Expatriate Researchers: Will They Return & Stay?

October 2nd, 2007 | by MuslimScience
Expatriate Researchers: Will They Return & Stay?

By: Athar Osama

Over the last several years of the current government, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) has funded thousands of scholarships and fellowships for Pakistanis to do PhD and Post-Doctoral work both at home and abroad. Almost simultaneously, it has also instituted an ambitious Foreign Faculty Hiring Program (FFHP) to attract expatriate Pakistanis working in the developed countries to return to Pakistan on a temporary basis to teach at Pakistani universities. The purpose of all these programs has been to dramatically increase the number of PhD degree holders in Pakistan and to encourage talented Pakistanis to return back to their homeland, hopefully for good.

One of the most important of these programs has been the Foreign PhD Fellowships Scheme that funds as many as 1000 PhD fellowships per year for Pakistani students to go to countries around the world–mostly in Eastern Europe and South East Asia–to do their doctoral studies and return back after a specified duration of time to serve in Pakistani institutions. The terms of the program are designed in a manner so as to dissuade these students from staying abroad after finishing their studies. This is done through a number mechanisms, including, provisions that discourage foreign employers and universities from hiring these students, and sending them to countries that are deemed not-so-hospitable to immigrant workers because of language barriers or immigration restrictions.

While one would hope that these mechanisms put in place by HEC have been carefully thought out not only from the perspective of the country but also from that of the scholars, the other side of this coin, namely, the reception and environment these students receive when they actually return back to Pakistan has received much less attention but is equally important. Above everything else, it may be worth not forgetting that these returning scholars are individuals with their own tastes, motivations, perceptions, likes, and dislikes and that these factors are likely to play substantial role in determining whether HEC’s billions of dollars of investment–scarce tax payers money of a poor country that could have been used elsewhere–is likely to bear fruit in the longer-run.

At Pakistan Research Support Network (or Research-Network) we carried out a brief survey of the perception of Pakistani researchers and research students about the country’s research and academic environment and their motivations to work abroad or in their home country. The survey was anonymous thus allowing respondents to freely express their views and thoughts on the subject. The survey was in the form of a set of 25 statements that the respondents were asked to agree or disagree with.

The survey findings represent an ample amount of both good and not-so-good news for Pakistan and its research environment. It also highlights interesting tendencies and motivations among its respondents some which may have been anticipated, but never formally documented before. Although the survey results are based on a small sample–about 60 researchers from around the world and Pakistan, it does provide interesting insights into this population that need to be studied and understood further. We divide these results in four categories.

1. Perception of Research Environment in Pakistan

We asked the respondents if they agreed or disagreed with whether the research environment in Pakistan suffered from a number of different kinds of deficiencies. While the deficiency of several of these issues are often highlighted in the media reports, we thought it would be interesting to see whether our respondents who either have a direct experience of working in these environments or look at them from outside–both equally valid perspectives–thought of each. Here are the results:

  • As many as 92% of our respondents thought that Pakistan’s research environment suffered from lack of quality leadership at university, institution, or department level
  • A relatively smaller number, 73%, thought that the country suffered from a shortage of quality manpower (i.e. researchers)
  • And about 69% thought that Pakistan’s research environment suffered from lack of quality and professionally managed institutions

Clearly Pakistan’s research and academic environment is far from ideal–only just over 3% thought that it is even “adequate” to utilize his or her talents. The good news, though, is that only 29.5% of the respondents thought that Pakistan’s research environment was seriously lacking for him or her to work there and more than 85% actually believe that Pakistan’s research and academic environment was lacking but improving over time.

2. Motivations for Returning Home

So do these researchers and students plan to return back sometime and what do they expect to face when they do? we certainly found a strong desire on the part of these individuals to return back to their country. We believe that these individuals very motivated and are quite realistic in terms of their expectations of what the country will have to offer to them but perhaps a little unrealistic in their perception of whether they will be able to overcome the challenges likely to be put in their way. For example:

  • Just over 15% of those who voted thought that when they return to Pakistan they will have all the necessary ingredients to allow them to carry out their research
  • As many as 79% said that “while they will face several challenges, they will overcome it”
  • About 32% thought that they have serious doubts about the research and academic environment in Pakistan and that their decision to return will depend on whether they are able to address those concerns.

Also on the issue of returning back to Pakistan:

  • As many as 26% of the respondents said that they will return back to the country because they have a “bond” with HEC or their employer to fulfill
  • Another 34% said that while they do not have a bond with HEC or their employer, they will return back to Pakistan, nonetheless
  • And around 8% said that while they have a bond with HEC or their employer they are “rethinking” if they need to get out of it.

These data provide some very interesting results as well as opportunities for HEC or other competent agencies to devise policies to help these individuals make an informed decision. There is a vast majority of people who are willing to take on the challenge of returning back to Pakistan with a PhD in the hope that they will overcome those challenges. This population–young, idealistic, enterprising but also dedicated and passionate about their work–is especially vulnerable and HEC will do itself some good service to help transition them back into mainstream research in Pakistan. It is also evident that their “Path to Pakistan” must be clearly laid out and made available to them ex-ante, rather than ex-post as many of them are looking for answers and guidance to make an informed decision now rather than later.

