Plugging the brain drain

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Scientist Pierre Darriulat argues Vietnam is doing nothing to nourish its best and brightest

A young woman at a job fair in Ho Chi Minh City stands in front of a poster put up by the RMIT

Vietnamese leaders have recently made ambitious pledges about cultivating the country's scientific elite and making better use of its talented young minds.

But talk is cheap, according to Professor Pierre Darriulat, one of the world's leading astrophysicists.

Many students are opting to obtain advanced degrees abroad and few are eager to return here to work, he says. And, the brain drain continues.

Darriulat says that Vietnam has a lot to do before it develops the environment it needs to foster high-level research.

Thanh Nien Weekly: Will Vietnam be able to meet its stated goal of employing 20,000 PhDs by 2020?

Pierre Darriulat, 72, is one of the world's leading physicists. The former research director at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), has worked as a professor of physics at the Vietnam Auger Training Laboratory in Hanoi since his retirement in 1998. He has contributed to Vietnamese universities and research institutions in many different forums.

Pierre Darriulat: It takes time to build a university or research institute. Before training teachers, you ought to train students. It's been some time since "doi moi" created the opportunity here to start something new.

The question is: are we doing all we can to create a good research environment and good universities by 2020? I think we are doing a lot, but obviously we are not doing enough.

What makes you say so?

Many good students want to study abroad and don't want to return home to work. They can earn much better salaries and enjoy much better working conditions elsewhere.

The other reason is that nobody expects them to come back to Vietnam.

Nobody in Vietnam is telling them that they are needed back home. Nobody is waiting for them. Nobody says "˜you should come back.'

When Ngo Bao Chau won the Fields medal, everyone began talking about this "˜good' overseas Vietnamese. There are thousands of good Vietnamese students abroad. But, until they win a Nobel Prize or a Fields medal, nobody here acknowledges their existence.

Instead, many return to find that nobody is willing to give them the support they need to create a research team. This is the situation today. This is what needs to be changed.

What's preventing anything from changing?

The first obstacle, which is a little bit painful, is a lack of action. Why is it so difficult to change things when we know what the problems are?

The second obstacle is bureaucracy. I have faced this matter, many times, in universities and I think it should be addressed. I have met so many administrative difficulties. Bureaucrats never take scientific interests into account.

What do you feel is the greatest obstacle to enticing these students to come home?

We send a child abroad and tell him: You are going abroad to study nuclear physics. When the student returns, he'll have big plans, big projects. Maybe he'll want to spend the rest of his life trying to develop nuclear power in Vietnam.

But we need to have an institute to welcome him back a place that he communicates with, while abroad. There needs to be a place for him to teach younger students. That is the main problem. But, nothing has been done about it.

I see some people come home with PhDs and no one offers them a decent job in the standard university system"”what a waste of talent and money.

We've known this for so many years, why should we repeat it all the time? I feel that nobody cares about young scientists. The government has no specific plan for using their talent.

We are basically missing scientific policy in the country. There is no scientific policy.

I don't want to go into details but I could cite many concrete cases that are scandals in the country. There is such a gap between what one says (like "we want 20,000 doctors by 2020 and so on") and the possibility of implementation. It's a joke. It takes a long time to train a PhD. So, if you want to have 20,000 PhD in 2020, you'd better have a plan about how you're going to do it.

Thus, what should be the first priority?

The brain drain will continue unless the country makes a concerted effort to stop it. That means offering a dignified and promising future to bright and hard-working students.

We need to offer this generation the opportunity to change things for the better. This young generation was born in the time of "doi moi", and they should not have to struggle to survive and get a good education.

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