10 October 2011
The term “brain drain” refers, of course, to the long-standing demographic trend in which the best students from developing countries come to the United States for their higher education, and then stay here to pursue their careers instead of returning home. In this way, the United States “drains” many of the most talented people in the world away from their countries of origin.
The “reverse brain drain” is a more recent trend in which the sorts of students who used to stay here after obtaining an advanced degree in the U.S. are now deciding in many cases to return home instead.
As a topic of public discussion, the reverse brain drain has been in the air for some time (see this two-year-old report on National Public Radio). However, it has rcently begun to assume a higher degree of urgency and visibility (see this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education this past March and this one from InsideHigherEd.com last week).
Therefore, the time seems ripe for Americans to accord this complex and important demographic shift some sustained reflection.
The first thing we need to ask ourselves is whether the reverse brain drain is a good thing or a bad thing. But this question immediately invites the rejoinder: Good or bad for whom?
For India, for China, for Nigeria, and for the many other developing countries that have begun to see more of their best-educated youth return home to pursue their careers, it is obviously a good thing, not a bad one. Indeed, our “reverse brain drain” is their “brain gain,” as the phenomenon has come to be called in India (see this article from 2008 in Britain’s Guardian).
Now, there are two perspectives on this new trend that need to be considered, even apart from the viewpoint of any particular developing country that is benefiting from it.
The first perspective looks to the long-term good of humanity as a whole. Every human being—hence every American—has an interest in the welfare of mankind as such. Why? Because I am my brother’s keeper. Because nothing human is alien to me. Because no man is an island. Because, in short, there is a consensus of prophets and poets from Genesis to Terence to Donne and beyond that what is good for my fellow human beings is good for me, too, in the moral sense, if not in the practical one. From this point of view, as well, the reverse brain drain is surely a good thing.
Still, before I can lend a hand to someone else, I must first stand on my own two feet. This principle—that charity begins at home—has an even more imperious claim on our moral reckoning than the other. To neglect it is to resemble Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House, who spends all her time and energy working for the putative good of children in Africa, while her own children go unwashed, run about in rags, and starve.
However, even on the assumption that every nation is within its rights to formulate its public policy mainly with its own best interests in mind, still an economic argument may be made that the reverse brain drain is a good thing for the United States, not merely from a moral point of view, but also from a practical one.
How would such an argument go? Very simply: Economic development in the rest of the world is good for the U.S. because a wealthier India, a wealthier China, and a wealthier Nigeria will be in a better position to buy goods and services from us. Our export sector can only benefit from the rapid expansion of middle-class, consumer societies around the world that we are witnessing today, thanks at least in part to the reverse brain drain. Therefore, the reverse brain drain is a good thing for the United States for pragmatic reasons, as well.
However, these two perspectives take a decidedly long-term view of things. Sizing up the matter from a more immediate, short-term point of view, the reverse brain drain does not look like such a good thing at all, at least for the United States. The short-term economic difficulties the trend creates for us are twofold.
In the first place, by helping to boost the level of expertise available within developing societies, the reverse brain drain exacerbates our lack of competitiveness in such areas as high-tech manufacturing (from consumer electronics to computer chips to pharmaceuticals) and sophisticated service industries (from finance to engineering to computer programming). Of course, it was the growing comparative advantage of third-world countries in these sectors that opened up promising careers back home for U.S.–trained foreign graduates in the first place. So, the reverse brain drain must be regarded as a complex, self-reinforcing process (a “positive feedback loop”). Viewed from this angle, it looks like a disaster for the American economy, at least in the short term.
In the second place, here at home, the U.S. economy has long benefited enormously from the energy, the drive, and the discipline of its immigrant population. Thus, the reverse brain drain not only harms us indirectly by bolstering the comparative advantage of our overseas competitors, it also harms us directly, by removing from American society one of its most dynamic demographic components, thus sapping our economic strength.
This is especially true with respect to foreign students trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called “STEM” disciplines). There has been a huge imbalance for some time at the graduate level between native-born and foreign-born students in the STEM fields. For decades, American-born youngsters have been shying away from the hard work involved in mastering these subjects, with the result that they are now a diminishing minority in the best graduate programs around the country.
This creates a double-whammy for the U.S. economy. Not only do we lose the contribution of the foreign-born students due to the reverse brain drain, we also have no native-born students with the STEM skills necessary to take their place in an increasingly high-tech economy. This makes the reverse brain drain a daunting challenge to the future of American society.
The last couple of points touching on the domestic impact of the reverse brain drain here in the U.S. have been the focus of most of the public discussion up until now. And rightly so, as they are the only aspects of this complicated matter over which America can hope to exert any real influence. There are two aspects of the problem that are relevant to current public-policy debates.
The first is immigration. Current immigration rules sharply restrict the number of green cards available to even the most highly trained graduates from countries like India and China. This means that a portion of the reverse brain drain is being driven not just by the magnetic pull of jobs back home, but by a positive push from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This is insane and must change.
The other aspect of the problem that requires a thorough public airing is education. Why is it that American-born young people no longer have the stomach to pursue higher degrees in the vital STEM fields? This is a difficult question that links directly with the much-contested issue of education reform. But without unduly simplifying what is surely a multifacted problem, we may safely make the following observations.
Probably, the United States will not be able to reverse the reverse brain drain through immigration reform alone. As the rest of the world continues to develop economically and socially, foreign students who come to our shores for their higher education will continue to return home in ever greater numbers. Which is perfectly understandable. After all, everyone feels most at home in his own homeland.
Therefore, if we are to reverse our accelerating national decline, we must somehow encourage our own population to take up the slack in the STEM disciplines. I do not pretend to know what it will take to do this—or whether it is even possible at this late date. But one thing is clear.
We are on a dangerous course that could eventually lead to our ruin as a society. The trouble, at its root, is cultural and spiritual. Foreigners are now doing our hard studying for us in ever greater numbers, while too many American-born youngsters prefer a hedonistic lifestyle of getting blitzed, hooking up, and watching Jersey Shore.
Either twenty-first century America figures out how to reintroduce its young people to the traditional values of striving, delayed gratification, and devotion to the higher dimension of human existence, or else we may as well ask the last foreign student to turn out the lights in this country when the reverse brain drain has run its course.