Also heartening to see is the majority of individuals willing to return back–again, despite the fact that they don’t have a bond of any kind–and it would be prudent to ensure that these people are properly absorbed in the mainstream and are not discriminated against as compared to those who already have bonds and jobs waiting for them.

Another interesting statistic that we can glean from the above survey is the following:

  • Slightly more than 50% of the those who responded said that it is important for them in life to do useful research and whether or not this was in Pakistan or not did not matter, while
  • Just around 41% said that it was important for them in life to serve in Pakistan and whether or not they did useful research or not did not matter

This question clearly brings out the issue of loyalty to one’s discipline and research agenda vs. loyalty to ones organization, clan, or country. I have not seen any statistics on how researchers generally stand on these issues–I know for sure, though, that researchers, as against engineers, are considered more loyal to their disciplines than their organizations–but this result isn’t very surprising.

How do we reconcile these results? I think it would be fair to say that the expatriate researcher audience–either already employed abroad or during the process of finishing up their research–looks at Pakistan in a very interested yet cautious manner. They are interested in returning back to Pakistan–atleast upwards of 41% or so definitely are–but are also looking for some degree of comfort before they take the plunge.

Even if HEC or their parent institutions are not able to convince some of these individuals to return back, it might be prudent to devise programs to benefit from their expertise. About 57% of the respondents said that regardless of whether they will return or not, they would like to continue collaborating with their parent organizations but only 5% thought that their parent organizations had programs, mechanisms, and arrangements necessary to allow them to do so. Losing them to a foreign country, physically, will certainly be a waste of national resources but losing them intellectually will be an even bigger blunder.

I also believe that prudent use of policies at this stage to nudge them into their comfort zone will certainly help. What would be the precise mix of these policies? We don’t know for sure but the next section may provide some insights…

3. What (De-) Motivates Expatriate Researchers and Students

We asked our responders several questions about what motivates–more precisely demotivates–them and what kind of factors, they believe, can become biggest inhibitors in allowing them to perform satisfactorily. The results are insightful:

  • Over 47% of our respondents said that they won’t be able deliver satisfactorily if not provided adequate financial incentives (e.g. bonuses, cash awards etc.)
  • About 55% of our respondents thought that they won’t be able deliver satisfactorily if they have appropriate professional incentives (e.g. recognition, non-monetary rewards etc.)
  • About 56% of our respondents thought that they won’t be able to deliver satisfactorily if they don’t have financial security (such as salary at par with my capabilities and other professions in Pakistan)
  • More than 72% thought that they won’t be able to deliver if they do not have enough time and freedom to do research and are engaged in too much of teaching
  • More than 75% thought that they won’t be able to deliver satisfactorily if they did not have access to all the equipment, knowledge-bases, journals, and peers necessary for their research
  • And more than 88% thought that they won’t be able to deliver satisfactorily if they don’t have freedom to do their work and are dictated too strictly (“micro-managed”) by higher-ups

Clearly, the more intrinsic factors (e.g. academic freedom, time for research etc.) feature higher than the more extrinsic (e.g. rewards etc.) factors in our respondents calculations. Similar surveys elsewhere provide quite a similar balance of motivation. However, it is also important to note that while a larger share of respondents are emphasizing the intrinsic factors, many of them are also at the same time emphasizing the recognition and rewards–including financial rewards–as important. This means that, unlike what is commonly believed, money is not an unimportant factor. For example, financial security is more important than financial rewards but it is only marginally important. In essense, these researchers are asking for a “menu of options” to keep the motivated and performing upto their own expectations. This menu include a whole host of things and is not just balanced towards financial or professional factors.

4. Overall Satisfaction with HEC’s Policies

What does it all mean for HEC? I think there is both good news for HEC but also some source for concern as well as some potential avenues that they might want to explore further. First of all, as many as 85% of the respondents thought that while Pakistani research and academic environment provided some challenges, it is also improving thus providing a reason for HEC to celebrate. A fairly substantial proportion of individuals are planning to return to the country which is yet another reason for HEC to be happy about. How HEC plays its cards in the coming years is likely to decide what percentage of these “likely return-ers” does it manage to convert into actual “return-ers”.

However, there was also some sources of concern:

  • A little more than 70% of the respondents thought that HEC was paying more attention to quantity rather than quality, and
  • A little less than 30% said that HEC was doing all the right things to ensure both quality and quantity of manpower.

This is an often cited criticism of HEC’s policies by specific individuals and being validated by a survey should cause HEC to think a little about it. On the whole as well, I believe there is need for HEC to better explain its policies and programs for returning these individuals back, put it out in black and white so that people can make their future plans based on an explicit set of transparent policies rather than statements and comments that frequently appear in media.

There is also a need for a more transparent and open policy-making process at HEC that would help alleviate some of the questions and concerns these individuals may have about their future in Pakistan. Finally, HEC must develop a program to systematically evaluate the effect of its policies as well as communication strategy through independent evaluators to be able to better understand its own target market–researchers and academics inside and outside Pakistan–but also fine tune its own policies and programs. I think that if HEC could take a leaf from the findings of this survey and devise policies to help bridge some of the gaps identified above, it will finding a receptive and willing audience of young, educated, ambitious, and patriotic Pakistani researchers and scientists willing to return back and serve their homeland.


Athar Osama holds a PhD in Science and Innovation Policy and is the Founder of Research-Network &