Ask a ScienceBlogger: Brain Drain

Another week, another “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question. This week, the topic is the putative “brain drain” caused by recent US policies:

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?

This is really three questions, with a fourth sort of assumed on the way to the third. Answers below the fold.

The first question is “Is there a ‘brain drain’ going on?” That one, I can’t really answer, as I’m not all that plugged in to the high-power research community these days. I’ve heard anecdotally that there are fewer foreign graduate students and post-docs coming in these days, but then again, DAMOP didn’t seem to be lacking in presenters born outside the US. But my view of the state of physics in general isn’t all that good these days, so I couldn’t really say. I’m inclined to believe that there is a problem, just because people keep talking about it, but that’s hardly scientific proof of a problem.

The second question is “What are the implications?” and, frankly, I suspect it’s 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. If other countries– particularly China and India– start keeping their top scientific talent at home, that might well help them build themselves into the sort of competitors that can scare politicians into making a real effort to improve the state of science education in this country. Just as Sputnik was probably the best thing to happen to American science in the 20th century, an apparent shift in scientific leadership to Asia might be just the kick in the ass we need.

As for the final question, “Is there anything we can do about it?”, it presumes that we ought to do something about it, and I’m not sure we should, at least not in terms of acting to stop the “brain drain” (which, as Razib and Janet have noted, is really just a reduction in the inflow of talent). After all, where is it written that the US has the right to import all the smartest people from the rest of the world?

Even if you feel that it’s against the short-term interests of the United States to allow a drop in the number of bright foreign scientists coming here to work, the solution isn’t necessarily to try to keep the foreign scientists here. 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.

That means a lot of hard work, and long-term thinking, and making a serious push to improve the quality of science education, all the way down to the grade-school level. Again, the model here is probably the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik launch, when we poured resources into scientific projects out of fear of being left in the dust by the Soviets. That effort produced great strides in science education, along with huge and impressive gains in all areas of science and engineering.

Sadly, we’ve sort of been coasting since the glory days of the Apollo program, and things have deteriorated to the point where it’s easier to be elected to high office by rejecting modern science than by supporting it.

6 thoughts on “Ask a ScienceBlogger: Brain Drain

  1. If other countries– particularly China and India– start keeping their top scientific talent at home

    please note the data suggests that these nations don’t have much of a problem, they produce so many scientists that they don’t take a big hit. the problem is with smaller nations.

  2. it’s easier to be elected to high office by rejecting modern science than by supporting it.

    Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Department of Education, Head Start, “every child left behind…” No matter how low the bar is set, political bureaucracy will slither under it.

    Take any complex problem’s components. Assign each one an orthogonal vector, -1 to 1 for the extremal options. You now have a unit hypersphere of solution space. As the number of dimensions increases beyond five,

    1) Unit hypersphere volume asymptotes toward zero (as does its surface area beyond seven dimensions),

    2) Most of the volume appears within 10% radius of the surface by 10 dimensions – the few solutions to any complex problem are drastic solutions, and

    3) Compromise is the worst thing to do.

    Problems must be locally handled. Any national-scale problem must either be very simple to fix or become a positive feedback disaster if centrally addressed.

    The solution to national education is to get national government out of the loop. Let each city decide how it will educate its children; let each unversity decide whom to admit. Thereafter, no problem (other than unemployed social advocates).

  3. I like some of what you posted above, but I disagree that having Asia continue to develop into a scientfic powerhouse (which it is doing anyway) will somehow shock the US into puting more into science education as occured after Sputnick. This is because Sputnick was a sudden rather than gradual event. It shocked people. If US leadership in science declines, it will do so slowly. The preverbial frog will not jump out of the proverbial boiling water. Besides while many people say they want to have better science education, they are quite reluctant to pay more taxes (income or property) in order to fund it.

    I also think that the process of getting education visas out to bright foreign born students who want to study in the US should be made easier. Many of those people decide they like it here and elect to immigrate to the US, which strengthens our scientific community. If they go back to pursue science in their home countries, that’s also good for science worldwide.

