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Brain Drain

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"Why stick around and be the victim of a political witch hunt when you could escape to the private sector: a fatter paycheck, decent hours, and maybe, just maybe, a little respect and appreciation by the people you work for? We lost a lot of good men and women, a lot of experience, initiative, and priceless analytical reasoning. All we were left with were the dregs, a bunch of brownnosing, myopic eunuchs."
CIA Director, World War Z

Organizations such as countries, corporations and Ancient Conspiracies need a lot of talented people in order to function. Rather than expending resources to find and train "new" experts, a simpler method is to recruit your competitors' employees. After all, if you were offered a clearly better job (however you define that), you'd probably take it, right? Especially if your current situation is unpleasant.

This can easily result in one of the organizations continually sliding backwards. They lose some talented and competent personnel, and thus become less talented and competent overall, which makes things harder on their remaining personnel, which makes said personnel want to leave even more, and the cycle continues...

This is the phenomenon called "brain drain". It's quite widespread in Real Life, as the Other Wiki can testify.

In a way, Brain Drain is the opposite of The Peter Principle. However, these are opposites that can happily coexist and help each other make life hell for those who remain: The talented move on elsewhere, while the less talented become Pointy Haired Bosses in positions they are incompetent for, which makes things even harder for their subordinates and feeds into the cycle. In individual cases, the Peter Principle can also be used to subvert Brain Drain if it turns out that a high-ranking "drained" guy wasn't so "brainy" after all.

Not to be confused with Stupidity-Inducing Attack, which is about making an individual person dumber.


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    Anime & Manga 


  • In Atlas Shrugged, this is John Galt's major plan: to drain all of America.
  • In Unseen Academicals, Braseneck College seems to be trying this on Unseen University; their Archchancellor is the former Dean, and their Ponder Stibbons equivalent used to be Ponder's best student. They even offered Ponder the post of Bursar, but he never even asked what the salary was.
  • This happened to the CIA in the backstory of World War Z. They were scapegoated for a recent "brushfire war" that the USA fought that apparently didn't go well note  and any information they could defend themselves with was classified. The result was a massive outflow of experience, initiative, and analytical skill as many staff fled this hostile treatment for better-paying (and better-respected, to boot) jobs in the private sector, leaving the CIA to be staffed with incompetents, Yes Men, and a scant handful of patriots who generally kept their heads down for fear of being Reassigned to Antarctica. The major outcome to this was the CIA's inability to see the early warning signs of the Zombie Apocalypse.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Arrow, this is one of the many issues facing Star City after it goes into an economic tailspin. Many of its businesses close down or relocate to other cities and the city's best and brightest leave for greener pastures. The people who stay behind are either rich enough not to be bothered by this or too poor to leave. This hits the police department especially hard, since the events of the series cause it to have an extremely high casualty rate, so police officers already have a strong incentive to find employment somewhere else. In one instance, an entire elite task force goes rogue because they are desperate to leave the city but cannot afford to pay off their mortgages.

    Newspaper Comics 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Forgotten Realms: Knights of the Golden Rooster in Raven's Bluff often complain that other knightly orders tend to "take their best". Or, looking from the other end, being an "entry-level" order for common people and adventurers and a route to higher responsibilities is one of the Roosters' main roles.
  • A common theme in Mage: The Ascension is how the various Traditions and Conventions try to recruit talented Mages from each other.

    Video Games 
  • In the Interactive Fiction game The Lost Spellmaker, all of the spellmakers (people who, well... make spells, for the entertainment of the masses) from the PC's town and the other villages nearby are mysteriously disappearing. It turns out they're being stolen by the nearby city of Plantasitoy. Given that Plantasitoy is an anagram for PlayStation, one could easily read this as a metaphor.
  • Sigma Theory: As nations pull ahead in the Tech Tree race, their prestige and/or brainwashing occasionally attracts foreign scientists to defect, which in turn makes the slower nations' research become even slower.
  • This is something of a theme in the Trails Series. The world is currently in the grips of the Orbal Revolution, and one or two gifted leaders in the field can make massive strides in industrialization and military progress. Several small nations are actively headhunting these people to give themselves a leg up, while some of the larger, more established institutions are clinging to tradition. A good deal of the story's set dressing is framed by the massive power shifts caused by these attitudes as massive empires are suddenly forced to realize that they've missed a very important boat and that their smaller neighbours are now genuine threats to their borders.

