Opening Pathways, Building Bridges

Skilled Migration of Mexican Scientists and Engineers to the UK

by Tonatiuh Anzures (Author)
©2020 Monographs XX, 192 Pages


Opening Pathways, Building Bridges explores contemporary skilled migration and the brain drain using a bottom-up approach, based on a case study of Mexican scientists and engineers—or the Brains, as coined by the author—working in the UK. It provides an insight into how the phenomenon is shaped by the migrants’ personal and professional experiences (from Mexico to the UK: ‘opening pathways’) and how their contributions could have valuable effects through diaspora policies (from the UK back to Mexico: ‘building bridges’).
The research is based on an analysis of 36 semi-structured, qualitative interviews with Mexicans graduated in STEM fields, who currently work in academia or the private sector in the UK, and the empirical findings are organised into three main topics: transnationalism, professional experience and collaboration at a distance. It is argued that a more balanced exchange between Mexico and the UK can be achieved by building more bridges with the diaspora through long-distance collaborative initiatives. For this to happen, it is important for policy-makers to understand the relevance of skilled individuals’ choices and experiences, the value of their networks and communities of interest, the existing imbalances between developed and developing countries, and the challenges posed by scientific and professional collaborative projects.
This book offers some ideas and policy recommendations arising from the research, in order to better understand—and face—the challenges of skilled migration in future years and, ultimately, mitigate the negative effects of the Brains’ departure.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Neither from Here Nor from There: Transnationalism, Identity, and Belonging
  • Chapter Two Opening Pathways: The Professional Experience of the Brains in the UK
  • Chapter Three Building Bridges: Collaboration at a Distance, Scientific Diplomacy, and the Challenges for Diaspora Policies
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix
  • Index


Globalised science in the early twenty-first century has been described as The New Invisible College (Wagner 2008)—where emerging information and communication technologies have facilitated networks and collaborations that would have been costly and time-consuming to enact just decades ago. As part of this new world of science, the role of the transient Knowledge Nomads (Day and Stilgoe 2009) presents itself as a familiar but changing part of the landscape of knowledge production. As Tonatiuh Anzures points out in the opening chapter of this book, intellectual mobility was a natural accompaniment to the rise of universities across Europe. In the twentieth century, the term ‘brain drain’ was coined and presented itself throughout the 1960s as a peculiarly British problem. This manifestation of concern about the ‘brain drain’ was triggered when the prestigious Royal Society issued a report claiming that around 12% of its postdoctoral scientists were emigrating, chiefly to the United States (Balmer, Godwin, and Gregory 2009). The ensuing public debate led to attempts by the British government to measure the scientific quality and numerical scale of the loss. On the other hand, from the perspective of many ‘drained brains’, the picture of Britain being deprived of its best talent looked rather less bleak. Oral history interviews with ‘drained brains’ suggest that many of the scientists involved were expected by more experienced scientists to spend time abroad and many were expected to return with new knowledge and skills (Balmer, Gregory, and Godwin 2013). Moreover, often these scientists ←xi | xii→embarked on their journeys not just as a calculated professional step, but also with a sense of adventure and excitement, often accompanied by a spouse and children, during a time when opportunities to travel and live abroad were far less common.

The study in this book takes a similar line, showing how the narrative told by quantitative statistics can be complemented, and even contradicted, when the starting point is a qualitative engagement with the lives of Mexican émigré scientists. Tonatiuh Anzures acknowledges the wealth of information that has been generated by quantitative studies of intellectual migration, but equally points out that this has been to the detriment of qualitative research. Such studies as this do not set out to make generalisations; their strength is in probing the various dimensions of the lived experience of people. This amounts to far more than just shoving a microphone and recorder in front of an interviewee. It requires a very different set of research skills; first and foremost, the researcher requires the ability to listen to, empathise with, yet also maintain a certain research distance from the people being interviewed. It involves allowing people to speak, not putting words into their mouths, instead gently guiding a conversation through particular themes and topics. The richness of the accounts of Mexican ‘drained brains’ quoted throughout this book are testimony to Tonatiuh’s research skills in this respect.

