Researchers are one of the most mobile population groups in the globalised world. A successful researcher is often a mobile academic, living where the job takes him or her. Exciting ideas and innovative research centres are popping up on all continents, attracting ambitious academics and scientists. The international nature of science is further shaped by a host of other factors as well: researchers from various countries compete for the same funds (e.g. European Union sources), which means that the criteria for success are the same for everyone; the increasingly project-based nature of science, which does not allow settling down for long; the growing use of English in higher-level studies as well as in publishing study results; the publication of more important results in international journals, signifying that they are valued in the academies of many countries; the universal nature of methods and practices; also work experience in the increasingly international research teams as well as the dispersion of ex-colleagues all over the globe. Thus, researchers are similar to medical workers, for example, in their ability to take up work in other countries.

The knowledge, research methods and attainments of researchers in the fields of natural science and technology is perhaps most easily transferred globally. Therefore the interest in them is also international, as is their own interest in working at research institutes around the world. In fact, to develop their research or products, researchers in the fields of natural sciences and technology have to go to centres that bring together the best scientists in their fields, from all over the world. It is from the scientists of these fields that Estonia and the European Union are expecting to see scientific and technological breakthroughs that can be used in industry and sold globally. Scientists can be considered the development and innovation vehicles of a state or a region: the higher the added value of a product or a service, the more research-intensive it usually is. The shaping of wise policies and taking decisions that are important for the state also require a research-based approach. Unfortunately, scientists can leave Estonia because of their transferable expertise and mobile lifestyle, and take their expensive professional preparation with them. Thus there may be a conflict between scientific development and national interests.

This chapter looks at the opportunities and threats that the mobility of researchers presents for a person, her of his linked lives, their university and state, and then presents an overview of the considerations that scientists themselves weigh when making decisions about migration back and forth or settling down with their families abroad. Suggestions are also offered to help attract scientists to Estonia. And finally, there is a discussion about how researchers can contribute to science in their country of birth without actually living there.

First of all, however, we have to take a closer look at the relationship between mobility and transnationalism. These two are closely related. Transnationalism means simultaneous work-related connection to local and foreign research communities, or to several foreign research communities: reading and sharing the results of scientists from another country, for example at conferences, up to submitting joint applications and organising joint projects. Cooperation with a foreign scientific community often finds expression in shorter or longer visits to the labs of those countries. Thus, mobility is a physical manifestation of transnationalism, quite logically deriving from the international culture of contemporary research. In some cases, a visit to a foreign university may turn permanent: the country that used to be foreign may become the new home country and the person who used to be a guest may become a citizen, who cuts his or her ties with Estonia, maybe even giving up citizenship.

However, the positive alternative here would be that the researcher who has gone to live and work in another country maintains the transnational approach, keeping up the ties with Estonian science and scientists and carrying out cross-border cooperation with them. Again, this cooperation may mean that the researcher and his or her family come back to Estonia for shorter or longer visits. An international attitude and working culture may also bring the researcher, originally from Estonia, to third or fourth countries or continents. Therefore, the present study sees modern researcher mobility as a circular rather than linear phenomenon, a permanent mobility rather than a singular completed journey from A to B.

The Charms of Mobility

Resources are not evenly distributed on the global landscape of education and research. There are select global empires of knowledge ruling it, top universities or networks of them, concentrating the talent and the ideas, the money and the new technology. And education and research landscape also has its numerous peripheries of knowledge with their thousands of research establishments lacking in all of these (Fahey & Kenway 2010). Central and Eastern Europe, including Estonia, can be viewed as one of these (semi-)peripheries. The European Union and other regions and states of the world are trying to compensate for these gaps in knowledge and power, but also to create synergy, by facilitating cross-border mobility of students and scientists.

