Why Does Iran Have a Serious Brain-Drain Problem?

One-fourth of all Iranians with college education now live in advanced economies—the highest brain-drain rate in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. Why is this?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Sam Sinai, theoretical biologist embedded in a computer science program at MIT, has lived in Iran and U.S.:

Since I technically qualify as a “drained brain,” I will give you an anecdotal account, accompanied with a more broad set of reasons why people like me leave and continue leaving. But before we get there, take a look at this excellent infographic on this topic.

Why leave?

I love science. Doing college-level science in Iran isn’t too hard; you pretty much are allowed to try anything. Science is truly appreciated. There isn’t much oppression in that domain. While no one stops you from doing science, the process is much more caught up in bureaucracy, and equipment is scarce. But I imagine it is better than many countries with the same GDP. Doing cutting-edge science beyond undergraduate level is very hard. You can get a fantastic technical education up to that point. (Dean of Stanford said that Iran’s Sharif Unversity is No. 1 in the world for electrical engineering.) But then all of a sudden, the research opportunities and job prospects after are very dim. The kids who are coming out of these schools can easily get a slot at any top program in the world, and they do.

I also like dancing, drinking, partying, making music and listening to it (be it Opeth or Kalkbrenner), being young, and doing stupid things. It is possible to do these in Iran, but you need to do them underground. And although most of the time you are OK, if you are caught, you can be in big trouble: jail, whips, huge monetary fines.

The government is corrupt, and promotion is not merit-based. You have to pretend you are more religious than you really are. If you are a woman, the scarf is mandatory in public spaces. The moral police are a pain in the butt, be it because you are out with your boyfriend or you are not covered up as they deem appropriate.

Also, my parents are artists. Over the past 30 years, they have been constantly oppressed and censured. They still did fine, but it was by no means easy. Sometimes for five to eight years, not a single scenario of my dad’s was given permission. You can imagine what that sort of pressure would do to him emotionally or financially.

Iran is wealthy, but has a serious case of Dutch disease: Very high inflation rate, the economy is a mess, and the recent sanctions don’t make it better.

There is a constant threat (or actual, from 1980-88) of war. Serious threat. Not very pleasant or easy to live in.

Finally, politics are unstable. You often hear the conspiracy theorists in the public buses saying that the current government is “gone by next year.” This doesn’t really happen. But the government fears it somewhat, and they rule with an iron fist. Students and journalists are politically active and take the hardest stick. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been arrested at some point, just for a simple critical article or mere presence in a student protest. The active bunch are interrogated and put in solitary confinement.

Why is it hard to leave?

Iran has amazing people. Your friends, your family, and even strangers can be incredibly warm and kind. The social support system is really, really strong. You never get that in Europe or U.S., really. Let me give you an example. When I was hospitalized in Iran for some mess up by the ER that admitted me to ICU, my GP took a day off to come stay there. She treated me like her child. Well, yeah, the government cannot protect you like in the U.S. if the physician messes up, but there are people who would do anything, even if it means breaking the rules, to make sure you are healthy. She got me out of there, even though the doctors at that place refused to accept that they made a mistake in my diagnosis.

Our culture is unique. We really appreciate art, science, history, and literature. That’s why education is so emphasized among Iranians. There is the ancient Persian culture, and the Islamic era and both are full of wonders.

Iran is a beautiful country, both in anthropological terms and in natural terms. I can drive for five hours to get to a Mediterranean-type beach and fly one hour to get to a hot beach. At the same time of the year, I can go hiking or skiing or go to the desert. You can hear Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic spoken across the country. You see people with green eyes and light hair and those with dark skin, and both are Iranian.

Finally, it is economically and practically (in terms of getting a visa) hard to leave, unless you are really good at something. So those who leave are not the poor or badly educated; they can’t leave. The ones who leave are the highly educated middle or upper class. I think this is the most significant factor.

In summary, Iran’s educational system is good enough to produce high-quality bachelor-level people (or wealthy intelligent businessmen), but then when they are ripe, there aren’t enough opportunities for them. On top of that there is government oppression and all that jazz. Iranian emigrants don’t leave to make money—you can make money in Iran. They leave in pursuit of social and intellectual gain, which causes the brain drain.

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