Brain Pickings

A Visualization of Global “Brain Drain” in Science Inspired by Abstract Art


Mapping the global flow of scientific talent by way of Mondrian and Kandinsky.

After their wonderful visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction and visual history of the Nobel Prize, Italian information visualization designer Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat are back with another exclusive English version of a piece they originally designed for La Lettura, the Sunday literary supplement of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera — this time exploring the phenomenon of global “brain drain” in science, with an eye towards understanding the reasons why researchers might choose to leave their countries of origin and pursue careers elsewhere.

(Click to enlarge)

Combining three sets of data — a World Bank survey, results from a research paper titled Foreign Born Scientists: Mobility Patterns for Sixteen Countries, and The Times’ ranking of the world’s best universities — they contrasted the number of researchers per million people (y-axis) with the percentage of the country’s GDP devoted to scientific R&D (x-axis). Also displayed are unemployment rate, female employment rate, percentages of foreigners and emigrants in population, emigrant researchers, and emigrant researchers returning to their country of origin. The background arcs map where scientists come from and where they go.

Some surprising and counterintuitive patterns emerge: Japan, held as a paragon of technological innovation, actually attracts very few foreign researchers. Denmark, despite a GDP budget significantly larger, doesn’t do too much better than countries like Belgium, France and Germany. Canada, Australia, the United States, and Switzerland attract — and export — the greatest number of scientists. Also apparent is that researchers move around much more than the average person — the red and blue solid histograms are longer than the hollow ones — except in Latin countries like Spain and Italy, whose economies are more strongly tied to the construction industry and thus might require the import of more workers with lower levels of education. Higher female employment is also correlated with attracting more foreign researchers.

But what makes the project particularly fascinating is its cross-disciplinary inspiration: The idea came to Lupi after a recent visit to MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction exhibition. She tells me:

Abstract art and data visualization are related indeed in terms of visual languages, colors and lines to create compositions which can exist even independently from visual references in the world. I [wanted] to come up with a data visualization able to replay that very geometric feeling, pleasant aesthetic and colors’ related flavor I had throughout my whole visit, passing by Mondrian’s, Malevich’s, and Kandinsky’s pieces. … It immediately occurred to me that each of the countries we were analysing data on, should have been represented as a compound complex element, the parameters of which should have been visually related by the positioning, rotation and spatial correlation of those geometrical shapes I was sketching down.

Her entire approach is remarkable:

[For me,] the search for inspiration in unusual contexts is not a mere divertissement, but should be intended as an attempt to analyze the aesthetic qualities of things that are naturally pleasant to the eye, in order to understand how they can be abstracted and re-used as core principles and guidelines in building visual compositions.

This is why, when I’m sketching the things that happen to attract my curiosity, I always try to find a way to interpret both the single visual elements and the overall composition as construction blocks, iconic ingredients for other recipes.

I always ask myself what I would like to read from the shapes, colors and arrangement, trying to understand how their visual quality can be transferred to a different meaning. … If these rules are working in that context, there should be a way to apply them to the things I’m working on. It doesn’t work all the times, but when it does it really leads to unexpected epiphanies. … The things that inspired me work only when I’m able to re-apply the principles behind them to another context.

Like many famous creators, she relies on her sketchbook:

I’m in fact mainly attracted by balance, repetition and composition: I’m getting used to always keep a sketchbook with me, because I learned that I can really understand the patterns that I see in reality only when I try to reproduce them on paper. The very act of reproduction introduces a level of abstraction that helps focus on the aspects of the composition that caught my attention.

See more of Giorgia’s terrific work on her site, then complement it with some visualization lessons from the world’s top information designers and data artists.

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