The underlying hope of those regions and states is that the transnational human capital of the mobile researchers will ultimately transform into technical innovation and economic capital, benefiting the competitiveness and economic growth of (semi-)peripheries. Universities also encourage student mobility and the use of their talents in foreign research facilities. Researchers are the ambassadors of their university or institute of origin to the world. It is expected that their success, professional networks, ideas and knowledge will be transferred, at least partly, to the ‘mother institution’. Networking improves the cooperation, funding and publishing opportunities as well as international recognition of peripheral research institutions. Philips, Lees and Lille (2015) emphasise that residing and exchanging ideas abroad is also valuable from the point of view of the developing university courses and academic programmes.

As do states and universities, researchers themselves also value working abroad. The personal connections and experience of collaboration with colleagues from various continents that they acquire in foreign universities develop their language skills, expand social networks and increase professional social capital, which is likely to result in joint projects and publications. These in turn will increase the professional reliability and those researchers in academic circles and their respectability in the society as a whole (Leemann 2010: 616).

Mobility in the beginning of a research career can be seen as a rite that opens the doors to a career and to the community. An international CV and experience of working at a foreign university may be a precondition for qualifying for research grants for emerging academics (e.g. the start grant issued by The Estonian Research Council) or for being selected for the post of a lecturer or a research fellow. Physically immobile young scientists are not considered independent or experienced enough to be trusted with leading a study. As one’s research career advances, one has to show internationalisation in order to retain one’s position at the regular re-elections to positions or to obtain grants for a project.

The ideal type of an academic entrepreneur is nomadic and monadic, is de-territorialised, disembodied and dis-embedded. […] This ideal type is an independent, socially privileged, academically supported cosmopolitan academic individual. This academic can readily engage in transnational mobility for career purposes and without difficulties and obstacles can confidently settle into new living situations.

Source: Leemann 2010.

According to a study from 2012 by the European Commission, the most important motivators for researchers to work abroad are giving a push to the development of one’s career (83%), an opportunity to work alongside leading experts of the field (75%), funding (70%) and excellent facilities and infrastructure (Figure 2.5.1, see also the reasons for Estonian scientists to transfer to foreign universities in Murakas et al. 2007: 26 and Philips, Lees & Lille 2015: 18–21).

Figure 2.5.1. Importance of various migration-conducive factors among mobile scientists

Source: EC, 2013: 158.

Mobility in Numbers

Academic mobility does not concern just the researchers, it starts considerably earlier. Already the most ambitious gymnasium graduates have the chance to go to reputable European or American universities for their Bachelors studies. Mobility grants are used to send more and more Bachelor’s and Master’s students to foreign universities for a year or a semester. The European Commission has set the goal that by 2020, 20% of the students in the European Union should have studied for some time in a foreign university (EC 2016).

Mobility becomes even more accessible during PhD studies, when participating in study and research work at a foreign university becomes normative, not to mention presenting one’s study results in international conferences and publishing them in internationally-recognised channels. Short- and long-term grants have been established for supporting mobility during PhD studies, provided by the state (e.g. DoRa and the Kristjan Jaak grants) as well as the doctoral schools of universities.

In the academic year 2012/2013, 7% of Estonia’s students were registered at a foreign university (OECD, 2015: 367–369). The most popular destination countries included Great Britain (26%), Finland (12%), Germany (11%), Denmark (10%) and Russia (9%). The actual number of Estonian students studying at foreign universities may have been even larger, as many were studying abroad as exchange students or for a period shorter than the academic year, which may have been a reason for the foreign university not to enrol them. Therefore, their mobility is not reflected in the 7% (see also the interactive web environment Unesco Institute for Statistics (2016) for Estonian students’ destination countries and source countries from where students come to study in Estonian universities: ).

Academic mobility is strongly encouraged during doctoral and post-doctoral studies, i.e. during the time in a person’s life when they usually find a partner and establish a family. Thus the likelihood increases that by encouraging mobility among emerging scientists, the establishing of transnational families is also fostered. This kind of family will probably reinforce the transnational identity and working culture of researchers.

The freshest comparative data available about the mobility of researchers with a PhD was gathered in 2012 and shows remarkable differences in the mobility of academics of various countries of the European Union (see Figure 2.5.2). Fifty-four percent (54%) of the researchers of Denmark had worked for a period of at least three months in the last ten years in a country where they did not obtain PhD degree, while the number was 26% in Estonia.

