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ddn readers explain the ‘brain drain’
March 2011
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author

Last month, after President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address touched on some of the challenges facing professional education and training in the United States, I posed these questions to readers: Why do students from foreign countries choose to advance their education on American soil, only to take their expertise and training abroad later? What can America do to keep those we educate here, where they can contribute meaningfully to our economy and innovation?  
Judging from the many thoughtful reader responses I received, which also requested that I withhold names to protect reputations and prevent employer retaliation, the column struck a nerve. The topic of the "brain drain" seems to be a complex and controversial one, but many of our readers were kind enough to share their experiences and observations—as long as I kept them anonymous.
Interestingly, most readers who responded were as critical of the government's role in the phenomenon as the president was of our educational system.  
"It would help if the government reduced some of the negative influences it has on science," M.N. writes. "It funds a lot of good fundamental research, but then it creates a business environment that is too negative to start businesses and keep them in the U.S. I hope President Obama works on both aspects in the coming years—science funding, but also a better business climate. He has not sent good signals in the first couple of years."
"A.G.," who works for a research lab and pharma technology developer, is equally critical of the government's contribution to the brain drain. Every level of government, she argues, "burdens businesses with laws designed to 'protect' everyone but the business itself. Who would want to start up a business when you have to deal with healthcare reform, labor laws, environmental regulation, etc.? The foreign students can return to their native countries and find jobs in American companies relocated there to more freely run their operation."  
But A.G. sees a larger, more worrisome problem: "Young people graduating from high school have little ambition or motivation for their future," she writes. "Most of the students in high school today have no real interest in a career and often live at home—far beyond what earlier generations did. They don't move out, become educated or learn a trade and live independently. This is probably due primarily to our politicians preaching about entitlements, so people have no motivation to be self-sufficient, like extending unemployment for 99 weeks. Why work when the government can take care of you?"
"R.P." is one of the students about which I inquired. She came to the United States for her post-doctorate degree, she writes, "for one single reason: to be able to get a research position back home ASAP." But then R.P. fell in love with an American, and the couple thought the United States "would offer more possibilities for a two-body problem."
"Wrong assumption," R.P. writes. "Now we are considering other countries, as it does not make any sense to try to stay in a country where research seems to be falling to pieces." She cites "pharma companies laying off thousands of researchers" as well as "research funding decreasing and becoming more and more conservative—excellent idea: We'll fund you after the idea is done, which we will call preliminary data."  
Another reader, "B.D," opines that foreign graduate students are under tremendous pressure to "take their degree and leave."
"The pressures that push foreign students to leave are rising salaries and opportunities overseas, decreasing/stagnant salaries and opportunities in the United States and increased difficulty in getting a visa to remain here," he writes.  
But B.D. doesn't buy into the argument that the cause of "brain drain" is not a lack of educational talent or opportunities. He attributes the phenomenon to current business practices in the pharma and biotech industries.  
"Many companies are saying that they can't hire 'qualified' workers in the United States, but they are simultaneously laying off significant portions of their U.S.-based staff," B.D. writes. "That should raise a red flag to their qualified worker argument. I believe they are using it as a justification to investors, customers and U.S. labor authorities to hire additional workers overseas. Positions are rarely moved directly overseas. Jobs cut at one site (usually in the U.S.) are added in another (usually overseas). Educational trends follow job opportunities and salaries, not the other way around."  
Finally, "A.B.," who works for a top 10 pharma, isn't quite as cynical about the brain drain. In fact, in his view, "the best outcome from a global perspective for foreign students is that they return to their communities and use what they have learned in the United States to promote economic development, respect for democracy and human rights.
"The U.S. would eventually reap the rewards of a more stable global political environment and better trading partners," A.B. argues.  
For more reader feedback, and to weigh in with feedback of your own, visit our blog at, where we will continue this interesting discussion. 



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