focus on and consolidate the strengths of individual Dutch universities. However, the full list of actions contains many other original and innovative ideas, covering a range of areas besides academia.

Apart from raising their profile among potential employees, McKinsey's goal for the masterclass was to include some of the analyses in a presentation to the media and the government. In fact, they arranged for all the participants to be invited to the annual science dinner in The Hague on 10 November 2003. At this dinner, we will be able to hobnob with politicians, decisionmakers, and other stakeholders in the Dutch science and technology scene. It will be most interesting to see how many ideas from this 2-day meeting will find their way onto the national policy agenda.

... and Personal Insights

Even though I am in the final, fraught stages of my statistics Ph.D., I found taking part in the masterclass to be an extremely interesting and worthwhile experience. Years of education have trained us to work individually, within a narrow specialty. And here we were, thrown together in groups, debating issues we previously knew little or nothing about but that clearly related directly to all of us. It introduced us to skills and techniques that we hardly acquire in university, such as teamwork, professional presentation, and digesting information quickly.

Everybody involved (including the organisers) seemed to enjoy living up to that challenge! Furthermore, it gave us direct experience of a very different world that, nonetheless, for many of us, is a potential future employer. Such an experience will undoubtedly sway the decisions of many considering a career in consultancy.

Which, of course, begs the question: What would be the impact on the Dutch brain drain if all the brilliant young scientists were to move into management consultancy?