Reverse brain drain: Poles circulate home and out again to Europe
In the global reverse brain drain, migrants begin to influence a frumpy, provincial Poland in everything from toilets to insurance coverage to workplace attitude.
Warsaw and Krakow, Poland
When Wojciech Burkot was licensed by Google to open a research and development office anywhere on the planet, the wiry, high-energy physicist chose Krakow, Poland. And not just because he was born there.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Burkot had worked all over the globe – Europe, the United States, and Asia – in jobs with prestigious research organizations like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and in private industry at Motorola. But after his 2006 interview at Google's California headquarters, he decided to settle his R&D outfit in Krakow because of its ongoing information and technology boom, and for the chance to bring something home.
Burkot hopes Google's creativity and openness – "Crazy in a good way," he says – will rub off in a nation still a bit frumpy and provincial in the aftermath of communism. He recently took his team sailing on the Mediterranean Sea, not a typical Polish workplace outing. Google's offices, located across from an 11th-century Orthodox church, are a model of everything cutting edge in the industry, with a pirate flag, a ping-pong table, 24-hour access, and a disregard for hierarchy.
Meanwhile, Burkot's R&D teams, including returning Poles, are in headlong pursuit of faster search engine speed with ever larger caches of information. "That's the hard problem … speed plus size," he says, happy to be engrossed in his passion back in Krakow.
Steady 'circulatory' trickle of return
In some ways, Poland is the country in Europe most poised to benefit from a "brain gain" brought about by its returning migrants. For one, Poland's economy has boomed relative to those of its European neighbors: It grew 13 percent in the past five years while the rest of European economies shrank. For example, Poland is a top appliance and flat-screen-TV producer on the Continent, even as its identity as a manufacturing workshop is giving way to more R&D.
But second, and most crucial, is the large Polish diaspora. The Polish brain drain took human capital abroad for decades, partly because Poles enjoyed special visitation rights abroad under the Soviets; but largely because of the big explosion of emigration in 2004 when Poland joined the European Union. This marked the first generation of legal mobility, and the time is often spoken of in rapturous terms of new freedoms. Educated youth, many from rural areas, left in staggering numbers. Estimates of their exodus are sketchy, but 2 million departures may be in the ballpark, say experts. The vast majority landed in Ireland and England, feeding the rise of Europe's cheap-airlines phenomenon.
Burkot's return to Krakow with Google is a tidy example of the potential of brain gain in Poland after the global financial crash of 2008 and Europe's austerity. But analysts say there is not yet any mass U-turn to Poland – just a steady trickle.
A critical mass of brain gain brought by returning Poles is largely still a hope or expectation, says Pavel Kaczmarczyk, vice director of the Center for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw and an adviser to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. [Editor's note: The original version of this story erroneously called Mr. Tusk the Polish president.]