Sunday, November 15, 2009

Brain Drain Report: Global Talent Wars

Late Friday afternoon, I was on the phone with fellow "Youngstown" blogger Janko. He points me towards a lot of useful content and one of his suggestions during our conversation was a Charlie Rose interview with Lee Kuan Yew. The former Prime Minister of Singapore comes across as one of the foremost experts on the subject of globalization. Among other things, Yew spoke about China's boomerang migration initiative. You can read more about this talent search in a Newsweek article:

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.


Mark Arsenal said...

Good call. Canada is a very successful global economy that exports tons of expensively-educated workers, and seems the better for it. Of course, having very liberal (and easily understandable) immigration and citizenship policies helps, not to mention all those natural resources to subsidize development.

I have seen commentators who claim that they will start being worried about the US economy when they start seeing larger portions of the US workforce emigrating. I would hope this would actually be a good thing - right now most expat-minded Americans are probably too scared to travel without wearing a maple leaf on their backpacks, which only makes the political atmosphere more inward-looking and stifling.

Of course, fear of getting stuck forever a world away with your family and assets in the US could be part of this... It is for me.

Jim Russell said...

The geography of fear is an excellent way to model migration.