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Keeping the best brains in the country is critical if America wants to stay on top
» The following is excerpted with permission from David Heenan's new book "Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America's Best and Brightest," issued this month by Davies-Black Publishing.
Forget terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The next global war will be fought over human capital. For years, immigrants provided a pipeline of brainpower to the United States. From Alfred Hitchcock to Albert Einstein, a steady stream of energetic and highly skilled newcomers yearning to breathe free propelled America's ascendancy.
Today, the country continues to benefit enormously from being a magnet for inventive and ambitious people who stimulate the economy, create wealth and improve overall living standards.
Chinese and Indian immigrants run nearly a quarter of Silicon Valley's high-tech firms. Half of the Americans who shared Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the past seven years were born elsewhere. Nearly 40 percent of MIT graduate students are from abroad. More than half of all Ph.D.s working here are foreign-born, as are 45 percent of physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians. One-third of all current physics teachers and one-fourth of all women doctors immigrated to this country.
However, the United States can no longer live off its transplanted foreigners. Beginning in the 1990s, a giant sucking sound could be heard as these immigrants' native countries improved economically and politically. In a world economy that places an increasing premium on knowledge, many of America's best and brightest began hotfooting it home in search of another promised land. ...
After centuries of importing brainpower, the United States is now a net exporter. Global mobility, once a cause of celebration, has become a nuisance. In each of the past few years, nearly 200,000 foreign-born Americans ... have, on average, returned to their motherland. This reverse brain drain, or "flight capital," stimulated in part by lucrative government incentives, has spawned flourishing new scientific havens from South Asia to Scandinavia. ...
Given the departure (of these individuals), it was perhaps inevitable that the land of opportunity would turn its back on newcomers. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more and more Americans have sought to pull up the drawbridge.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has issued fewer temporary H-1B guest-worker and student visas and applied much stiffer requirements for newcomers. The number of foreigners with exceptional skills or advanced degrees allowed into the country dropped 65 percent in 2003. Fanning the fire, Patrick Buchanan, Richard Lamm and Michelle Malkin wrote best-sellers advocating highly restrictive immigration policies.
Anti-immigration policies could not have come at a worse time. Survey after survey reveals that the United States faces a massive labor shortage, particularly for knowledge-oriented workers. But while many countries are putting out the welcome mat to gifted outsiders, the United States is doing just the opposite. On its present course, our nation of immigrants could become a nation of emigrants. ...
Clearly, the United States must hang on to its best minds, while continue to serve as a beacon to highly skilled immigrants. But how? ...
Here are a dozen strategies for winning the talent war:
» Know thy competition.
Every American leader should buy a plane ticket to China, India or any number of other nations to see firsthand the economic supernovas rising in once-isolated locales.
» Adapt -- or die.
The key is to focus on new jobs -- in new industries. As knowledge workers search for the Next Best Thing, the United States must continue to woo the best and the brightest from around the world.
» Spur immigration reform.
The government should expedite the visa and security-clearance process by hiring more bilingual consular officers and facilitating multiple-entry, long-term privileges for anyone not deemed a security risk. Also a more targeted immigration policy that increases the number of H-1B visas and provides more entry slots to skilled workers and professionals would attract the kind of brainpower America needs.
» Dust off the welcome mat.
First impressions count. The United States should provide hospitality training to its immigration and customs personnel. ... Not every newcomer is a potential Mohammad Atta.
» Target the best minds.
"Send us your geeks" should be our national rallying cry. ... We must aggressively attract foreign students at the university and post-graduate levels by making visas and financial aid easier to obtain.
» Encourage dual loyalties.
Our leaders should develop special incentives -- from dual citizenship to adjunct professorships -- aimed at sharing these mobile superstars.
» Reform -- really reform -- education.
In the final analysis, simple solutions -- lengthening school days or years and demanding more homework -- may be the best medicine for the ills of public education. But these ridiculously straightforward suggestions require sacrifice by America's (spoiled) students. Changing adolescent and teenage behavior is never easy, particularly when it comes to hard work.
» Nourish the halls of ivy.
The United States must reverse its long decline in academic spending.
» Celebrate science and technology.
Government, for its part, must ... rationalize regulation, increase tax incentives, protect intellectual property and, most important, increase funding for basic and early-stage research. The government also should unshackle research in sensitive areas such as stem-cell research and defense-related activities.
» Expand the work force.
In a world of flight capital, immigration is not a panacea. ... The best way forward is to broaden work force participation among working-age people and to defer retirement.
» Reconsider national service.
At the very least, a program of effective conscription might give new meaning to "duty, honor and country" and reinvigorate the communitarian values and institutions needed to survive future decades.
» Act now.
In a world in which economic growth and competitiveness depend above all on human capital, policymakers cannot dillydally. Restocking our talent base could take years, even decades. ...
Squaring these recommendations with today's fiscal realities will surely test the country's will. However, long after the defeat of terrorism and the return of global harmony, the talent war will remain. ... In a world where creativity and innovation are central to growth and prosperity, keeping the best brains in the country, or encouraging them to come back, will be critical if the United States wants to stay on top.
David Heenan is a trustee of the Estate of James Campbell, one of the nation's largest landowners with assets valued at more than $2 billion. Formerly, he was chairman and chief executive of Theo. H. Davies & Co. Ltd., vice president of academic affairs at the University of Hawaii, and dean of the UH business school. "Flight Capital" is Heenan's sixth book.
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