Figure 2.5.2 also shows gender differences in researcher mobility. Women and men with a PhD degree are equally mobile, but as the career is developing, men are more mobile in the European Union as a whole as well as in Estonia. Philips, Lees and Lille (2015), who analysed the length of the mobility periods of the academic staff of the University of Tartu also found that during the period 2003-2015, in all studied faculties, the average mobility period of men tended to be somewhat longer than that of women. The duration of stay tends to be shorter for women researchers .

Figure 2.5.2. International mobility rates of higher education sector researchers in postPhD careers, by sex, 2012

Source: EC 2013; references from EC 2016: 125.

The lower readiness of women researchers to work abroad can be explained by traditional gender roles in a family, which lay a larger responsibility for the home, the children and the elderly on a working mother. Another explanation here can be the lower positions of women in the academic hierarchy, those not presuming considerable mobility. Unfortunately, however, the less-frequent mobility of women is increasingly incongruous with the ideal of a transnational researcher and this may force women to the periphery of the academic community (Leemann 2010).

Philips and colleagues (2015) also studied the relationship between age and international mobility. They found that although the differences are not considerable, the age group 36-45 is the most mobile. The mobility of the youngest group (up to 26) and retirement-age academic staff is considerable lower.

The Pains of Mobility

Countries located on the outskirts of the global academic-scientific landscape send their researchers to top universities abroad hoping that a part of that excellence will be transferred back to their research and development activities, thus helping peripheries of knowledge-production to catch up with the empires of knowledge. Sending a researcher to a foreign university is an investment aimed at the ‘circulation of brains’, building connections and transferring knowledge from the so-called empire of knowledge to Estonia. Thus, from the point of view of the country and university of origin, the central challenge is how to bring these ‘enriched brains’ back and to find ways in which they could contribute to developing science in the country of origin. These hopes may not always come true, however. If the movement of researchers is mostly in one direction - to top universities abroad - and they do not return to their academies of origin, the term ‘brain drain’ may be used.

The departure of a central member of a research team may mean the extinction of the whole study area in the university or even in the country. Poorly managed researcher mobility may increase the gaps between the scientific and innovation capabilities as well as the economic prosperity of countries instead of diminishing them. The situation can be made even worse by the fact that researchers may be taking their partners, often also highly educated, with them, as well as their present and future children. The children of Estonian researchers who grew up abroad may remain there even if the parents return to their homeland. Thus, a poorly-managed researcher mobility program may have a negative impact on the country of origin that is wider and more long-lasting than it may seem at first sight.

After all, macro-economic processes like the inflow and outflow of knowledge and the circulation of knowledge consist of the movement of thousands of individual academics between research organisations. Therefore, we will now move from the macro level to the organisation level, to look at the motives and obstacles that may influence the return of researchers to their academy of origin in Central or Eastern Europe after having worked in a top research institute in another country.

Back to the (Semi-)Periphery of Knowledge?

How do researchers working abroad see the situation of the universities where they started their academic career? This perception - regardless of whether it is justified or not - influences their readiness to return their ‘enriched brain’ to the home country. There are doubtlessly study areas that are well staffed in Estonia at present, and there are areas to which there is no point in returning, because the state does not value or develop them at present. In the case of science, engineering and technology (SET), however, usually the expectation is that investments should pay off and the scientists should return wiser and stronger. On the other hand, it may be the case that the scientists in SET may need to work in top labs of the world whose infrastructure and general level is unattainable for our universities. Paradoxically, many countries in these semi-peripheries of knowledge see less value in developing humanitarian and social sciences, yet these are the research fields that actually could be developed with less resources and in more moderate surroundings.

This sub-chapter and the next one are largely based on the author’s interviews conducted in the autumn of 2014 with women scientists in SET who had graduated from universities in Central and Eastern Europe and were working in the universities of Sweden in 2014 (Pajumets 2015). Some of them had a very positive attitude and were planning to return to the academies of origin after trying out new work methods for a few years and building an international networks. For example Laura from the Baltics expressed this attitude.

