Is the balance of scientific power shifting?

“Will the United States’ draconian response to the terrorist threat cause a fundamental shift in the international movement of researchers and perhaps even alter the global balance of scientific power?”

That’s the very thought provoking question asked in an article over at Are we discouraging the greatest scientific assets we potentially could have here from setting up shop in the United States? What does this do to our technological advantages vis-a-vis other advanced nations?

Considering that the United States is the world’s largest consumer of intellect, this has profound implications for our long term economic health.

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“There have been enormous problems,” says John Wright, who chairs the University of Wisconsin’s chemistry department. Most of the students and postdocs whose applications to enter the United States have been questioned have eventually been let in. But Wright frets that the new immigration rules will deter future applications, weakening his department, which is currently considered among the best in the world. “The quality of research will decrease,” he says.

People who were thinking about coming to the United States for graduate school are now thinking twice.

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s research labs. Strip away the legions of foreign PhD students, postdocs and tenure-track researchers, and the behemoth that is the US scientific enterprise would look much less impressive. What’s more, in recent years, other countries have realized the value of attracting the best of the world’s young researchers, and have started taking steps to compete more effectively in this marketplace. . .”

Consider this: Not only are we a “nation of immigrants,” but so many of our leading technology companies — especially in Silicon Valley — are led (CEO/CTO/COO) by transplants from India, China and Taiwan. This will become even more acute as ever our technological industries require greater specific scientific knowledge — Nanotechnology, Biotech, etc.

Our technological edge used to be a product of people Bachelor of Science Degrees — tech and telecom engineers with an odd masters degree here and there. But the next generation of scientific advancements will veery likely be coming from Ph.D. and M.D. holders; Its the old saw about specialization, and its more true than ever: Advances are coming from people “who know more and more about less less.”

“For some observers, these statistics are enough to set off alarm bells about the future health of US science. “We’re at a critical juncture now, and I think everybody senses it,” says Irving Lerch, director of international affairs with the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland. Although the likely consequences of the visa delays remain a matter of debate, their main cause is clear new security procedures introduced following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

There’s a perception that visas are too difficult to get and the United States is an unwelcome place – Victor Johnson

In the immediate aftermath of those events, the state department began expanding its ‘Technology Alert List’, designed to prevent dangerous technologies getting into the hands of terrorists or hostile states. It is now classified, but a version issued in August 2002 contained roughly 150 items, including such broad labels as ‘microbiology’, and common pieces of lab equipment such as low-energy lasers. So if you work on, say, infectious disease, or use relatively innocuous devices that have found their way onto the state department’s list, your application to enter the United States is likely to be referred to the FBI and other federal agencies for a security review.”

We are more than importers of oil and foreign made products; We are the world’s largest consumers of intellectual firepower. Strategically, if the 9/11 attacks succeed even in the smallest way in stemming the tide of brainpower travelling to the U.S., they will have managed to cause far more economic damage — over the long term — than the physical destruction they wrought on that terrible day in NYC.

How significant of a problem is this? To give you an idea of what happens when the scientific and research talent of a nation decide to go elsewhere, consider Germany post-WWI. As David Warsh so cogently explains:

“Before the war, German science was superlative. Planck, Nernst and other members of the scientific elite correctly intuited that enormous power, economic and military, awaited those who solved the mysteries of quantum mechanics and special relativity. And indeed, not just the atom bomb but radar, television, semiconductors and computers lay directly down the path that Einstein had discovered. German science generally and Einstein himself remained in place throughout the 1920s, amid the frustrations, humiliations and froth of the Weimar Republic. For a dozen years, it seemed to the best Germans as though things might get better.

Instead they got worse — disastrously worse. In late 1932 the Nazis finally won control of the government. Before Hitler became chancellor, Einstein and his wife slipped out of Berlin on their way to Caltech for a semester of teaching, never to return. The rest is tragic dénouement. Most of the most talented people in German science left, and leadership shifted to United States. The Einsteins moved to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; he spent the rest of his life on the sidelines.”

Imagine if the same situation existed in professional sports: Any player could travel to any team they wanted — regardless of existing contract. The best players would gravitate to the team with a combination of the best coaches, deepest bench, best stadiums, the smartest playbooks, and the highest salaries — in short, the team that offered best chance to win and the greatest possibility of personal advancement. That team would be an unstoppable powerhouse.

Now transpose that metaphor to Science: The country with the greatest possibility for professional advancement, highest quality scientific research, broadest personal political freedoms, and the strongest economic incentives will attract the best scientific minds in the world. That has been the situation in the United States for the past 100 years or so. But that is what’s at risk in the immediate future. It is, quite simply put, an extremely bad idea to put obstacles to the “brain supply chain” . . .

UPDATE: 1.18.04 10:23pm: Rob over at BusinessPundit notes that the Europeans are having a similar problem — only for very different reasons.

As one door closes…
Geoff Brumfiel (with David Cyranoski, Carina Dennis, Jim Giles, Hannah Hoag and Quirin Schiermeier)
Nature 427, 190 – 195 (15 January 2004)

The Color of the Flower
David Warsh, Editor, January 18, 2004

How To Plug Europe’s Brain Drain
Jeff Chu
TIME, January 19, 2004 | Vol. 163 No. 3,13155,901040119-574849,00.html

Labor Supply and the “Brain Drain”: Signs from Census 2000
Paul D. Gottlieb
The Brookings Institution, Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, January 2004

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. BusinessPundit commented on Jan 16

    The Economic Effects of a Shift in Scientific Power

    I have been thinking about this post from The Big Picture all day. I often write that I am not worried about the U.S. losing…

  2. david foster commented on Jan 17

    “Advances are coming from people ‘who know more and more about less less.’ ” I think this is highly questionable. The extremely specialized people tend to make incremental advances in existing technologies. Breakthrough advances tend to be made by people with broader knowledge, often at the intersection of disciplines. And advanced degrees often seem to create a mindset that deters people from questioning the generally-accepted wisdom in their fields.

  3. Unpersons commented on Jan 19

    Carnival Of The Capitalists

    It is my pleasure to present this week’s Carnival Of The Capitalists. The Carnival is now well-established and I am confident it needs no further introduction but I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate past hosts for their…

  4. Brian’s Education Blog commented on Jul 14

    Is counter-terrorism blunting the USA’s strategic edge?

    The man who paints The Big Picture notes the strange fact that the USA consumes, so to speak, so many

  5. bhaim commented on Oct 6

    The “shortage” of scientists is being hyped again.

    Here’s Daniel Greenberg in the Washington Post:

    What Scientist Shortage?

    By Daniel S. Greenberg
    Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page A23

    A scientist shortage? Again? The gloomy warnings are back. They’re underpinned by declines in science studies by U.S. students and a post-Sept. 11 falloff in the enrollment of foreigners, who have traditionally filled as many as half the graduate slots in U.S. universities and have taken jobs here after graduation. A crisis is in the making, says a report by a pillar of the scientific establishment, the National Science Board, which warns that the “trends threaten the economic welfare and security of our country.” While the United States is losing ground, it states, other nations are increasing their production of scientists. A Nobel laureate warns of “irreversible damage.” Overall, a grim picture — of questionable validity.

    Obscured by the alarmist rhetoric are the repeated false alarms, erroneous forecasts and gluts of unemployed scientists — rather than shortages — that have been the reality in the scientific marketplace for decades. In the mid-1980s, government forecasters warned that the “baby bust” portended a crippling “shortfall” of 675,000 scientists over the next 20 years. By 1990 the forecast was dropped down the memory hole as joblessness increased in scientific ranks.

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