Beyond the statistics on migration, the work presented here echoes Cohen and Sirkeci’s observation in their study of the cultures of migration: ‘while the pull of relatively high wages in destinations is a strong motivator to move, people migrate for many and multiple reasons’ (Cohen and Sirkeci 2014, 14) and, moreover, these reasons almost always involve the emigrant’s household members. As such, the book contains a study that reaches beyond head counting of migrants and tries to tell their stories, as often as possible, in their own words. Tonatiuh builds this narrative chronologically, which enables him to cover his interviewees’ departure from Mexico, their decisions to remain in the UK, and how they see their future relationship with their home country. A key strength of building this narrative arc is that it allows a complex story to be recounted. There is, indeed, sadness and loss—in personal terms, in individual professional terms, and in terms of the Mexican scientific community. Yet there is also a more optimistic note to be sounded, as the interviewees were also given the space to recount how they remain Mexican. Again, this sense of belonging is articulated in personal terms, but also through the ways in which they are trying to construct and maintain bridges back. Back to the country that provided them with the education and skills that enabled them, in the first place, to step beyond its borders.

On a more personal note, when Tonatiuh first engaged in this research project with me as his mentor, he was extremely keen that this would not be an ivory tower academic study, and instead that it would be a policy-relevant piece of research. By ←xii | xiii→drawing out the multiple stories of Mexican émigré scientists in a deep, systematically painted portrait, and by focussing on the inter twining of both negative and positive elements of their journeys, I believe he has more than achieved his aims. My hope is that readers will find this book a valuable study on which to build further qualitative analysis that will inform policy intervention, not just with respect to Mexico, but across the dynamic terrain of skilled migration in the new invisible college.

Professor Brian Balmer

University College London

May 2019


Balmer, Brian, Jane Gregory, and Matthew Godwin. “La migración científica y el debate sobre la fuga de cerebros en el Reino Unido en los años sesenta.” In Políticas y desarrollo científico en el siglo XX, edited by Amparo Gómez Rodríguez and Antonio Francisco Canales Serrano (pp. 185–202). Madrid: Plaza y Valdés, 2013.

Balmer, Brian, Matthew Godwin, and Jane Gregory. “The Royal Society and the ‘Brain Drain’ Debate: Natural Science Meets Social Science.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 63: 339–353, 2009.

Cohen, Jeffrey, and Ibrahim Sirkeci. Cultures of Migration. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.

Day, Natalie, and Jack Stilgoe. Knowledge Nomads: Why Science Needs Migration. London: Demos, 2009.

Wagner, Caroline S. The New Invisible College: Science for Development. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.

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This study was made possible by the generous support of the Mexican Science and Technology Council, Conacyt, the Ministry of Public Education, SEP, and the Bank of Mexico. Thank you all for the doctoral scholarships and loans.

It took me more than five years to complete this research. First and foremost, I am grateful for the guidance, support, and patience of my doctoral supervisor, Prof. Brian Balmer, who also contributed with the Foreword of this book. I would also like to thank all my secondary supervisors during my time at UCL, whose feedback and views helped me to refine my work progressively: Prof. Jon Agar, Prof. Joe Cain, Dr. Jack Stilgoe, and Dr. Inga Kroener. Special gratitude to Dr. Amparo Gómez, Dr. Mónica López, Dr. Héctor Hernández, and Dr. Carlos Cuevas for their reviews and insightful comments, as well as to all the researchers who agreed to talk to me to exchange views and ideas on skilled migration and the brain drain. This book was also influenced in many ways by the suggestions, views and moral support from my PhD fellows at the UCL STS Department. Thank you all STSers!

The adaptation of a thesis into a book could not have been possible without the push of Dr. Leandro Rodríguez, the support of Romina Czarniecki, and the ideas and hard work of my editor, Martha Baranda. Special thanks to Simon Landrein for his nice artwork, and Emma Clarke and all the team from Peter Lang Publishing for their interest in my research.

←xv | xvi→

Most importantly, this adventure would not have been possible without the invaluable support and love of my family: A Sebastián y Sofía, Ricardo y Luz María, Cuate, Alex, Leíto y Moni, a Lorena … Muchas gracias familia, for always believing in me. Also, I cannot thank my friends enough. Their support and black humour about my endurance to finish always kept me going.


XX, 192
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XX, 192 pp., 1 b/w ill., 12 tables.

Biographical notes

Tonatiuh Anzures (Author)

Tonatiuh Anzures is a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico and a specialist in education policy. He holds a PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS) from University College London (UCL) and an MSc. in Public Policy from the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences (FLACSO Mexico). He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the STS UCL Department.


Title: Opening Pathways, Building Bridges
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214 pages