Laura: As far as I have talked to people (from the country of origin) that I meet at conferences, everyone is very positive about people coming back from abroad, and bringing in new knowledge, and the fresh blood. /…/ So, I think, that makes it easier to immerse. /…/ The financial situation there is different, and you have to maybe work harder to earn as much as you need that you can feel comfortable. But, I think, there are good possibilities for me in (CoO). Because I am doing something that is right now a popular field, so to say. And there are people working in that field in (CoO). /…/ There are people I can connect to. I think, it increases my chances.

Marion: Sounds very good.

Laura: Yeah. And they are building new research facilities. So, I hope, things are going up in (CoO). I’m waiting while they build it, and when it’s done, I can go, and work in the new building and in a new laboratory. It will be good.

Marion: You have a very clear plan.

Laura: Yeah, maybe too clear (laughingly). (age ca 35, post-Doctorate, partner from the source country, no children yet, citizen of the source country).

Source: Pajumets, 2015

However, sometimes the view on returning from the consistently high-level and prosperous research facilities of Swedish Universities to the academies of Central or Eastern Europe was more sceptical. The relatively low salaries of researchers were mentioned repeatedly, bringing out that these salaries would not allow a living standard that one had gotten used to. The poorer equipment of labs in the country of origin was also mentioned as well as a lack of materials required for research. Several scientists also found that the research questions that research groups were working on in the academy of origin were not as innovative or exciting as those they had their hands on at present. There were quite a few among the women scientists who were afraid that after returning, there would be no internationally-acclaimed inspiring colleagues to collaborate with, and instead they would have to recruit their closest colleagues into the PhD studies themselves and start ‘growing’ them over the years. An earlier survey among the researchers of Estonia working abroad also brought out the lack of required inventory and a study group as an obstacle to returning. Murakas and colleagues note that in such cases, return would mean a setback from an international level, which is not acceptable for a researcher (2007: 41).

Jana, who has Estonian roots but who started her research career in a third country, is a representative of the viewpoint that returning to the academy of origin threatens to bring along stagnation, if not a setback in the level of her research and publications. She was looking at the top universities of USA with a much keener eye.

Jana: There is a Science Academy programme to attract people back. It is a little bit misconstrued, a bit naïve. /…/ They basically think that if I give you a bunch of money, then you will come. It’s not just about the money. It’s really about the research environment. /…/ For example, why does this famous Massachusetts University of Technology - MIT, have Noble prize winners every other year? /…/ (W)hat is most attractive is really the facilities, the environment, the expertise which is there - so, that’s absolutely a dream place for researchers. Not because of money, but because of environment. It takes years to build it. Of course, you can have a national programme (to facilitate return of scientists), but it won’t happen overnight. It’s a longer process. It requires a lot of investment, long term investment. And so far, in (CO), it doesn’t seem to be a long term initiative. (Age: ca 45 years, senior fellow, alone, no children, now a citizen of Sweden).

Source: Pajumets, 2015

On the basis of the interviews, the following recommendations, besides raising the salary level and developing the research infrastructure, can be given for supporting the research and development of the (semi-)peripheries of the global landscape of education and research, (see also Murakas et al. 2007: 54–55; Philips et al. 2015: 27):

  • to use various programmes and research grants to encourage immigration of researchers from foreign countries to take up research and teaching;
  • to maintain contacts with researchers who have left for other countries and to invite them to hold courses, supervise thesis, submit joint project applications, etc;
  • to support the return of researchers, also by ensuring tenure at the research facilities of Estonia in the case of successful work abroad;
  • to spread information among foreign researchers about vacant positions, e.g. in the pan-European EURAXESS employment portal;
  • to develop support structures at universities for providing administrative help to incoming academics;
  • to apply transparent, merit-based rules for recruiting academic staff and distribution of grants, and to adhere to these rules;
  • to increase cooperation between research institutions and the private sector.

