Business & Economics

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(2018) Academic ‘Centres’, Epistemic Differences and Brain Circulation

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This article investigates the factors that shape how migrant academics engage with fellow scholars within their countries of origin. We focus specifically on the mobility of Asian-born faculty between Singapore, a fast-developing education hub in
    1 Academic “ Centres, ”  Epistemic Differences and Brain Circulation The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in International Migration (7 June 2017), Early View (DOI: 10.1111/imig.12345) Yasmin Y. Ortiga, Meng-Hsuan Chou, Gunjan Sondhi and Jue Wang Amidst increasing cross-border movement among highly skilled professionals, researchers and policymakers have raised the question of how migrant academics can contribute to their countries of srcin when return is not a viable or immediate option. Moving away from the brain drain debates of the 1970s, recent studies have argued that overseas scholars can still contribute to their home communities through diaspora networks, sharing knowledge and resources through international collaboration, short visits, and internet communication (Meyer, 2001; Meyer and Wattiau, 2006; Davenport, 2004; Laudel, 2005). Such phenomenon is often encapsulated in the term, brain circulation, where studies cite the breaking down of boundaries among nations and the potential benefits brought by the short-term mobility of highly educated workers to and from their countries of srcin (Singh and Krishna, 2015: 302). Yet, scholars have also cautioned against depicting the mobility of highly skilled workers as continuousl y fluid, free of structural barriers that impede people’s movement (Chou 2014; Cohen, Duberley and Ravishankar 2015; Mosneaga and Winther 2013; Yeoh and Huang 2011). In addition to policy and administrative barrier (Chou 2014), they argue that highly skilled mobility, such as brain circulation, can also be “temporally and spatially stickier ” as migrants can become “locked into” particular places or develop attachments which restrain movement (Williams, Balaz and Wallace 2004: 42). Existing studies have also    2 largely focused on the circulation of highly skilled professionals such as scientists, engineers, and IT workers. Fewer have looked specifically at migrant academics and the role that higher education institutions play in their engagement and disengagement with counterparts within their countries of srcin. While a number of studies have investigated the role of universities in promoting return  migration among overseas scholars (see Lee and Kim 2010; Wang, Li and Li 2015), we know little about how academic environments, institutional cultures, and practices of knowledge production shape the temporary circulation of overseas academics within their home countries and their subsequent impact on local knowledge production. This paper seeks to contribute to the extant literature on brain circulation in two ways. First, we respond to Ackers’ (2005) call for a more nuanced understanding of the “stickiness” or “frictions” that impact how member  s of an academic diaspora choose to interact with counterparts within their countries of srcin. We look specifically at brain circulation in the form of academic research collaboration or the shared work in pursuing a research question with the end goal of disseminating results in an academic publication. Focusing on the case of Asian-born migrant faculty based in Singapore, this paper investigates how such engagements are shaped by epistemic cultures, or the norms, structures, and values that define how knowledge is created and, more importantly, recognized   within migrant academics’ home and host country institutions   (Knorr Cetina 1999). We also analyze the institutional policies that shape such epistemic cultures, emphasizing how opportunities for collaboration are affected by the specific standards that drive research expectations, the manner by which institutions assess academic work, and the politics of tenure and promotion. We argue that such factors are important aspects of academic work across all fields, yet remain an understudied aspect of how we understand brain circulation today. Second, this study reveals the unique position of Asian-born migrant academics who obtained their doctorates (and/or postdoctorates) in prestigious institutions in the West, and    3 migrated to Singapore, a rapidly developing education hub in Southeast Asia. Empirical research on brain circulation ha s tended to focus on academics’ movement between developing nations and traditional “centers” of knowledge production in the West. Yet, the last few decades have seen the rapid development of Asian universities, where governments have invested heavily in higher education. Singapore universities, in particular, have emerged as major players within international knowledge networks , cementing the country’s sta tus as an “aspiring center” in the global hierarchy of universities . As such, Asian-born migrant faculty in Singapore have the opportunity to utilize networks that connect to their former PhD institutions in the West, as well as scholars within their countries of srcin within the region. This paper then raises the question of how epistemic and political cultures within Singapore institutions shape academics’ motivations to engage in both types of