Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Mothership asks;

Question: 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?

The short story: From my own personal experience, approximately half of my scientific colleagues at the postdoc level are foreigners, and I have never in my life, worked in a lab that was monolingual (and honestly, I cannot imagine working in such a boring environment ever again as those I’ve experienced in the traditional monolingual workplace). In fact, it appears to me that the USA is, and has been, busily draining all the “brains” they can get from other countries for our own immediate benefit, so yeah, I do think there is a “brain drain” occurring, but not necessarily in the direction that the questioner might have been thinking.

On the other hand, what I do see are the beginnings of an American Brain Drain where scientists in certain fields of research in this country are leaving for overseas to get good jobs in their fields; especially in stem cell research, climate change research, and high-end physics research. And who can blame them? The American government has not exactly been supportive of science, squalling loudly for “more scientists! more scientists!” but proving time and again that they lack the political vision to provide the funds and social (immigration) policies necessary to support the scientists that they already have. For example, according to the OECD Observer;

In the wake of 9/11, Congress pledged to double the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) over five years; that now looks like a pipe dream, especially since Congress actually cut the NSF budget by $105 million in 2005. The Bush Administration has also proposed cutting the fiscal 2006 budget for research and development in such key federal agencies as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the latter of which acts as a liaison with industry and researchers to apply new technology.

Do you have any idea how many postdoctoral fellowship you can pay for with $105 million?

But other countries have been learning from the US and its short-sighted thought-free mistakes, and they are willing to invest in developing their own scientists such that they stay (or return) home;

[Whereas] India’s investment in human resources in science and technology and R&D capabilities dates from the 1950s. China has recently launched a project to develop 100 universities into world-class institutions that not only provide higher education training, but also academic employment and research opportunities.

In the OECD, the UK government plans to increase the salaries of post-doctorates by 25% and increase funding for the hiring of university professors. In France, some 7 000 teaching-researcher posts have been created since 1997 to retain talent and encourage the return of post-doctorates working abroad. The European Commission is looking to improve the attractiveness of the European research area and has doubled the amount of funding devoted to human resources in the Sixth Research Framework Programme to € 1.8 billion.

The risk of a brain drain is real. Yet countries can create opportunities for research, innovation and entrepreneurship at home and stimulate a return flow of migrants and capital, as well as win access to international innovation networks. With the right mix of policies and sustained international co-operation, several countries could, as one Indian official pointed out, see the “brain drain” be transformed into a “brain bank”.

Perhaps I should learn Mandarin?