Another area that needs attention concerns factors that remain outside of scientific work, but are equally important for scientists considering return migration. These are related to the micro-level: the wellbeing of family and close ones.

Moving with Family

The researcher mobility is directly influenced by considerations related to family and private life, maybe especially in the case of women academics, as the role of a mother is culturally constructed as more family-centred than the role of a father. The process of taking mobility decisions for women with families is well explicated by the life course perspective (see Moen & Sweet 2004), looking at the simultaneous life roles or ‘life careers’ of the ‘first mover’ and his or her ‘linked lives’. A researcher who is a ‘first mover’ for our purposes is first and foremost a person who probably has other roles in life besides his or her work that requires mobility. Therefore, when taking a migration decision, he or she will consider: 1) whether mobility fits in at all, and how, with his or her own non-work-related, but parallel aspirations, e.g. marriage, divorce or having a baby; 2) besides his or her own non-work-related ’careers’, a researcher will also look at the various ‘careers’ of his or her ‘linked lives, i.e. his or her close ones and will consider if it is the best time to go to work abroad or to return when e.g. a child is starting school, the partner has just switched employment or is planning to graduate from a university, or a case where the health of a parent of his/hers or the partner’s has deteriorated so that care of grown-up children is needed. Therefore, before deciding on whether to move on or settle down, researchers try to consider various stages and significant transitions in their own lives and those of their close ones, and cause as little damage as possible to themselves and the close ones with their mobility.

Just like leaving one’s home country is hard, so is returning to it after having started living and working in a different country. The more there are linked lives and parallel careers involved the more challenging it might be to reconcile them all with changing geographical location. Most of the women SET researchers studied by Pajumets (2015) lived with a working male partner and they also had children. Families want to live under the same roof, and therefore mobility of the woman would probably mean serious adaptations in the professional career of the man and the educational plans and realities for the children. The partners and consorts, usually with a higher level of education, often scientists themselves, were sometimes compatriots of the women, sometimes Swedes or from other countries or continents altogether.

The children of those families were immersed in the Swedish educational system. They spoke Swedish in the kindergarten or school and were mostly citizens of Sweden. In families with parents of different nationalities, the mothers spoke their mother tongue with the children and the fathers spoke theirs. The common communication language of couples, and also the working language, was often English. The women may have spoken the mother tongue of the man to some extent, especially if it was Swedish. The sample contained no cases where the man spoke the woman’s mother tongue if it was different from his own. Family members had ID documents of different countries (often multiple). It was possible for members of one family to have different citizenships, ethnic origins and skin colours. In other words, the families of scientists were quite transnational and therefore also had divided loyalties. These families thus face many important migration decisions.

Estonian academies’ chances of bringing the ‘enriched brains’ of women scientists back home could be improved by an approach informed by the life course perspective, acknowledging that the talents are still people first and foremost, not just ‘brains’. People have their roles, dreams and duties outside of work. The needs of the family members of the return migrants cannot be ignored, attention has to be paid to residences, the adaptation of the partners on the Estonian employment market and the helping of the children into the Estonian educational system. Therefore, the usefulness and applicability of the following recommendations should be thoroughly analysed in Estonia.

  • Allow double and multiple citizenships for researchers and their close ones who hold the citizenship of another country.
  • Import social security and the right to retirement from another country seamlessly into Estonia.
  • Make study grants from other countries to Estonia portable, along with researchers
  • Simplify the procedure of granting Estonian living and working permits to partners of researchers who are citizens of third countries, including non-married and same-sex partners and the underage children of partners.
  • Provide quality residence rentals with reasonable prices.
  • Provide kindergarten and school places of high quality and reasonable prices.
  • Provide access to educational establishments in English and provide language immersion.
  • Provide high quality language learning opportunities for free or for a reasonable price to the close ones of returning talents.
  • Support foreign partners in finding employment. If the couple consists of two researchers, research institutions could consider double recruitment.
  • Shape a friendly attitude towards ethnic, sexual, religious, etc. minorities on all levels of society (see also the difficulties experienced abroad by Estonian researchers with families, Murakas et al. 2007: 30–33).

