Can Scotland follow Mark Zuckerberg’s Drive to Reverse the Brain Drain?


I am lucky enough to live in a first class city (Edinburgh) which has a thriving culture, and where you can meet people from many different cultures and backgrounds. As an academic, one of the best parts of my job is to deal with students from all over the world. I’m also lucky to work in a vibrant subject area (Computing/IT) which has a high demand for its skills. It is with this background that I worry that we are stopping the best brains in the World coming to live and work in Scotland, and be part of the building the next generation. From what I can see there are so many restrictions placed on high-quality non-EU graduates from working in Scotland. As a country which has provided the world with some of the best immigrants, such as Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie, it’s about time that we tried to do the same as other countries have done.

A few years ago the Scottish Government had a positive policy on attracting smart people to Scotland, and especially highly qualified graduates in the key skills areas. For this there was nothing better than seeing some of my excellent graduates from India or China getting high-quality jobs in industry, and contributing to the wealth of the county. Personally, in terms of software development and in maths, the talent from India and China provide some of the best recruits that any university research team can ask for.

And to Sidney Michaelson …

I was lucky enough last week to introduce a lecture on quantum computing at the Edinburgh Science Festival for the Sidney Michaelson Memorial Lecture, and it was in researching Sidney that I began to realise what can be created from a simple foundation, along with some of the best minds that the world has.

Sidney came to Edinburgh at the start of the 1960s, from London, at a time when Computers cost many millions of pounds to buy, and had a massive memory capacity of 1 MB (yes … 1 mega byte). It was a time when running multiple programs at the same time was a major challenge, and one which required a great deal of research. Along with this computers were maintained by technicians with white coats, and who would be the only ones trusted to load the FORTRAN 77 punch cards into the mainframes.

After growing up in the East End of London, and then graduating from Imperial College, Sidney left London and came to Edinburgh just at the time when the Computer Unit split into a Department of Computing and into a Computer Support Unit. He then became the first Professor of Computing in the University of Edinburgh, and also lead the new Computing Department. Over the years, Sidney probably did more to promote Computing as a disciple than most others. In the days when Games Designers and Cybercrime Consultants are the new rock-stars of the industry, it is difficult to remember that, in the past, Computing and IT professionals were often seen as code monkeys and computer technicians.

It was from these roots that he created a world-leading infrastructure in Computing research, and one which was able to attract researchers from all other the world. I wonder, though, in these days, whether Sidney could have built such as a World-leading infrastructure, especially with the restrictions placed on non-EU nationals from staying in the country.

And so to Mark …

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has just started an initiative which aims to turn-back the US policy on visa restrictions, and he aims to use this to attract the best brains in the World to come and live in the US. It is an initiative which is backed by many of the major IT companies, such as Google and Linkedin, all of which are struggling to recruit with such an increasing demand for Computing skills. If you add this to the problems that US Universities have in retaining talented researchers, we can see the problems that the UK faces too. Remember that talented researchers become the spin-out creators, that become the world-leading companies. The eagerness to succeed in a new country is often a driving force that can provide the foundation for great things – and one which has benefited the US many times over.

In terms of the success of the US, much of it can be attributed to the ability to attract talent from around the World, and use that as a platform for innovation and enterprise. For this he quotes:

“To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people,”


“We need to train and attract the best.”

As we move into an age where Intellectual Property (IP) is the key to commercial success, he then states that:

"Immigrants are far more likely than natives to study science and engineering and more likely 
      to produce innovations in the form of patents"

So What?

Surely, as a country, we should be thinking ahead, and starting to attract people to create the next enlightenment? I don’t care if it is a Scottish or a UK Government policy, but we are in real danger of loosing out on innovation and enterprise culture. As a solution … we perhaps need to try and influence our policy makers that the debate is perhaps rather more complex than just opening up our borders to anyone and anybody?

John Napier

The world is changing, where, in the past, factories were placed near water and energy supplies in order to provide access to the required resources, to one where it is the access to high-quality graduates that is often a major factors for our IT-enabled world. So why does a company decide to be based on a high rent office space in the middle of a city … well it’s mainly to do with the fact that high-quality graduates are keen to work and live within vibrant cities? If universities cannot provide the supply, we cannot build the types of cities which can thrive on an international basis … and for me Edinburgh has done it in the past, and can do it again. It is to the legacy of Sidney, and to the influence of Mark, that we can hope that we can start to build a new city based on innovation and enterprise. Did you know that Edinburgh has the high percentage of graduates of any other city in the UK, and that it has the highest ratio of start-ups per head of the population in the UK? People come to Edinburgh, and most love it, and don’t want to leave, so let’s support the new wave of innovation, and provide ways for the best talent to stay here.

I wasn’t born in Edinburgh, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I love it, but as I walk around the streets that we built by the visionaries that created the New Town, and who led the great advances in science … whether it is John Napier or James Maxwell Clark … I am inspired to help in any way possible, and one way is to provide ways for people with great ideas to live here, and thrive.

Okay, I started off with Scotland, and ended-up with Edinburgh, well Scotland’s core strength comes from its great cities, and if they thrive the rest of the nation will too. Look at the success of London, and how that provides the such as focus for the UK economy, and so can it be for Edinburgh … my beautiful city!

My new proposal for a slogan for Edinburgh City is (taken from Mark’s quote):

“To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people,”

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