Last month, after President Barack Obama in his State of theUnion address touched on some of the challenges facing professional educationand training in the United States, I posed these questions to readers: Why dostudents from foreign countries choose to advance their education on Americansoil, only to take their expertise and training abroad later? What can Americado to keep those we educate here, where they can contribute meaningfully to oureconomy and innovation?
Judging from the many thoughtful reader responses Ireceived, which also requested that I withhold names to protect reputations andprevent employer retaliation, the column struck a nerve. The topic of the"brain drain" seems to be a complex and controversial one, but many of ourreaders were kind enough to share their experiences and observations—as long asI kept them anonymous.
Interestingly, most readers who responded were as criticalof the government's role in the phenomenon as the president was of oureducational system.
"It would help if the government reduced some of thenegative influences it has on science," M.N. writes. "It funds a lot of goodfundamental research, but then it creates a business environment that is toonegative to start businesses and keep them in the U.S. I hope President Obamaworks on both aspects in the coming years—science funding, but also a betterbusiness climate. He has not sent good signals in the first couple of years."
"A.G.," who works for a research lab and pharma technologydeveloper, is equally critical of the government's contribution to the braindrain. Every level of government, she argues, "burdens businesses with lawsdesigned to 'protect' everyone but the business itself. Who would want to startup a business when you have to deal with healthcare reform, labor laws,environmental regulation, etc.? The foreign students can return to their nativecountries and find jobs in American companies relocated there to more freelyrun their operation."
But A.G. sees a larger, more worrisome problem: "Youngpeople graduating from high school have little ambition or motivation for theirfuture," she writes. "Most of the students in high school today have no realinterest in a career and often live at home—far beyond what earlier generationsdid. They don't move out, become educated or learn a trade and liveindependently. This is probably due primarily to our politicians preachingabout entitlements, so people have no motivation to be self-sufficient, likeextending unemployment for 99 weeks. Why work when the government can take careof you?"
"R.P." is one of the students about which I inquired. She cameto the United States for her post-doctorate degree, she writes, "for one singlereason: to be able to get a research position back home ASAP." But then R.P.fell in love with an American, and the couple thought the United States "wouldoffer more possibilities for a two-body problem."
"Wrong assumption," R.P. writes. "Now we are consideringother countries, as it does not make any sense to try to stay in a countrywhere research seems to be falling to pieces." She cites "pharma companieslaying off thousands of researchers" as well as "research funding decreasingand becoming more and more conservative—excellent idea: We'll fund you afterthe idea is done, which we will call preliminary data."
Another reader, "B.D," opines that foreign graduate studentsare under tremendous pressure to "take their degree and leave."
"The pressures that push foreign students to leave arerising salaries and opportunities overseas, decreasing/stagnant salaries andopportunities in the United States and increased difficulty in getting a visato remain here," he writes.
But B.D. doesn't buy into the argument that the cause of"brain drain" is not a lack of educational talent or opportunities. Heattributes the phenomenon to current business practices in the pharma andbiotech industries.
"Many companies are saying that they can't hire 'qualified'workers in the United States, but they are simultaneously laying offsignificant portions of their U.S.-based staff," B.D. writes. "That shouldraise a red flag to their qualified worker argument. I believe they are usingit as a justification to investors, customers and U.S. labor authorities tohire additional workers overseas. Positions are rarely moved directly overseas.Jobs cut at one site (usually in the U.S.) are added in another (usuallyoverseas). Educational trends follow job opportunities and salaries, not theother way around."
Finally, "A.B.," who works for a top 10 pharma, isn't quiteas cynical about the brain drain. In fact, in his view, "the best outcome froma global perspective for foreign students is that they return to theircommunities and use what they have learned in the United States to promoteeconomic development, respect for democracy and human rights.
"The U.S. would eventually reap the rewards of a more stableglobal political environment and better trading partners," A.B. argues.