Adventures in Ethics and Science

It’s time for the bees in the ScienceBlogs hive to weigh in on another “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question. The question this time:

Do you think there is a brain drain going on (i.e. foreign scientists not coming to work and study in the U.S. like they used to, because of new immigration rules and the general unpopularity of the U.S.) If so, what are its implications? Is there anything we can do about it?

First, let me note that I’m in total agreement with Razib on the wording of the question:

A “drain” seems to imply a net outflow, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. But, as the parenthetical makes clear what meant is the reduction of the extent of the inflow.

The assumption, of course, is that the U.S. was counting on regular inflows of scientific talent from elsewhere. If the inflows fall off, who gets hurt and how?

Where there’s an inflow, there’s an outflow. This means that an inflow of scientific talent to the U.S. is creating a brain drain wherever that scientific talent came from in the first place. So whether or not the U.S. is experiencing, or will experience, a brain drain is likely connected to the fortunes of other countries. Snapping up all the string theorists from Estonia (say) might be great for U.S. string theory research, but not so great for Estonian string theory research.

So, realizing that the “system” in question here (the U.S.) is in contact with other systems as well, what should we say about tighter U.S. restrictions on immigration, student visas, and the ability of foreign scientists to enter the U.S. for scientific conferences and the like?

Possibly there will be less of a brain drain in the home countries of the scientists who would have been coming to the U.S. — which could be good for those countries (and their home-grown scientists) if they have the will and the resources to support active scientific research. As well, a drop in the inflow of scientific talent might make career prospects better for the talented scientists already in the U.S. who have been sucked into the endless cycle of postdoctoral positions. In the longer term, a drop in the inflow of scientific talent from elsewhere might even get science educators and funders of research more serious about developing local scientific talent (since if you can’t ship it in, you have to make it at home). There are, however, cultural forces acting against the kind of early and serious engagement of potential scientists that the scientific community might prefer. (See “Intellectual, pointy-headed” for a taste of the cultural forces I have in mind.)

But, while there are national interests we could identify in the question of how freer or stricter immigration and travel rules might affect particular scientific communities (e.g., as economic engines or as producers of knowledge to be used to secure a country’s interests), I think we need to consider the question from the point of view of what’s good for science.

I maintain that scientists generally see themselves as engaged in an enterprise of figuring out how the world (and its many pieces) work. It’s a big world, which means you want all the help you can get. In other words, scientists need to communicate with other scientists who are working on the same (or nearby) pieces of the puzzle. They need to compare results (to be sure the outcomes they’re observing at home really are reproducible in someone else’s lab). They need to check the plausibility of their inferences (especially with their toughest critics). They need new ideas about fruitful theories or experimental techniques. When possible, they benefit from spending time in other labs, just soaking in the ways other scientists tackle problems and coordinate the efforts of many team members.

Some of this you can probably accomplish via journal articles and email correspondences. But some of the most fruitful scientific exchanges happen at conferences, in seminar meetings, in real live visits. Holding up visas for foreign scientists (including students) who want to attend a conference in the U.S. to present their results doesn’t just hurt them (by robbing them of the experience of presenting at a major conference, or of the useful feedback they might get) — it hurts other conference goers who might have gotten useful flashes of inspiration while listening to these presentations. It hurts the community of science as a whole by reducing opportunities to form friendships with other scientists. It’s hard to tell ahead of time which of these friendships will result in scientific payoffs (for participants on both sides), but some of them do.

Scientists themselves seem to see science as a project that transcends national borders. While funding priorities may be different in different countries, it would be surprising if U.S. chemistry, British chemistry, Indian chemistry, Egyptian chemistry, Japanese chemistry, etc., weren’t all just chemistry in most relevant respects. Artificially restricting contact and cooperation between chemists on the basis of their nationality could have bad consequences for the body of chemical knowledge as a whole — which would be a harm to all chemists.

In other words, whatever the impact of restrictions on the movements of scientists on U.S. interests, such restrictions are bad for the interests of scientists worldwide.


  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    June 6, 2006

    I think the question is more about overseas students and post-docs than conference/sabbatical visitors. You note:

    a drop in the inflow of scientific talent might make career prospects better for the talented scientists already in the U.S. who have been sucked into the endless cycle of postdoctoral positions

    There’s a real problem there, but I don’t think the fix is protectionism. Better to have US scientists competing on a global playing field, if you want US science to do the same.

    As for

    It’s hard to tell ahead of time which of these friendships will result in scientific payoffs (for participants on both sides), but some of them do.

    Abel recently noted that Keystone estimates that each of their annual conference series saves $20-30 million by making connections for collaborations and the sharing of time-saving reagents and protocols.

    (Unrelated, but may be useful data to pass on: I find the new ad exceedingly intrusive and irritating.)

  2. #2 Lab Lemming
    June 6, 2006

    It also depends on the ability of scientists on other countries to do science, and the application to which that science would be put.

    For example, the USA really became the world’s leading scientific nation by importing various european scientists who were disrupted by the autocratic European regimes leading up to the second World War. If Fermi, Teller, Einstein, and all the rest had been denied visas for security reasons and sent back to their countries of origin, the world today would be a different place.

    The other question is whether or not top notch scientists outside the US would have the facilities and funding in their home countries to reseach as effectively as they can in America.

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