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Ask a Big Question, get…fewer answers. But really well-considered, provocative ones.

This week, the ScienceBloggers mulled:

“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?”

Read on for their relplies.

Most of the bloggers pointed out the question isn’t asking about a “brain drain” as it’s most commonly defined — rather, it’s asking whether the influx of foreign scientists to the U.S. is tapering off.

Further, the question contains the assumption that such a tapering-off would be a bad thing that the United States ought to want to stop — which some of the bloggers called into question.

  • Razib at Gene Expression writes that, yes, the U.S. takes in fewer scientists from abroad than it has in the past. Yes, that’s most likely attributable to difficulties with student visas. And Razib opines that fewer foreign scientists for the U.S. is a detriment. “The biggest implication” of the decrease in scientists coming to study and work in the U.S., he writes, “is that the USA is shorting itself in terms of intellectual capital, and I’m skeptical that is a good thing.”
  • He continues:

    “To be honest, the current immigration system is ass-backwards, driven by emotional talking points and short-term economic considerations as opposed to the long term health of the republic.

    Scientists by their nature seem to follow the rules, so change the damn rules!”

    …And a long and interesting discussion in comments ensued.

  • At Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet Stemwedel took a relativist stance. She wrote:
  • “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.”

    Then again, maybe preventing the free flow of scientists around the globe, regardless of its consequences for any one country, is harmful, well, globally.

    “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.”

  • Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles agrees that the U.S. is failing to import working scientists from other countries to the extent it once did, but he argues that this trend is actually
  • “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.”

    He ends with a plea for more home-grown science savvy:

    “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.”

  • At Aetiology, Tara Smith talks about a different kind of brain drain: the one siphoning scientists from rural and small-town Anerica to the cities and the coasts.
  • “What’s been the main ‘brain drain’ concern in places where I’ve been isn’t the influx of foreign scientists–it’s the efflux of native ones into other states where there is more potential. Ohio and Iowa just don’t offer a lot of opportunities for scientists. Yes, there are colleges and universities, but there simply isn’t the biotech base (and the urban culture) that one can find in a lot of other areas.”

  • GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life implies that if the U.S. were to want to continue to attract the world’s scientific talent, they’d do well to elect a government firmly committed to science, and willing to support it with more than just a bit of election-year rhetoric:

    “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.”

    Later Razib and Chad got extra-curricular, Razib posting a respoonse to Chad’s answer, here, and Chad responding in turn, here.