Now let’s move from return migration to another very important issue of ‘knowledge circulation’. Let’s take a look at how researchers can still contribute to the development of the science of their country of origin, without actually returning to the country.

‘Intellectual Transfers’ - an Alternative to the Return Migration of Researchers

The central goal of many sending countries and universities is to bring these ‘brains’ back into the national scientific community after they have been ‘enriched’ abroad. But are there other ways besides encouraging returning to avoid ‘brain drain’? Can scientists still contribute to the development of Estonian science while working abroad? My answer: in modern times, when transferring huge digital data volumes instantly is not a problem, when communication channels and travelling are constantly becoming easier and cheaper, why should we even presume that physical return is the only way to bring back Estonian researchers knowledge obtained abroad? The central question should not concern the state in whose territory the scientists are residing - instead it should concern how can they contribute to the social, cultural and economic development of Estonia in the most efficient manner?

We should view Estonian researchers abroad as Estonia’s ‘ambassadors of good will’. They increase the awareness of their cooperation partners of the fact that there is a country called Estonia near the Baltic Sea, and it’s a place where reliable research and high-flying ideas come from. Estonian researchers abroad can connect their colleagues and investors around the world with their colleagues and entrepreneurs working in Estonian universities. This cross-border cooperation may be very valuable for Estonia (see also Saxenian 2016). And this is not in spite of the fact that these Estonian researchers are living and working abroad, but rather thanks to their transnational identity, global networks and grasp. The survey of women SET researchers that we have been frequently quoting (Pajumets, 2015) suggested the following ways and plans of knowledge transfer from foreign universities to the academy of origin:

  • consciously keeping in contact with colleagues from the same field back home, and visiting the former employer;
  • discussing work-related issues and co-authoring articles;
  • organising student and employee exchange programmes between universities of various countries;
  • holding occasional intensive courses for the PhD students of one’s university of origin;
  • initiating an inter-university Master’s program;
  • starting various cooperation projects.

Source: Pajumets and Jakobson 2015.

Similar knowledge transfer methods are also demonstrated by a study by the European Commission from 2012 (see Figure 2.5.3). It turns out that after leaving the European Union, a significant number of researchers continue their communications or cooperation with colleagues from their home country or former country of residence. Most communicate with former acquaintances and colleagues through unofficial channels, three researchers out of four continue presenting their study results and exchanging ideas on conferences in the European Union, half of the respondents sometimes visit their former residence or birth country in Europe and participate in trainings, joint projects or contribute as mentors. A little under half of the respondents publish their study results in academic journals of the European Union or review articles for them. In short, the brains and knowledge continue to circulate even after taking up residence in a new country.

Figure 2.5.3. Links maintained with the home country after emigration

Source: EK, 2013: 139.


How do we ‘enrich brains’ abroad and avoid their ‘drain’ from Estonia? This is a highly important question, because the development of Estonia depends on smart decisions and scientific-technical innovations. Researchers often make developmental leaps while working in top universities abroad, surrounded by leading scientists of the field, the best conditions for research and the newest knowledge. Going at it alone in one’s home university, they would not reach world class status (at least not as quickly). To ensure rapid development, student and researcher mobility programs have been called to life and are widely used. Periods of study and work in foreign universities are facilitated by mobility supports and can be set as preconditions for qualifying for research grants and academic positions. A person who starts his or her career in science now is inevitably transnational and mobile. Being immobile equals being pushed to the periphery of research (Leemann 2010). Hence, being part of cutting-edge research and knowledge-production requires mobility.

Mobility is unavoidable although sending researchers from the so-called periphery of knowledge to the empires of knowledge (Fahey & Kenway 2010) is very expensive for the poorer countries. Some of the investments never pay off, because not all of the recipients of grants loyally return to the academy of the country of origin. Trying to avoid brain drain by keeping Estonian researchers out of the research mobility would be the wrong thing to do. We should rather put our efforts into making our own research centres into interesting and serious stopping-point on the global education and research landscape, for Estonian as well as ‘foreign’ researchers.

