U.S. Is Losing the Global Talent Race

By Bruce Stokes

Beleaguered by growing competition from goods made in China and services produced in India, the United States now has a new worry: the global competition for talent. Americans have long assumed that the world's best and brightest naturally want to come to the US to study and to work. But today, just when the US needs the best talent to reignite its industrial engine, all that is changing.

In a global economy, predicted Robert Hamilton a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, in remarks at the Brookings Institution last February, "the best and brightest of the world's science and engineering students from emerging-market nations like China, India, Russia and Turkey will become an increasingly prized human resource, to be recruited and competed over by developed nations with lower birth rates and decreasing pools of talented young people."

If the United States is to continue to attract and keep the smartest, most innovative scientists and engineers, it must change its outmoded immigration policies and curb a rising antipathy toward immigrants. The future health of the US economy may be at stake.

America's dilemma is both an opportunity and a challenge for China, India, South Korea and other emerging market economies. Their students now predominate in advanced science and engineering education in the United States. Experience suggests they will choose to return home in increasing numbers if the standard of living continues to improve in their native lands, enhancing the competitiveness of their national economies. But Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are already offering these foreign-born scientists and engineers new enticements to stay in the West. And many in the US business community, particularly the computer and IT industries, are clamoring for the Obama administration to do the same.

A new race to the top has begun. The country with the most brains will win. And that is no longer necessarily the United States.

For many, America is still the promised land. Two decades ago 27 percent of the PhDs in science and engineering awarded by US institutions of higher learning were earned by foreign students. By 2009, that proportion had grown to 37 percent. In 2009, for the first time, more students on temporary visas got US engineering doctorates than did native-born students. That year, among all recipients of a doctorate in science or engineering, 4,100 came from China, 2,263 from India and 1,525 from South Korea. Those three nations alone accounted for over half of the total number of such PhDs awarded to foreigners in 2009. As a result, more than a third of the current US science and engineering workforce that has a doctorate was born outside the United States.

These highly-skilled immigrants make huge contributions to the US economy. Intel was founded by a Hungarian immigrant. Google was co-founded by a Russian émigré.

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Bruce Stokes is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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