For nearly 15 years, china has been trying to engineer a "brain gain" by luring top scientific and technical talent home from the United States, and it's working. One major success story is the National Institute for Biological Sciences, created in 2003 with several advantages. Freed from the fundraising pressures of the U.S.—and from the often mindless red tape of traditional state-run Chinese institutions—researchers there say their lab environment, financed by the Chinese government, trumps what they could expect in America. They know from experience, since all 23 were educated in the U.S. In 2005 Dr. Feng Shao, 37, left Harvard Medical School to return to China after receiving a more generous deal from NIBS, where he now studies bacterial pathogens in a top-class lab, with a $300,000 annual budget. He says that in the U.S., "I might have a lab with just a few students and technicians. Here I have 16 or 17." The bottom line, says Shao, is that while his team has published six scientific papers since 2005, "elsewhere I might have done just two."
If you believe Yew, the jury is still out on whether or not China is successful in its call for brains to return home. In fact, Yew is skeptical that it will work at all. He does offer a few recommendations, but the prognosis is that this program is insufficient and unsustainable. China, like Japan, must eventually turn to immigration if it wants to compete globally in terms of GDP per capita.
Concerning the United States, Yew contends that this country's primary advantage is its ability to attract the world's most "adventurous minds". Richard Herman recently sent to me a link to an article that should be cause for considerable concern in light of Yew's analysis:
America’s best friend and oldest trading partner—that’s Canada. Happy member of the world’s largest free trading zone? Sure. But when it comes to the global competition for talent, well, friendship only goes so far. When immigration managers at Canada’s consulate in Los Angeles were asked last year to provide a snapshot of the immigration situation in their region, their tone sounded downright predatory. “Significant numbers of high quality economic class immigrants are being gleaned from this territory,” they wrote in a report obtained by Maclean’s. Most of the workers have been educated at U.S. universities, the document went on, obtaining degrees in valued ﬁelds like biomedical research or software engineering. With such talent in short supply in Canada, the pencil pushers in L.A. boasted, “this office regularly engages in promotion and recruitment efforts to exploit this talent.”
In terms of domestic migration, this should shed some light on how to best address brain drain. Attempts to keep people from leaving are useless. Boomerang initiatives are better, but don't provide a substitution for attracting outsiders. Few are looking at the benefits from the intentional export of talent, but I doubt the economic development community is ready to entertain that prospect. I still think that's the policy leap shrinking cities (such as Pittsburgh) should make.
As Yew might say, the Rust Belt is failing to surf the geopolitical waves and make itself useful to the world. How might we change that? Look at what Canada is doing.