collaborations. In the end, this paper investigates whether countries like Singapore raise the possibility of establishing new centres of knowledge production away from the West, thereby encouraging the productive circulation of migrant academics within Asia. BRAIN CIRCULATION AND DEVELOPMENT Early definitions of brain circulation refuted the notion that highly skilled workers would remain overseas permanently, arguing that such migrants would eventually circulate back to their home communities (Gaillard and Gaillard, 1997). Yet, recent studies have shown that in reality, most highly educated professionals never return “home,” choosing instead to settle outside their countries of srcin (Blachford and Zhang, 2014). As a result, researchers have sought to understand whether highly skilled migrants can contribute to their home communities from a distance, moving beyond the assumption that such “brains” are lost when they leave national territories (Fahey and Kenway, 2010; Mahroum, Eldridge, and Daar, 2006; Meyer, 2001; Saxenian, 2005). Such discourse has also permeated policy discussions, not only among developing countries but wealthy nations competing in a so-    4 called knowledge-based economy (Cerna, 2016; Robertson, 2006). In particular, policymakers emphasize the need for international collaboration between migrants and their local counterparts, whether it be in the form of academic research, business ventures, or the commercial development of innovative products (Edler, Fier and Grimpe, 2011; Xiang, 2011). Scholars have argu ed that successful brain circulation benefits migrants’ host and srcin countries, promoting investment in local businesses and possibly providing employment to local communities in both locations (Harvey 2008; Saxenian 2005). In the case of migrant academics, governments have launched a wide range of programs, providing research funding, institutional support, and opportunities for short-term visits (Blachford and Zhang, 2014; Xiang, 2011). Researchers argue that migrant academics often express a desire to help improve teaching and research in universities within their home countries, and suggested that well-planned programs should provide them with the opportunity to do so effectively (Cohen, Duberley and Ravishankar, 2015). For example, Blachford and Zhang’s (2014) research shows how Chinese Canadian academics work to support knowledge production within China by doing research related to Chinese issues, instituting joint research projects between Canadian universities and counterparts in China, and recruiting Chinese students into their graduate programs. Studies have also shown how collaboration and networks with co-ethnic counterparts living overseas enhance academics’ research productivity, thereby benefiting local knowledge production (Scellato, Franzoni and Stephan, 2015). Yet, scholars have also cautioned against an overly optimistic interpretation of how academics overseas can contribute to their countries of srcin. Similar to the issues besetting return migration, migrant faculty who wish to engage in collaborative projects or short-term visits within their countries of srcin can also face a lack of support from local state officials, fears of persecution, or frustrating bureaucracies within local institutions (Teferra, 2005;    5 Yeoh and Eng 2008). Non-migrant academics can also become resentful of the benefits that their overseas counterparts receive from the state, thus fuelling possible conflict between local and international collaborators (Altbach, 2014; Author, 2011). At the same time, researchers have questioned how states demarcate who “belongs” to the diaspora, and how migrant academics define their relationship to their countries of srcin. Harvey’s (2008) study of British and Indian scientists show that while individuals may maintain contact with industry counterparts in the UK and India, such connections do not necessarily translate into significant investments in their srcin countries. In a study of Australian academics overseas, Fahey and Kenway (2010: 572) discuss how their participants actually “ shade in and out ”  of feeling any sense of responsibility to Australia, indicating that any desire to contribute to the home country largely depends on a particular t ime or context in a person’s life course. BRAIN CIRCULATION WITHIN THE GLOBAL SPACE OF ACADEMIA Scholars have argued that compared other highly skilled migrants, academics and researchers are more likely to express an attachment to a professional network of colleagues, rather than a national or ethnic identity (Colic-Peisker, 2010; Fahey and Kenway, 2010). Mahroum (2000) argues that these networks form global spaces, often organized at the level of a particular profession, discipline, or technology. While global spaces are not grounded in a  particular place, they contain “poles of gravity” or “centres” where there is a concentration of institutions accorded a high level of prestige. Philip Altbach (2006: 124) echoes the same framework, defining academic “centres” as institutions  with the funding, facilities, and qualified staff to pursue high quality research and teaching. In contrast, higher education institutions at the “periphery” are often found in nations whose research and teaching programs would benef  it greatly from the “expertise” of citizens who have studied or worked in these centers for knowledge production.
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