Viewpoint: Washington should compete for scientific talent, not drive it away

19 Oct 2021 | Viewpoint

In the global competition to attract smart people, the US has been resting on its laurels for too long. Time to wake up

Al Teich is Research Professor at George Washington University’s Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, and former director of Science & Policy Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

For nearly a century, the destination of choice for many of the world’s best scientists has been the US and its great universities and companies. Now, through a combination of hubris and error, the US risks losing that valuable advantage. Immediate action is needed to avoid that fate.

Since before the wartime Manhattan Project, US science and technology, and the American economy, have benefitted enormously from the influx of foreign talent. More than half of major US high tech firms, for instance, were founded or are headed by immigrants or children of immigrants, among them Google, Intel, Tesla, Yahoo, Apple, and Amazon. A third of recent American Nobel laureates were either foreign-born US citizens or non-citizens working in US laboratories. But, as Harvard Business School professor William Kerr observes in The Gift of Global Talent, "the US has often taken its special position for granted and has done little recently to make itself more attractive." As Kerr continues, "This contrasts sharply with the efforts countries are taking to become more competitive for talent."

American policymakers need to recognise and take account of the fact that they are part of this global competition. As political leaders around the world have increasingly recognised the value of scientific talent, competition for that talent has intensified. Rather than just lamenting their “brain drain,” many nations have established dedicated programmes that include such measures as expedited visas, generous research funding packages, major salary increases and other forms of support – to attract the best brains to their shores.

In addition to instituting an “Express Entry” visa program for talented immigrants, Canada in 2017 established a programme of “Canada 150 Research Chairs” which provides grants to Canadian universities “to attract top-tier, internationally based scholars and researchers to Canada.” Trolling former President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, President Emmanuel Macron of France created a programme of grants to attract top environmental researchers to France called “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Thirteen of the first 18 recipients were established US researchers. The UK, Germany, Korea, and Japan have also created programmes to attract foreign scientists.

On the whole, these are signs of healthy competition among friendly nations. However, there are exceptions. In the case of China and some other nations, the competition for scientific talent is taking place in an increasingly adversarial and sensitive security relationship. Probably the best known - and most notorious - example is China's "Thousand Talents Plan," which was created in 2008 to "harvest" (i.e., recruit) leading international scientists, engineers, and technical entrepreneurs from the US. The programme has attracted enough Americans, including Chinese-Americans, visiting scholars, Chinese expatriates and others, to draw scrutiny from US officials and Congressional committees. In response to what are seen as “malign” talent recruitment programmes from Iran, Russia, and North Korea, as well as China, the US Congress is considering banning federal grantees from participating in such programmes.

One approach, which has passed the Senate, would go further, raising concerns among scientists about damage to international exchange and cooperation. A provision of the US Innovation and Competition Act, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, would create a “Federal Research Security Council” within the Office of Management and Budget that would be responsible for developing a uniform grant application process requiring scientists seeking federal funding to disclose any affiliations (including support) from any foreign governments, universities, or laboratories – not just those from hostile nations.

There are good reasons to focus on security in scientific relations with what the legislation calls “countries of concern.” But as Bindu Nair, director of basic research at the Defense Department, pointed out recently, it is at least as important for Washington to think about “being more proactive in its own efforts to attract talent from abroad.” Not only have we taken the attractiveness of this country for granted, but our immigration system often actively discourages potential international students, as well as immigrant and visiting scientists.

If the US is to maintain its position as a global leader in science and technology, its policymakers must heed Nair’s words. They need to make sure that any new laws and regulations intended to maintain security in American science do not create additional barriers beyond those already faced by legitimate immigrants and visitors.

Preventing damage from new policies will not be enough, however. The existing US visa and immigration systems have failed to keep pace with the globalisation of science and technology. They must be modernised with an eye towards simplification and streamlining. The Trump Administration’s efforts to cut back legal immigration made things worse. For example, it sought to narrow eligibility for H1-B visas that are an important source of technical talent.  While they are not without problems, H-1Bs provide a mechanism for graduating international students to remain in the US and transition to jobs in the tech sector. Legislation supported by the Biden Administration would undo Trump’s policy and exempt foreign national doctorate recipients from limits on these visas and the number of green cards.

Apart from rules and regulations there are the administrative problems caused by budget cuts and political disputes that have left the State Department – including the US consulates that issue visas – understaffed and afflicted with low morale and the loss of expertise. Many of these problems were created by the Trump Administration’s efforts to sabotage our diplomatic apparatus; others predate it. They need to be addressed if the US is going to compete effectively in the global contest for talent. We should be encouraging and welcoming international talent, not driving it away.

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