  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: King Radical and his Mafia prevent the brain drain from occurring in Cumberland, MD, by encouraging high school and college graduates to stay in the area. Very strongly encouraging.
  • Grrl Power: Although not specifically related to "brain power", supers who get hired by ARCHON, the U.S. Military "super" branch, get paid fantastically wellnote  to prevent them from going to the private sector, given that they are literally impossible to replace.

    Western Animation 
  • Dilbert:
    • In one episode, Dilbert manages to get recruited by Nirvana Corporation, the great company that's always steals the best and brightest from his old company. Of course, Status Quo Is God, so at the end of the episode, he's back in his old cubicle again.
    • A later episode has a literal example when Dilbert's company merges with "Brainsuck Industries", run by a bunch of aliens with suckers in their stomachs. Dilbert prevents the deal from going through by taking the Brainsuck CEO to their marketing department. The marketing people are so dumb that the alien starves to death on a full stomach, causing the aliens to flee.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Griffinstone is implied to be suffering from this problem by the time of "The Lost Treasure Of Griffinstone", if Gilda's peddling of griffinscones for the sole reason of wanting to earn enough bits to get out of there is any indication — compare that with the last seen status of Gustave Le Grande, who is shown to be a Supreme Chef and is far outside Griffinstone in that episode, and the flashbacks in the stories told by Twilight and Grandpa Gruff of the glory that Griffinstone once was.
  • The Simpsons: In "You Only Move Twice", the Globex Corporation tries to hire away Smithers, but he won't go for it, so they try the employee with the next highest seniority, and therefore obviously the next best guy: Homer. He actually turns out to be a hugely valuable employee at Globex, since his wacky ideas are given a fair try and actually make the people he manages more productive. Unfortunately, the Cool House that Globex gives Homer does all of Marge's work for her, boring her to madness. Bart loves the house, but the high-quality school that Globex builds put him in remedial classes with kids every bit as bad as him.note  Lisa is ecstatic with the house, school and even the town itself... until she discovers that the local wildlife sends her (never-seen-before-or-since) allergies into overdrive. Oh, and Globex' Benevolent Boss Hank Scorpio is actually a Diabolical Mastermind and enemy of Mr. Bont — who Homer helps capture and execute, resulting in Scorpio taking over the East Coast.

