Wednesday, May 06, 2009

International Brain Drain

A recent post at Huffington outlines American anxiety about brain drain. The international migration of talent has long been a concern of developing countries. The advance of globalization might be reversing this flow as members of the diaspora return home seeking better opportunities. But the United States isn't experiencing brain drain, at least in terms of how the concept is commonly understood. On the other hand, Canada does have a problem:

Dr. Sékaly is the kind of star many feared would leave. An expert in the human immune system, he has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals. He is working on a therapeutic vaccine to boost the immune systems of people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Much of his research budget already comes from U.S. sources, including the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But he expects that once he moves he will be able to attract even more support, up to $10-million a year.

His new job is to set up a Florida-based expansion of Oregon Health and Science University's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute.

Florida has invited a number of internationally recognized institutions to build and run satellite operations in the state, offering rich incentives. Dr. Sékaly will get $100-million to get it going and hire staff, and plans to expand his own research into cancer and cancer vaccines. ...

... Around 20 members of his team cannot relocate to Florida, so he will keep a lab in Montreal.

That last paragraph details the nature of the shortcomings of the US immigration system. We could do a better job of attracting and retaining world class talent. But American scientists aren't leaving home in droves, as the term brain drain suggests. The leakage of human capital amounts to foreign-born students at American universities who do not or, more likely, cannot remain in the country. That the recent surge of Chinese studying abroad might return home is really of little consequence. US business opportunities can piggyback on this migration.

Academia provides a good example of how this model works in practice:

More broadly, the opening chapter of Higher Education on the Move depicts a world in which eight countries -- the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, China, Canada and Japan -- host 72 percent of the world's international students, but in which other, traditionally sending countries are also emerging as destinations.

"Newer host countries such as China are seeing rapid increases in the numbers of international students. Several other countries in the Asia Pacific region -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand, to name a few -- have stepped up their efforts to internationalize and to attract more international students. Even though this has resulted in a somewhat smaller market share for the U.S., we believe that this is a positive development as it has brought more countries into the field of international education and has changed the dynamic between sending and receiving countries from a unidirectional 'brain drain' type of mobility to one of true mutual exchange," according to a chapter co-written by Rajika Bhandari and Peggy Blumenthal, both of IIE.

Caterwauling about brain drain is not the way to reform US immigration. A more appropriate framework is facilitating geographic mobility because doing so stimulates economic growth. The United States must do a better job of exporting talent abroad in order to position itself to take advantage of the growth in emerging economies such as China's. That said, America also needs to welcome the brains that are motivated to start companies within its borders. The irrational attachment to locally educated workers is a losing proposition.

1 comment:

Mark Winston said...

Now if only Canada would make it simpler to look for work there (eg, allow one to move there without already having a job), they might not have as big a problem.

I, for one, find it hard to find a job in a city I don't live in already. I usually move, then hunt. That's hard to do across the border, when you usually have to have a 'sponsor'. I think the US is generally the same, though...