This weekend, my family and I drove 4 hours north to spend some time vacationing. Halfway, at about 2 hours north of where I live and work, a friend of mine from my undergraduate days got a teaching position at a primarily undergraduate institution, so my family and I stopped by for some catching up with my friend’s family. It's really funny how small the world it -- we both were born, raised, and educated in the same big city thousands of miles away, and we end up a light car ride from each other in the vast US of A.
But, if instead of north, I drove east, or south, or south east, within 5 hours in any direction I would hit a town where another one of friends or acquaintances from my undergrad days holds a teaching position.
I am an immigrant from Europe, and I came to the US to do my PhD; I did very well, got a TT position, then tenure. I am not from one of the European countries that Americans perceive as either powerful or as fun/cool/romantic. It's just another country in Europe, most would say of little consequence to the European and global balance of powers.
Actually, some people say that my country's best export products are the smart people. I can tell you that the vast majority of my graduating class of about 40 (I have a BS in a basic "hard" science) is actually scattered throughout the US. Now, I am sure we could have a discussion here of whether us high-tech immigrants are stealing jobs or whether such immigration is good or bad; I think smart people of any background are an asset to any country, and that TT and similar jobs are highly specialized and highly competitive and should be (and are, in the USA at least) open to the best individual globally, but you may disagree... Anyway, I'd rather not engage in that conversation.
What I wanted to write about instead is the impact of this massive "brain drain", the permanent departure of smart and educated people, on the country that invested into their education, typically up to and including a BS degree. Virtually nobody who has had a chance to leave based on intellectual merit has stayed in my country, so the drain is nearly absolute. I can tell you that the impact on a fairly small country like mine is devastating. And it's the country's fault. People leave because it is not possible to become independent of parents, to work in a job that would provide for a person to support a family, or provide enough for scientists to do work relevant on a global scale. I spent several years doing my PhD there, in my home country, with a heavy teaching load, being groomed into a junior faculty position (no TT there) but realized that it was just a joke -- the work I would be doing would never be internationally recognized as top-notch. And I could never afford to start my own family. So I left and started all over in the USA.
There are a couple of thought nuggets here:
How much does one owe one's home country for the schooling? This way the USA gets an expert at the cost of a PhD education alone. Are all of us who have left our countries ungrateful selfish ingrates?
I certainly feel that way occasionally. But I decided that ultimately I only had one life and needed to live it as best I could. I would have loved to have been able to stay in my own country, it just was not possible with enough human and professional dignity. The political system and the system of values are such that education and research are not valued; of most value is a quick buck. People rising are the not quality people...
The second thought point is what I have been seeing in the USA: increasing disregard for science and education. It's not a good trend. I don't know when or if educated Americans will drain into other powerful economies at any significant rate, but what is certain is that countries that have been traditionally supplying a lot of smart people to the US, like China and India, are becoming ever more desirable. Students are returning home to these countries and no longer feeling compelled to stay in the USA. A number of my Indian and Chinese faculty colleagues say that, if present-day opportunities in their home countries had existed when they were starting grad school, they likely would have never left.
I wish my country would take a cue from India and China and do something tangible to keep its educated and driven youth from leaving. But I am not holding my breath, as I know my country and have little faith that the necessary changes in the system of values would change in my lifetime.
But I wish the USA, which I love dearly as the country I have chosen and which has accepted me in return, would stop being so careless about its scientists and engineers -- whether they are imported or homegrown. I have seen this trend of the marginalization of science play out dramatically before and it is not good. The ever shrinking funds for research and education in the USA are hurting everyone's morale, and excellent science does not live without funds or morale. Again, I don't know when or if American scientists may start leaving for better prospects elsewhere; but I am afraid that the USA is no longer universally perceived as the most exciting place in the world to do cutting edge research, and that deters the best international people... The USA may not directly start suffering from brain drain in the next few decades, but the results of vanishing brain influx, and the fact those smart people are now working elsewhere, will become ever more visible.
We could discuss what it will do to the balance of powers in the world, but let's not go into global politics: it's ugly and beyond our sphere of influence. It will mean that some of the best science in the world may forever move away from the second country that I love, and that makes me sad all over again, in a way not unlike the sadness I first started feeling when I realized, some years ago, that my country of birth was hopelessly on a track to self-destruction...
There have been a lot of problems with posting comments yesterday and today (July 5 and 6). I will try to rescue all comments when Blogger stops being temperamental.