Some of the world's best and brightest minds are migrants. What if they could return home - at least "virtually" - to mentor young scientists in the countries they have left? Could brain drain be turned into brain gain?
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and HP believe it is possible thanks to cutting-edge information technology and the willingness of talented members of the African and Middle Eastern diaspora to get involved. The UNESCO-HP "Brain Gain Initiative" uses grid and cloud computing to empower university faculty and students who have stayed in their home countries to engage in real-time scientific collaboration with those who have left.
Many countries in Africa and some in the Middle East are struggling to slow a loss of "human capital." According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration, at least 20,000 qualified people - skilled professionals, scientists, academics and researchers - leave Africa every year.
"The long term goal is to strengthen capacity in African and Arab states so they have access to knowledge around the world, "explains Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, Chief of the Section for Reform, Innovation and Quality Assurance, Division of Higher Education, UNESCO. "Not only through information technology but also through the goodwill and commitment of the diaspora communities. They want to promote research and advance progress in their own countries and we want to give them that opportunity."
Building an ICT lifeline for talent
After a pilot phase involving five universities in Africa, the UNESCO-HP partnership will now bring the brain-gain initiative to an additional 15 universities throughout the Middle East and Africa - in Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kuwait , Lebanon, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia - and two each in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya and Uganda. The projects are diverse but they all have one thing in common: they involve members of the African or Arab diaspora who are contributing to the development of their home countries.
Three of the projects will help put grid computing at the service of scientists and farmers in Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire and Ethiopia. With accurate models that predict regional weather patterns researchers can then begin to run forecasts about how global climate changes may affect agriculture. Also in Cameroon, remote electronic sensors will be used to alert authorities to coastal flooding and urban pollution.
Lebanon is considered a global biological "hotspot" of plant species, many of them endangered. What if each plant could have its own Web page? Saint-Joseph University is creating an e-infrastructure allowing scientists in Lebanon and around the world to create and update a database of Lebanon's flora. Another project seeks to make electronic waste recycling in Kenya safer and less polluting by supporting the development of a sustainable e-waste management system in Kenya. Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology has developed a training program in e-waste management and is opening a recycling centre for e-waste for western Kenya.
Bridging the North-South digital divide
Five universities, in Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe tested the application of grid technology during the pilot phase which ended in 2009. UNESCO and HP provided expertise, training and equipment - including servers and grid-enabling technologies.
Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal, was the first university in sub-Saharan Africa to benefit from the installation of a computing grid. It is connected to the Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE) infrastructure, supported by the European Union. This makes it possible for all the grid users to access EGEE computing power and storage capacity.
Thanks to the expertise acquired through this project, the UCAD grid will be extended to the rest of the country in order to set up a national network for Senegal. Launching this first link represents an important step in bridging the digital divide between North and South. "It's a proud moment for us," said Ibrahima Niang, head of the university's computer centre. "Our students and faculty can now do their research inside Senegal and collaborate with scientists all over the world. And members of the Diaspora can mentor our PhD students."
At the University of Nigeria, the Brain gain project has helped researchers in their work on plant tissue cultures that could make the cassava crop more productive and resistant to disease; and in their effort to develop a treatment for diabetes based on extracts from plants. "We are quite hopeful about getting Nigerians from the Diaspora involved, especially our professionals," says project coordinator and senior lecturer Benjamin Ogwo. "Hitherto, they've been providing material things and cash to their relatives. But with this IT platform they are likely going to bring in their professional skills and experience to develop the country that they so love."
The first UNESCO-HP experience in combating brain drain started in 2003 in South East Europe. The project - "Piloting Solutions for Alleviating Brain Drain in South East Europe" - helped universities in the region become self-sustainable in the use of grid technology, making it possible for them to bid for public and private sector funded research projects and encouraging scientists to stay at home to continue their research.
Science, a team sport
Grid infrastructure enables science to be done anywhere, at any time, by anyone who has the knowledge. Based on the same idea as the World Wide Web, the grid goes much further. It shares not only information but also computing power, scientific instruments and research laboratories. By logging on to a grid via a PC, scientists can access resources all over the planet. As a result, research in fields like bioinformatics, physics, molecular science and meteorology is becoming a "team sport." HP was the first commercial member of the operational grid for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the world's largest scientific instrument that is exploring the origins of the universe.
Cloud computing also plays an important role in the UNESCO-HP project. The 'cloud' provides virtualised IT resources as services over the Internet. Different combinations of grid and cloud computing will be used as part of the project in different countries, depending on their requirements.
Mobilising Diaspora for development
UNESCO and HP aim to invite as many as 100 universities in 20 countries to join the Brain Gain project by 2011 with the help of additional partners. The two organisations see great potential in the "virtual" return of diaspora and the human capital it represents. The project is based on the conviction that many skilled African and Middle Eastern expatriates, however dispersed, have a meaningful role to play in their countries' development.
"HP recognises the importance of technology in boosting economic growth and providing opportunities to connect with the information society in all walks of life," said Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice President Corporate Marketing and Global Citizenship HP EMEA. "We look forward to building on our work with UNESCO and our expertise in grid and cloud computing to enable more people to play an active role in all kinds of education projects, wherever they are based."
UNESCO and HP are seeking partners ...
... at the global, regional and national levels who share their vision of real-time scientific collaboration across the North-South digital divide. Depending on their profile, partners could, in addition to funding, contribute expertise in the fields of grid and cloud computing and IT training.