Brain drain

Brain drain

AI luminaries leaving for Sweden
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This autumn, the Netherlands once again lost a leading professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to foreign shores. Professor Virginia Dignum left Delft University of Technology for Sweden. What significance does her departure have for students in the wildly popular Dutch field of AI?
3 minutes

“I'm busy looking for a place to live and recruiting the first group of four researchers”, Dignum shared in an email from Sweden last October. She left this autumn for the Swedish city of Umeå, where she will commence full-time work in January 2019. For the next eight years, Umeå University is giving her free reign to conduct her research. Unlike in Delft, she no longer has to teach students. Moreover, she is spared the time-consuming hunt for research money in Sweden. She can assemble a team of 10 to 12 researchers and devote herself entirely to research. Dignum: “I am really looking forward to being able to immerse myself for eight years.”

Good for the subject

The Portuguese mathematician spent many years employed in the corporate sector before making the switch to TU Delft in 2003. During her tenure, she was awarded the prestigious Veni grant for her research in 2006. She was also involved in a wide variety of European AI projects.

Dignum is not the only AI scientist who is through with the Netherlands. Frank Dignum, who was a professor of AI at Utrecht University up until recently, went with his wife to Sweden. Another leading light of AI, Wil van der Aalst from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven), left for Germany last year, where he received five million euros for his research.

What does Dignum's departure mean for the field of AI in the Netherlands? “The development of our field doesn't solely depend on me”, she said. “Or any one individual researcher. Other AI researchers and lecturers will surely come to the Netherlands.” Consequently, she does not consider her departure part of the brain drain in her field that is causing Dutch universities so much anxiety. Dignum: “I'm still an academic; I didn't move to the corporate sector. International mobility is actually good for our field.”

"Dutch universities do not truly care about their people."


Her successor has not been announced. According to Dignum, recruitment is under way for a junior lecturer who still has to prove themselves. She hopes that this individual will focus on the social and ethical impact of artificial intelligence, just like she does. Was staying in the Netherlands an option for her? Dignum: “No; Delft was unable to offer me what Sweden is offering: my own research team.”

In Delft, she spent a great deal of time securing research funding and supervising students. As a result, she did not have enough time for her passion: conducting research. What did surprise her, as she mentioned in an earlier interview in the Financieele Dagblad, was the fact that Delft made no effort whatsoever to persuade her to stay. “They said: ‘Oh. Too bad.’ And that was all.”

Countries such as France, England and China have a strategy to retain AI talent for the universities. Dignum: “So far, the Netherlands doesn't. It's certainly time for that.” Otherwise, she believes that the development of the field will end up dependent on the corporate sector, which takes a different ethical position.

Not just the salary

Dutch doctoral candidates in AI are already opting en masse for jobs outside of the university. Ninety percent of them, in fact, Maarten de Rijke, director of ICAI, the national institute for artificial intelligence, recently stated in the Financieele Dagblad. Consequently, the supply of AI lecturers at the university level is threatening to run dry. Meanwhile, the study programme is becoming increasingly popular with students.

AI PhDs earn twice as much or more in the corporate sector than what they get paid at the university. Still, the salary is not the only thing that matters, according to Dignum. “Dutch universities do not truly care about their people”, she said. “As a researcher, you're a kind of self-employed business person.

It's up to you to find the funding for your research. And each time you must start from scratch all over again: the funding programmes change every year. All of these hours you would prefer to spend on research goes into preparing and writing proposals.”

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