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The Great American Brain Drain of Scientists

Trends like this are hard to get started, but they’re even harder to reverse

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By Craig Axford | United States

Elections have consequences. So do significant cuts in funding for higher education and cultural attitudes toward expertise that tend to vary from indifferent to downright hostile. America has begun to pay a price for its anti-intellectualism, and that price looks poised to only steadily increase into the future.

In response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s Make The Our Planet Great Again initiative. No doubt many Trump supporters chuckled at France’s invitation to American scientists to come to France to conduct their research. Though Macron’s initiative may have been relatively small as government programs go, it wasn’t purely symbolic.

By December 2017, France had recruited its first 18 scientists. Of those 18, 13 were coming from the United States. In May of this year, France announced it had lured six more US scientists to join the others. Trump’s tempestuous behavior during and following the G7 Summit in Quebec only serves as further evidence things in the US aren’t likely to improve soon, adding fuel to the fire for those already contemplating departing the country.

France isn’t the only country beginning to benefit from American scientific talent feeling unwelcome in the United States. Of 150 research chair positions funded by the Canadian government to mark the 150th anniversary of confederation, 14 are leaving institutions in the United States. According to the Globe and Mail’s story on the new research chair recruits, “The haul of prominent scientists attracted to the new chairs suggests that a predicted brain gain for Canada owing to reactionary politics in the United States and elsewhere is having an impact and that scientists are indeed voting with their feet.”

There are signs that international students too are joining the stampede. President Trump has hardly been signaling foreigners are welcome in the United States. As a result, many students that had US universities on their short list appear to be crossing those schools out. High tuition no doubt depresses international student enrolment to some extent, but Trump’s election appears to have been the decisive factor in 2017’s dramatic decline.

Forbes Magazine, citing a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, reported in March that international student enrolment in US universities dropped by 4% between 2016 and 2017. At the graduate level that drop was 6%. Compare that to the dramatic jump experienced in Canada during the same period. The autumn 2017 start of the school year saw 10.7% more international students attending Canadian universities than in the previous year. In British Columbia, the increase was 15.6%.

None of this should come as a surprise. The administration rarely misses an opportunity to signal its hostility toward immigrants and foreign visitors to the United States. When it comes to science the hostility is just as real even if the rhetoric isn’t usually as heated.

The New York Times recently reported that “Mr. Trump is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser.” The president has eschewed any detailed scientific or technical briefings that could prepare him for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, opting instead to follow his gut. Meanwhile, “Both the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have disbanded climate science advisory committees,” while “The Food and Drug Administration disbanded its Food Advisory Committee, which provided guidance on food safety.”

The consequences of all of this for American scientific leadership and innovation will take a while to become obvious, though probably not more than five to ten years. International students pay much higher tuition, subsidizing American students who are already burdened with the highest university fees in the developed world. As a result, American students will be among the first to feel the impact of declining international enrollment.

As the EPA, FDA and other agencies continue advancing policies with little to no scientific input and funding for scientific research begins to take a hit, government employees engaged in scientific endeavors will likely follow very shortly. Meanwhile, we can expect the EU, Canada, China, India, and others to actively seek to lure back citizens that came to the US to do scientific work and, as is already the case with France and Canada, to recruit Americans interested in leaving their home country for more fertile scientific soil elsewhere.

Trends don’t appear out of nowhere. They build gradually. They are typically imperceptible at first. American policymakers have either been too busy pushing uninformed and fiscally irresponsible ideological goals such as deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy, or too occupied responding to the latest ethical and rhetorical brush fires ignited by the president to realize that America is losing its appeal to the world’s best and brightest. Global talent used to see America’s universities as among the best educational opportunities the world had to offer. Many of them used to want to stay to work in Silicon Valley or other centers of research and development. That’s beginning to change, and it doesn’t look very likely anyone is going to notice until it’s too late to easily restore the country’s reputation.

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