One of the world’s youngest nations, Kosovo, has been trying in vain to lure top researchers in its diaspora back to the war-torn country of just over two million.
Its €600,000 fund (about US$829,000) aims to rebuild research and teaching capacity by supporting the return of top professors, but it has failed to attract any eligible applications in the four years it has been running, says Murteza Osdautaj, director of science at Kosovo’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
The interest received for the Kosovo Brain Gain Grant was from PhD candidates, who are ineligible and who are likely to return anyway, says Osdautaj, who was speaking in personal capacity.
“Most of them don’t have the chance to be employed by universities abroad, so we know they will come back,” he says. “Just the best ones don’t come back.”
Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008, following a prolonged armed conflict involving a bombing campaign by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) military alliance and a wave of emigration and brain drain. The reform and updating of its weak higher education and research sectors is one of the priorities for the Kosovo Country Strategy 2013-2020 development plan by the Austrian Development Agency. 
In some fields, such as engineering, agriculture and energy, there are plenty of research jobs to fill and young researchers are welcome, says Osdautaj.
To excel, however, Kosovo needs the best scientists to return. To achieve this, the fund has emailed senior researchers working abroad about the fund, but this has also failed to generate interest, says Osdautaj.
“We wait for applications, but most professors from the outside don’t want to come to Kosovo to work for a salary of €1,000 per month,” he says.
Apart from low salaries, he thinks they may be put off by research conditions or the unstable political and economic situation, or they may have settled abroad for good.
When they do come back, it is usually only to visit their families, says Osdautaj. Though sometimes they arrange to spend short periods as guest lecturers at former universities during these trips, he says.
The ministry is now changing its tactic by trying to get top professors to spend their sabbatical years in Kosovo, through their brain gain funds.
“It is at the planning stage, but we will offer them the same conditions as the top professors at our universities get,” says Osdautaj. “Kosovo is their country. They are emotionally linked to our country and most of our researchers have their families in Kosovo. They come to visit them every year and, because of that, we hope that this will function.”
Engaging the diaspora
The fund’s struggles are part of the wider challenge of engaging with diaspora researchers.
Dukagjin Pupovci, director of NGO the Kosova Education Center in Pristina, says that research strategies for 2010-2015 at both a national level and at the University of Pristina, Kosovo’s main university, aim to establish links with researchers working abroad, but “we were not able to quantify these targets because we know very little about our highly skilled experts in the diaspora”.
Unofficial estimates put the diaspora at 800,000 overall, mainly in Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, and around 11.5 per cent of those who have left Kosovo since 1999 have degrees.
“For most of them, it would be a real shock [to return] because of a change in environment and lack of support that exists in our country,” says Pupovci.
He says future initiatives are planned by the government, including a voluntary census of the diaspora, a survey of highly skilled experts working abroad, annual conferences with diaspora experts and the earmarking of new funds to support the return of experts from the diaspora. And there is a whole ministry dedicated to the diaspora.
Some do return
But Ines Šuh, project manager at NGO the World University Service (WUS) in Austria, says the NGO’s research indicates that lecturers may be willing to return.
WUS ran a Brain Gain Program in Kosovo between 2002 and 2011 that offered opportunities for short-term teaching, mentorship and research placements.  Around 20 of the 70 diaspora scholars enrolled in the programme decided to permanently relocate to Kosovo once their placements ended.
Šuh’s impression was that this was because “they wanted to participate in building the new state of Kosovo [and] that many new and interesting possibilities were opening there”.
Another attraction, she says, was that the posts they took up in Kosovo, including positions at ministries or in university management, may have been more interesting and appealing than the ones they had at universities abroad.
Lack of information
Some of the returnees SciDev.Net contacted say they were unaware of the Kosovo Brain Gain Grant and were keen to learn more about it. The latest information SciDev.Net could find on the ministry website about the grants was for a 2010 application deadline, when the total budget for the grants was €250,000 (more than US$345,000). 
“Our science ministry is poor at informing faculty who might return from abroad about the support on offer,” says Kriste Shtufi, a philosophy researcher at the University of Pristina, who came back to Kosovo following stints working in Austria and the United States. “I would expect to see more information from the ministry of science about existing grants,” he says.
He agrees with Osdautaj that few researchers return and is unsurprised that that is the case.
“We don’t have a creative environment for working in science: young assistants get €550 [a month], they have to teach a minimum of ten hours per week in order to get their salaries, and libraries are very poor,” he says.
Add in living costs, which, he says, are almost as high as in the rest of Europe, and many scientists are forced to also teach in private universities, which hampers their research.
Others are unconvinced that the government wants researchers back.
“Most lecturers and young Kosovars with Western education and experiences are not welcome to return,” says Arben Hajrullahu, associate professor of political science at the University of Pristina. “They would appear as a problem and troublemakers in the eyes of the ‘predatory elites’ who control key public educational and research institutions.
“The predatory elites are not interested in more transparency and in a system with accountability and fair competition. This would be a threat to their public positions.”
Funding may be enough
Kosovo’s new science law, passed in 2013, mandates that 0.7 per cent of the state budget, should go to research and development each year. 
But Osdautaj does not foresee any increase in science funding beyond that until 2016, due to conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund for its loans. “After that, I hope there will be more funding for research,” he says.
Bujar Gallopeni, head of the Kosovo Center for International Cooperation in Higher Education, Science and Technology Development at the science ministry, says the current funding level is good, given that scientists there may not have the capacity to make good use of much more money, anyway.
“If we were to allocate more funds, we would not be in a good position to utilise them all,” he says. This is because of the difficulties facing the research community such as the need for development of human resources and research capacities, says Gallopeni. “For the time being, that is a very good level of allocation of funds.”
This article first appeared at SciDev.Net