Small countries like Estonia must work hard to facilitate the immigration and adaptation of academics and their often multinational families in Estonia. As emphasised by the life course perspective (Moen & Sweet 2004) talents are first and foremost people with their non-work-related roles and close ones to think of, not just bodiless brains. Therefore, to facilitate the turning back of all kinds of specialists, not just scientists, obtaining living and working permits must be made easy for them as well as their close ones, residential space must be provided, language courses, adaptation support, exciting and well-paid work (also to the partners), kindergartens and schools, health insurance, in short, a safe and tolerant society is needed. We should also avoid forcing choices: if you want Estonian citizenship, you’ll have to give up other ones. Work has started on several of these conditions in Estonia, but the present situation can be improved.

And still, however hard the policymakers, universities, local communities of Estonia try, it is not likely that all researchers who have left the country will return (with their families). For instance, 21% of the Estonians working in foreign universities studied by Murakas and colleagues (2007: 38) planned to take up permanent employment abroad. The cases of women SET researchers of Eastern and Central European origin studied by Pajumets (2015) help us understand how complicated the return of a researcher to the country where they once started their career can be. The birth country of the interviewed women may be Estonia, for example, but their home country is already Sweden. The country of birth of the descendants of these women is often Sweden and Swedish is the language of their education. The languages that the mother and the father speak with their children at home may vary, as the father may be neither Estonian nor Swedish. The communication language of the parents is probably English. Various members of the family can have different passports. These are global citizens and their identity and loyalty does not have to be to the country of origin of the woman scientist.

Thus, the increasingly transnational reality of academics as well as professionals of other fields presents serious terminological challenges. When does ‘abroad’ become ‘homeland’? Is it from the moment when one takes a mortgage for buying an apartment or a house there, when citizenship is obtained, or when children are born for whom ‘abroad’ is the only home? Using ‘homeland’ as a synonym for Estonia or ‘mother tongue’ as another way of saying ‘Estonian’ can thus often be misleading when we speak of transnational families. Calling Estonia the ‘country of origin’, as has been done often in this article, is somewhat problematic for researchers who have been educated in Estonia, but whose parents immigrated to Estonia from somewhere else, e.g. the regions of the former Soviet Union. The same problem appears when we use ‘fatherland’. ‘Country of origin’, is also a rather technical word, not conveying the special and emotional connection expressed by the scientists. ‘Returning to the homeland or the fatherland’ does sound a lot more intimate than ‘returning to the country of origin’.

We will never get back all the researchers who have left for other countries, and their return may not always even be a goal for us, as these scientists may have at least as good an impact on the development of Estonia working far away as they would at home, and in some cases even better. Therefore it would be useful to Estonia to take the position that Estonian researchers and experts of other fields – medical doctors, entrepreneurs and creative classes - are a valuable asset for Estonia even when the remain abroad.

Fortunately, return migration of researchers and their families is not the only way for Estonia to earn back the investments made into raising and educating them. Knowledge transfers from the global centres or the ‘empires of knowledge’ to the (semi-)periphery may also happen remotely, via increasingly cheap short visits and the increasingly versatile and convenient means of data exchange and communication. It would make sense for Estonia to develop an integral diaspora strategy for waking up its communities abroad and activating the circulation of ideas, knowledge, skills and money between Estonia and these communities. Those transfers between Estonia and its diaspora communities would be beneficial for Estonian researchers abroad as well as for Estonian universities and the state (see the article by Mari-Liis Jakobson about designing diaspora and transnationalism policies in this collection).


The article relies on the post-doctorate project Mobile brains in the global race for SET talent: Capabilities and aspirations for the migration of female SET researchers from the post-socialist countries to Sweden and beyond that I carried out with support from the Visby program of the Swedish Institute in 2014 and 2015 in Örebro University, Sweden.


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