From Brain Drain to Brain Flow

Brain At one time, leaders in developing countries and in international organizations decried the “brain drain” that led the best and brightest in what we used to call the “third world” to emigrate to the West to take advantage of superior educational and employment opportunities. The United States was the destination of choice, both for these reasons and because other societies were seen as less hospitable to immigrants.

As any student of innovation knows, promoting innovative thinking is, at best, an inexact enterprise. One of the few certainties, however, is that innovation happens at edges, where turbulence promotes mixing, more often than at the stable center, where people and ideas have greater homogeneity. In academia and industry, the concept is akin to cross-pollination, as a newly-minted Ph.D. leaves her institution to take up a teaching or research post at another university, government laboratory or company. It may be argued that globalization is not best exemplified by the search for cheap labor, but rather, by the search for great brains.

Beginning in the 1970s, students from rising Asia – India, South Korea, China and Japan – appeared on American campuses in increasing numbers. Many of these students stayed in the United States after graduation, teaching, working in corporate research laboratories, and starting new companies. This educational trend has both continued and quickened…today more than half of all foreign Ph.D. students in American universities come from just three countries: China, India and South Korea. The difference is that after graduation, the United States now largely refuses to allow them to remain. We tell them, “Take your degree and go home!” because immigration, and immigrants, have become a political football.

The conclusion of The Scientist in its recent editorial is one that those who fashion United States immigration policy would do well to heed:

Countries that lay out the welcome mat for foreign research talent and allow their own researchers to go abroad freely do better than closed research economies in every sense. … Only through expanding the shared global knowledge-base will we be able to ignite the spark of innovation behind new industries that will create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and solve the world’s most pressing problems, resulting in more vibrant, prosperous, and peaceful societies.

–Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.

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