Chilly climate freezes talent

April 23, 2004

US research bans and immigration controls may be reversing the brain drain. Stephen Phillips reports

Since the Royal Society coined the phrase in the 1950s, "brain drain" has customarily referred to an exodus of the best and brightest from the rest of the world to the US, usually for better pay.

But change may be afoot. US pundits have recently raised the spectre of a "reverse brain drain". The fear has been fuelled by the outsourcing of computer work to countries with lower labour costs, the threat of ideological restrictions on biomedical research and tough post-September 11 2001 visa restrictions.

The newspaper USA Today pondered in February whether there could be "a significant shift in the world's balance of brainpower" as a result. And Business Week magazine warned last month of a "worldwide technology race" developing as countries emulate "the US system of innovation" and as "brilliant researchers steer clear of the US".

Sweden's Karolinska Institute, borrowing from the US model, has tapped private benefactors and is working with institutions such as Cambridge University and Holland's Leiden University to form the League of European Research Universities to wield more clout. Meanwhile, India's Defense Research and Development Organisation (based on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has attracted a "reverse flow of top specialists into India in the past two years", its research and development chief, W.

Selvamurthy, said last month. "About ten people have been joining from the US each year, and the trend is growing," he added.

The first rumblings of a reverse brain drain in academia came with the defection of leading US stem-cell researcher Roger Pedersen from the University of California, San Francisco, to Cambridge University in 2001.

He explained that it came down to a choice between "very favourable circumstances and tremendous support (or) the prospect of sitting on my hands for the next few years".

Pedersen decamped amid escalating public funding restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research that had forced him out of his campus laboratory into off-site digs. President George W. Bush's subsequent ban on further public research into existing cell lines (deferring to Christian fundamentalist beliefs that harvesting the cells harmed nascent life) has proved "terribly hobbling" to US researchers, says bioethicist Ronald Green, director of Dartmouth College's Ethics Institute.

Meanwhile, the White House has also forbidden all forms of human cloning, including so-called therapeutic cloning used to create embryonic stem cells, overriding a warning from 40 Nobel laureates that the blanket ban would have "a chilling effect on all scientific research in the US". "The sword of Damocles is hanging over (researchers') heads," Green says. They are "looking overseas, frustrated with the menacing environment. People are talking about Singapore and other places."

Since Jamie Thomson of the University of Wisconsin pioneered embryonic stem-cell research in 1998, US efforts have been hindered by politics while other countries have forged ahead. South Korean researchers announced in February that they had successfully harvested stem cells from a cloned embryo, stealing a march on privately funded US teams that had been trying to achieve this since 2001.

In November, Singapore opened Biopolis, a $287 million (£160 million) government-funded biotechnology research hub that focuses on stem cells, and Britain, Israel and Sweden are also bankrolling advanced stem-cell initiatives.

"We have passed the baton to Sweden, the UK, Singapore, Israel and China," Green laments. "There is the most advanced technology out there, and we're giving it away as a country. The ability to reprogram cells is to the 21st century what silicon chips were to the mid 20th century. Biotech's Silicon Valleys are likely to occur in China, Singapore, Israel or Scotland (Edinburgh University's Roslin Institute), not Boston or northern California."

There is also concern about the shrinking international graduate student intake affecting all disciplines. A February poll of 250 US universities found that 47 per cent had seen a decline in overseas postgraduate applications for 2004-05. This is partly due to the crackdown on student visas post-September 11 2001. The number of visa applications flagged for review has risen from 1,000 in 2000 to more than 14,000 in 2002.

Proposals to add so-called student visa violators to the National Crime Information Center database also cause concern. "Would you study in another country if you knew you could end up in a criminal database (alongside) convicted sex offenders and violent gang members for the rest of your life for an innocent mistake of technical infraction? I can't think of a quicker way to halt educational exchange in its tracks," remarked Victor Johnson of the Association of International Educators in a recent speech.

Observers fear that students will either stay at home or apply to universities in other English-speaking countries. In his speech, Johnson foresaw a possible "unprecedented decline" in international enrolments to the US in 2004-05, adding: "We appear to be seeing the beginnings of a shift in the attitudes of people around the world towards studying in the US."

Meanwhile, students and scholars in fields deemed sensitive to US national security face more scrutiny and an average 67-day delay in obtaining visas, moves that have led to conferences being cancelled. The University of California, Los Angeles, recently replaced Pakistani surgeon Faiz Bhora after his re-entry to the US was held up for seven months after a trip home.

Writing in the Washington Monthly , Richard Florida, professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, called the change in policy towards international students worrying. "For the first time in our history, we're saying to highly mobile, finicky global talent: 'You don't belong here'." His research shows that Europe is increasingly viewed more favourably on issues that are valued by "talented individuals", such as diversity, tolerance and technological innovation.

David Keith, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, is returning to his native Canada to become professor of energy and the environment at Calgary University, one of 137 new government-endowed research chairs.

"There's double the level of immigration per capita, and Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It's a lot more open and friendly," he says, adding that career-wise it might have been better to stay in the US. "The US still has the pre-eminent university system on the planet. It has a long tradition of scientific input into policy that's better than the UK or Canada." And the US is still the place to go for better pay. For instance, the US National Institutes of Health's annual budget is $ billion (£15 billion), 40 times that of its UK counterpart, the Medical Research Council.

But some are worried by the prospect of four more years of Bush as president. Paul Tangney, an Irish postdoctoral nanotechnology research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, says: "If he's re-elected, I'd like to high-tail it out of here. It's not what he's doing to science, I don't like what he's doing around the world and don't want to contribute to it." He concedes that career considerations will probably preclude such a move.

Nonetheless, ambitious European institutions should reflect that the time may never be better to lure top staff, expatriate or homegrown, away from the US.

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