Another week, another “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question. This week, the topic is the putative “brain drain” caused by recent US policies:
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?
This is really three questions, with a fourth sort of assumed on the way to the third. Answers below the fold.
The first question is “Is there a ‘brain drain’ going on?” That one, I can’t really answer, as I’m not all that plugged in to the high-power research community these days. I’ve heard anecdotally that there are fewer foreign graduate students and post-docs coming in these days, but then again, DAMOP didn’t seem to be lacking in presenters born outside the US. But my view of the state of physics in general isn’t all that good these days, so I couldn’t really say. I’m inclined to believe that there is a problem, just because people keep talking about it, but that’s hardly scientific proof of a problem.
The second question is “What are the implications?” and, frankly, I suspect it’s a net win for the species. Taking the broad view, science as a whole can really only be helped by having more countries build up their own science programs– the more smart people there are working independently on a problem, the faster it’s likely to get solved. If those students and post-docs stay in their home countries, science as an enterprise will be better off in the long term.
While it’s a short-term loss for the US, I suspect that in the long term, it’ll probably be a net positive for the US as well. If other countries– particularly China and India– start keeping their top scientific talent at home, that might well help them build themselves into the sort of competitors that can scare politicians into making a real effort to improve the state of science education in this country. Just as Sputnik was probably the best thing to happen to American science in the 20th century, an apparent shift in scientific leadership to Asia might be just the kick in the ass we need.
As for the final question, “Is there anything we can do about it?”, it presumes that we ought to do something about it, and I’m not sure we should, at least not in terms of acting to stop the “brain drain” (which, as Razib and Janet have noted, is really just a reduction in the inflow of talent). After all, where is it written that the US has the right to import all the smartest people from the rest of the world?
Even if you feel that it’s against the short-term interests of the United States to allow a drop in the number of bright foreign scientists coming here to work, the solution isn’t necessarily to try to keep the foreign scientists here. If we want to maintain the premier scientific research establishment in the world, we shouldn’t continue to leech off the brightest students from other nations– instead, we should work to make sure that our home-grown scientists are the best in the world.
That means a lot of hard work, and long-term thinking, and making a serious push to improve the quality of science education, all the way down to the grade-school level. Again, the model here is probably the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik launch, when we poured resources into scientific projects out of fear of being left in the dust by the Soviets. That effort produced great strides in science education, along with huge and impressive gains in all areas of science and engineering.
Sadly, we’ve sort of been coasting since the glory days of the Apollo program, and things have deteriorated to the point where it’s easier to be elected to high office by rejecting modern science than by supporting it.