By Ekaterina Taneva (edited by Tessa Barrett and Gayathri Raghupathy)
Background: The United States used to be a welcoming country for foreign nationals, fostering growth, encouraging competition, and seeking to retain US-trained scientists. Post-graduation, most foreign scholars were able to acquire work experience at top American companies and even obtain permanent citizenship. All international students I met as a freshman in a US college were hired in high-level positions prior to graduation and transitioned smoothly into the American working force. What is the current landscape for foreign scientists in the US? America still imports much of its scientific talent from abroad, with foreigners representing over 50% of STEM graduates (college.usatoday.com). However, the outflux of foreign scientists post-graduation has increased dramatically and is often referred to as the “brain drain” phenomenon. David Heenan, author of “Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America’s Best and Brightest”, estimates that as many as “1,000 skilled legal science non-US professionals make “U-turns” daily and join other developed economies”. A survey conducted using LinkedIn revealed that the US is no longer the #1 destination of choice for foreign scientists. A comprehensive article by Vivek Vadhwa (Senior Research Associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School) elaborates on the reasons for the “talent outflow”: restrictive visa policies tightly linked to anxiety due to constant deadlines and the fear of being “out-of-status”. The reasons for the “exodus” are clear; however, the economic ramifications associated with the outflux of US-educated scientists and innovators is murky.
Hypothesis: The outflow of skilled, non-US science professionals, whose education has been an enormous financial undertaking, will have a significant, long-term impact on the American economic, scientific and technological dynamism. The exodus phenomenon will shift the balance of intellectual power to a “net loss” of skilled US-trained STEM immigrants and will accelerate unethical behavior (e.g. seeking loop holes in the immigration system).
Rationales: The “brain drain” phenomenon is occurring at a time when the US economy needs external help more than ever. According to a recent LinkedIn talent blog, the United States was a “net loser of talent” in 2014. Foreign STEM professionals are “flocking” to other countries, such as Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Singapore, and Germany, which have enacted a more tolerant “open-door” policy for educated and skilled scientists.
Methods: A survey was conducted amongst my network of international scientists at INet NYC and LinkedIn with regards to the overall cost of their American science education and the financial resources that made it possible for them to acquire their unique skill set. I very well understand that adding a “price tag” to a degree is considered, to say the least, a superficial or uncomfortable concept, considering that education is commonly perceived a priceless endeavor. Nonetheless, it as an investment, which is two-sided: the foreign student invests a tremendous amount of discipline and endures separation from the nest; the US system, on the other hand, invests a considerable amount of effort and financial resources in recruitment and facilitation of the student’s transition into one of the most advanced and challenging professional pathways.
Results: Based on a small sample size survey (n=6), which is by no means powered to provide any “statistically significant” form of analysis, the US invests, on average, half a million dollars per student in the form of tuition reimbursement, scholarships, fellowships, travel awards, and conference trips and registration fees. For internationals, who start their scientific development in the US as an undergraduate students, this number can be close to $ 1 million! A million dollars to mold a foreign national straight out of a foreign high school into a uniquely specialized scientific powerhouse that is less and less likely to be retained in the US for a multitude of reasons. You may be wondering why the investment is so high if most PhD programs “waive” their tuition fees (which amount to approximately $50,000 per year for most institutions, particularly in the NYC area). Well, they do not actually waive it. It is usually covered by an external source, such as the National Institutes of Health, private sponsors, donations, scientific foundations, and/or PIs grant money: an immense amount of resources invested in the noble concept of nurturing intellectual enrichment, diversity, and dynamism within the American higher education system.
Discussion: Based on the results of my survey, every international scientist is an upfront investment, a “walking human capital”, which theoretically, should be retained in order to “give back”. The idea of investing money to make money is not foreign, even when it comes to education. And yes, US science institutions accept international scholars for the noble reasons of enhancing diversity, rankings, and ultimately providing a stepping stone for young professionals. Yet, in a time when the US is facing budget cuts and economic recession, policy makers may have to consider whether such investments provide sustainable revenue for their own country’s economic advancement. If education is truly the key to American competitiveness and economic success, then the current goal should be not to restrict access to jobs but to make sure that the continued financial investment in highly skilled, US-trained scientists is retained. Most of my fellow American scientists, whom I have spoken with regarding this issue, understand the importance of investing in education and ensuring that all students, both local and international, reach their highest potential. They all indicated that educational funding needs to be not only sufficient but also ensuring of “returns on investment” after spending. Instead, the proposed bills aim to curtail work offers to foreign nationals and to further limit possibilities of switching jobs. The lengthy and anxiety-producing waiting periods associated with obtaining working permits and the funny, and yet undeniably degrading hint to “speed-date” an American in your last year of grad school, push a lot of foreign students to contribute their intellectual capital to economies abroad.
Conclusions: In summary, the exit of ambitious and highly educated STEM professionals, who could have created jobs, filed patents, and established companies and startups represents a loss of intellectual manpower that can now be applied outside of the US. After presenting to you an excruciatingly long, vague and scientifically weak introduction to a vast topic that is beyond the scope and limits of any scientific dissertation, I will commit the mistake of posing my main question at the end, rather than at the beginning of my abstract: What is the benefit of educating, training, and investing in a foreign national if you plan to have them leave and apply their US- acquired skills in a competing economy? And last but not least, why is the chance of “Tinderella marriage” statistically more likely to come to fruition than winning the H1B lottery?
Conflicts of interest: As all of you may have already guessed, I am an international student. Therefore, my opinion is extremely biased.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank INet NYC for the wonderful opportunity to write about whatever I want in any format I find suitable.