  4. On the general question, I’m generally with Chad and Greg. I also agree that while this surely is a problem, it’s not a catastrophic one. America is sliding into decay, and that won’t change until people start doing something intelligent about it.

    Uncle Al: Wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen someone pull a hypersphere out of their hat! 😉 Seriously, the biggest problem with your analogy is that the solution space isn’t homogeneous, or even close. A lot of those central coordinates will represent outright waffling or “half a cow” responses. And it only takes three interdependent variables to invoke SDIC, aka chaos, so you’ll likely have basins and fractal structures all over the place.

    Out of curiosity, just what are the formula patterns for “surface” and “volume” of unit hyperspheres, as dimension increases?

  5. IMHO, there is a “there is a brain drain going on.” And the damage is exacerbated by the profound failure of American public education, de facto resegregated by race and class, which I also see as a result of bad national policy (economic) and the actual behavior of human brains in that income disparity.

    I sadly agree with Ivor Catt and Brian Josephson (in f2f and email discussions) about the similar collapse of the British school system, in the decades since it benefited my wife, who returned the favor by teaching in it. My wife and son and I hosted a schoolteacher from the UK who just retired after 34 years teaching Math. This teacher now has a book contract that resulted from his celebrity from a (quite excellent) blog about his grandfather. Back to that in a minute. First, breaking Science news.

    Poor Children’s Brain Activity Resembles That Of Stroke Victims, EEG Shows

    ScienceDaily (Dec. 6, 2008) — University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

    In a study recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

    Harry Lamin gave anecdote after anecdote that supported what Ivor and Brian described. I also agree with Ivor Catt that this is linked with the collapse of electronics and computing innovation in the UK. The USA gave away electronics manufacturing and robotics and other fields to places with cheaper labor or better government subsidies. In both USA and UK, there also seems to be a correlations with the collapse of Empire.

    Ivor Catt recommends thus:
    The best book on the decline of the educational system in England is Melanie Phillips, “All must have prizes”, pub. Little, Brown & Co., 1996.

    September 22, 2003
    Everybody wins, and all must have prizes
    First published in the Daily Mail, September 22 2003.

    Surely, in the immortal words of John McEnroe, they cannot be serious? Alas, the latest pronouncement from those in charge of our exam system is truly beyond satire.

    Their new idea for boosting examination success is to abolish the very idea of failure, along with the difference between the right and the wrong answer to a question.

    The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has told those marking the school curriculum tests that ‘F’ for ‘Fail’ is to be replaced by ‘N’ for ‘Nearly’, and that maths questions are to be marked ‘creditworthy’ or ‘not creditworthy’ instead of correct or incorrect. A QCA spokesman said – apparently with a straight face — that if pupils don’t pass these tests it doesn’t mean they have failed, because they will have ‘nearly reached the target’.

    This may seem ridiculous beyond parody (will the Conservatives now claim they ‘nearly’ won the Brent East by-election?). Tragically, however, it is merely the logical outcome of an education system which is steadily destroying the concept of achievement itself. [truncated]

    I have likewise argued that pedagogy is rotten at its foundation, because it is ad hoc rather than based on modern results of neuroscience, ethology, Chaos Theory, and the like.

    The above article about a scientific research result is very much to the point on both of my contentions.

    p.s. Once I’ve emailed in a last take-home Final Exam to a professor, I shall have completed another quarter at the Charter College of Education of California State University, Los Angeles. Next quarter (starting early January 2009) instead of the 16 hours per week of grad courses (4 courses for which I’ve been registered) 4-8 p.m. after a day of teaching that starts 7:15 a.m., I have to take only one academic class (although a CPR course and a constitutional law course are desired before my certification). That will leave me more time and energy for my work as High School Science Teacher at Nia Educational Charter School, to continue my research in Math, Physics, Economics, and Biology, and to continue organizing my notes towards an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership in the joint CSULA/UC Irvine program.

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