Dealing with America’s Alarming "Reverse Brain Drain"

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Staff

“Forget terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The next global war will be fought over human capital.” That’s the first line of an insightful new book, Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America’s Best and Brightest (Davies-Black, 2005), by David Heenan, a leading expert on globalization. Heenan’s thesis is that although for centuries, many of the world’s most talented scientists and mathematicians regarded the United States as the promised land, now the tide has turned. America’s foreign-born superstars—many of our best and brightest in science and technology—are deciding that there’s no place like home. And they are heading back to their home countries at the alarming rate of up to 1,000 per day.

For more than five years, Heenan crisscrossed the globe, traveling to eight countries on three continents—Ireland, Iceland, Israel, India, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Mexico—to study what he calls America’s “reverse brain drain.” If the exodus continues, Heenan warns, America’s technological and scientific preeminence and its economic strength will be in jeopardy.

For example, more than 5,000 seasoned, tech-savvy professionals have repatriated to India from the U.S. in the last two years alone. What’s luring them back? For the most part, it’s what attracted foreign investors to the nation when it began to liberalize in the 1980s—a huge potential market in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, coupled with vastly improved living standards.

Ireland is on a mission to bring its brainpower back home with a massive development plan costing some $2 billion. According to one of its initiatives, Enterprise Ireland, more than 75% of its targets—some of America’s most distinguished life scientists and researchers—report that they want to return home within five years.

So America has two choices—either cultivate its homegrown talent or staunch the exodus of repatriates. Heenan urges immediate action on both options, offering the following 12 strategies to reverse the American brain drain.

  1. Know thy competition. Every American leader should visit China, India or any of a number of other nations to see the economic supernovas rising in once-isolated locales.
  2. Adapt—or die. Dynamic, competitive economies such as America’s are always evolving, with the greatest rewards going to those who have the most advanced skills and thus can create higher-value products and services. A flexible, open economy and a commitment to innovation are critical to America’s success.
  3. Spur immigration reform. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has struggled to find the right balance between openness and caution. The influx of scientists, engineers and academics is dropping off precipitously. The government should expedite the visa and security clearance process by hiring more bilingual consular officers and facilitating long-term entry privileges for anyone not deemed a security risk.
  4. Dust off the welcome mat. U.S. leaders in business, government and academia need to consider ways to make it attractive for foreigners to stay.
  5. Target the best minds. More than 70% of annual visas go to family reunification, while only 20% are given to professionals and skilled workers. We must aggressively attract foreign students at the university and postgraduate levels by making visas and financial aid easier to obtain.
  6. Encourage dual loyalties. Our leaders should develop special incentives, from dual citizenship to adjunct professorships, to forge alliances with those departed migrants who want to straddle two worlds.
  7. Reform public education. Despite pouring billions of tax dollars into K-12 education, our achievement continues to lag. In the years ahead, the United States must create a public education system whose students can compete with those in India, China and other nations.
  8. Nourish the halls of ivy. The United States must reverse its long decline in academic spending. Although eight of the world’s top ten universities are American, there is no guarantee that the U.S. university system will remain the world’s best, especially under current cost-cutting pressures.
  9. Celebrate science and technology. In other words, “nurture the nerds.” Many of America’s smartest students have lost their enthusiasm for science and engineering, the underpinnings of innovation. Post 9/11, government support for research and development has wavered, with the majority of funding going to defense and health.
  10. Expand the workforce. An aging population, along with a lower birth rate, are contributing to manpower and skills shortages. One solution is to defer retirement.
  11. Reconsider national service. The U.S. could introduce a system of national service to reinvigorate the communitarian values and institutions needed to survive future decades. Requirements would include active and reserve duty, with a wide range of assignments in military nonmilitary areas.
  12. Act now. The spread of democratic capitalism has created opportunities abroad. One of leadership’s most important challenges is to safeguard the country’s most important resource—its talent.

“The mounting loss of exceptional minds can no longer be dismissed,” concludes Heenan. “U.S. brainpower, once thought to be untouchable, is very much up for grabs.” His book is intended as a wake up call to leaders in American government and industry to act now to ensure the country’s future status within a rapidly changing world.

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