Saturday, November 06, 2010

Brain Drain Epiphanies

Wisconsin doesn't have a brain drain problem. The real issue is the art of political persuasion. Promoters of a certain policy agenda exploit the common misconception:

“The mantra here is, ‘Oh, we lose our best and brightest,’” said UW System President Kevin Reilly. “Not so, based on the facts.” ...

... A poll conducted this summer by UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein, commissioned by the conservative think tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, found 62 percent of Wisconsinites believe the best and brightest leave Wisconsin for work.

But the UW System analysis found there were no meaningful differences in academic performance between those who stayed in Wisconsin and those who left.

“The bottom line here is we do not have a brain drain problem,” Reilly said. “Where we have the problem is we don’t attract as many college educated people as we need to.”

While I agree with Reilly's assessment, one should keep in mind that the UW System President has a vested interest in debunking the myth. Public universities across the country are fighting for a piece of a shrinking fiscal pie. Why should tax dollars support talent leaving for other states?

The conversation is a non-starter. The brain drain bottom line is a moot point. Institutions of higher education can be drivers of regional economic development. That's the case that Reilly should be making. Instead, he has to waste his time addressing the shoddy research coming from a libertarian think tank. The links made between migration and tax reform/fiscal policy are bogus.

The big election a few days ago has further muddied these waters. Can those who kept highlighting the brain drain on the watch of Democrats push for investing in innovation? No, we are again stuck with a lousy narrative that will continue to undermine economic development.

1 comment:

usefulcommunitydevelopment said...

Feeling in the mood for a short, humorous comment this morning, but knowing I should be making a point.

So here it is: everywhere I've worked, they've said they have a "brain drain." The state university president says it isn't so. But anecdotally, when one bright kid leaves the state, the other parents that were close to that family feel something must be wrong at home.

There's no such convenient term when "kids" who are 40 return to their home state, married with baby.

So Jim makes the right point, as usual. We need to improve the rate of college graduation, the single best predictor of regional innovation. And those colleges and universities need to be teaching us how to think, innovate, be creative, and transfer our technology or our arts into the economic realm.