    Real Life 
  • During a given country's "golden age", it has been common for adventurous immigrants to swarm over there to find opportunities. For instance, several conquerors have had scholars and artists crowding their courts simply because the prestige attracts. This naturally causes a Brain Drain in other countries.
  • By the same principle, countries going through particularly bad times experience an exodus of the talented to anywhere else, which naturally makes ending those bad times more difficult. This situation is often seen in developing nations like India where NRIs (Non-Residential-Indians) are regarded with awe and envy in India for being The One Who Made It Out and the Indian government and society is trying to encourage talented people to invest and work there.
  • The most famous example of this phenomenon is the Berlin Wall, which was in large part erected to prevent skilled people from leaving East Germany. Between 1952-1961, nearly 3.5 million Germans left East Germany for West Germany (about 20% of the East German population). They did this by simply walking across - Berlin at the time was legally governed under the Four Power Agreement (France, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, United States) rather than either German government. After the wall, the numbers fell dramatically. It must be noted that the vast majority of emigres from East Germany to West Germany left by official government channels and the escapees constituted only a small part, albeit the most visible one. After the Berlin Wall came down, East Germany saw another huge exodus of skilled Germans moving from the Eastern states to the rest of Germany. As a result, Eastern Germany was still considerably far behind the rest of the country decades later.
  • Germany was subject to this in spades before and after World War II, thanks to the fact that a good number of technical, scientific, and financial experts were Jews. Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and Wernher von Braun, just to name a few, all emigrated to the Western powers before or after the war to escape the Nazi regime. While those who fled before the war did so on their own initiative to escape the Nazis, researchers and other talented individuals who were taken out by the Allies after the war (with or without their consent) were removed because the Allies had no interest (at least initially) in rebuilding Germany's devastated industrial base. Artistically, many film-makers of the Weimar Era Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder and many others left for Hollywood upon the rise of the Nazism, as did Marlene Dietrich.
  • Brain Drain was an issue with many Communist nations of the Eastern Bloc, and measures were taken by the Soviet Union and its puppet states to keep people from emigrating to the West. Mostly they did this by making it hard and prolonging the immigration process considerably. On the occasions when permits were given, it was usually for some corrupt reason. This can be seen in the film Moonlighting where Polish labourers are sent to London to touch up a property owned by a Polish Communist Corrupt Politician.
  • On a much smaller scale, businesses who treat workers badly tend to have high turnover. Or a business might have financial problems, causing the talented workers to leave for greener pastures. Like the above example, it makes it difficult for the business to recover.
  • Afghanistan experienced this when it fell under the rule of the Taliban. Women were driven out of the workforce and forced to depend on husbands and male relatives (or else driven to begging or prostitution in order to survive - the latter of which was punishable by death). This particularly impacted healthcare; the male doctors that were left were overworked, many relief workers had left the country, and women were often forbidden from (or at least uncomfortable with) being treated by a male doctor.
  • When Afghanistan was under American jurisdiction, this was noted to be a problem for the army. The United States attempted to rebuild the army to be modern (meaning, along American lines), and that included the formation of a "special forces" unit, the National Army Commando Corps, based on the US Army Rangers. The problem was, they accomplished this by promoting competent and loyal troops from the existing army, meaning that the divisions they used to occupy had lost their best members, and competent troops in the Afghan National Army were in short supply. Essentially, they got one halfway-decent armed force at the price of the rest of the army being near-useless, and while the Commando Corps performed better than any other against the Taliban, they couldn't win the war on their own when every other division was folding like paper. This is one of the major reasons why the Taliban easily took back the country in 2021 when the US pulled out.
  • The United States brain-drains excellent physicians from around the world to fill its residency slots. American doctors are given priority for selecting residents, but very high-scoring foreign doctors are frequently taken, to the tune of approximately 3,000 foreign-born chosen for new interns in 2016 alone.
  • Private military contractors are fond of offering large pay increases to service members in elite, special-operations capable units or with rare, difficult skill sets. They don't pay much for the Dumb Muscle, but elite soldiers are rarely that.
  • Due to many problems in nursing (long hours, toxic managers and work culture, the Adminisphere, floating from one department to another, and Critical Staffing Shortage), many nurses are leaving traditional "bedside" nursing at hospitals and nursing homes, and going into homecare and clinics. (This, of course, exacerbates many of the aforementioned problems, such as one nurse being responsible for a dozen patients.)
  • If large numbers of high-ranking individuals from a given company begin to leave all within a very short time of one another, it's usually a sign that you should be looking for a new position, because they know that the company is in some kind of (usually financial) trouble.
  • Brain Drain is a minor but chronic problem in the American university system. The demand for mid-level instructors constantly outstrips the supply, because in most white-collar fields, private sector employment is far more attractive (in terms of financial compensation and career advancement) than working for a university. Universities often make up their shortfall with foreign graduate students, but this causes a follow-on Brain Drain problem in their native countries.
  • A double-shock of Brain Drain affected Russia and former Soviet Bloc countries in the mid 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, skilled laborers, educated tradesmen, and the intelligentsia saw the opportunities offered by increasingly rich Western and Middle Eastern nations and flocked to work/immigrate in these countries. This is part of what spurred a mid-90s immigration wave into the West and removed a considerable amount of institutional knowledge from the former Soviet Bloc. This left Russia in particular short on extremely valuable trained personnel such as chemical engineers and pharmaceutical developers.