Until recently, the United States has lured away the brightest students and researchers from other countries. This "brain drain" crippled third world countries and developing countries in Asia that lost this talent. This brain drain gave U.S. science a foreign accent, especially in the areas of engineering, physics, medicine, chemistry and molecular biology. But this has reversed this last decade. Now the United States is losing American-trained scientists, engineers and researchers to other countries.
The causes appear two-fold: continued decline in U.S. science education and a dramatic increase in foreign students returning to home countries that now offer better opportunities.
The shortcomings of U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education are accelerating. We continue to cripple American students by not adopting the metric system. U.S. education reforms continue to promote "less science, not more" with an anemic science curriculum teaching less than half the science of other developed countries. Many veteran science teachers have left the classroom. And few in the next generation of college students have chosen to teach science. Much is due to the last decade of oppressive teach-to-the-test reforms.
According to the Lumina Foundation, the U.S. will be 22 million college degrees short by the year 2025, with the most critical shortage being in STEM.
Until recently, "imported" foreign scientists and students made up the shortfall of internal production. But in 2010, for the first time, the 65,000 H1N1 visas released each year in April for foreign researchers to fill industrial and university vacancies were not grabbed up.
Now, data for 2010 show that foreign students attending U.S. universities are choosing to return to their home countries after graduation, and in massive numbers likely to cause near-term shortages in physics, engineering and other critical fields.
Peggy Blumenthal, co-author of the report "Higher Education on the Move" by the Institute of International Education states: "When I started in this field 25 years ago, you pretty much assumed 91% of Taiwanese would stay; now 91% have returned."
Developing countries are now generally in better financial condition than the U.S. and have established the science infrastructure. Taiwan has built science industrial parks. Their equipment and expertise is no longer inferior to the U.S. And they offer more financial stability and opportunity for advancement."
A Rutgers University study released in March found only eight percent of foreign graduate students in the U.S. preferred to remain in the U.S. after graduation!
South Korea and China in particular are seeing a massive increase in returnees.
Tony Chan, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, states that "Asian countries are pumping more money into education." Meanwhile, University World News reports that "...80 percent of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 54 percent at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and 72% of chief scientists...are graduates who decided to return home after studying abroad." China has hired away Nobel Laureate Luc Montagne, discoverer of the AIDS virus from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. And "...three out of four university vice-chancellors in Singapore are from Europe or the U.S."
A few, but only a few U.S. Legislators are aware of the accelerating brain drain and considering measures to alter immigration policies making it easier for skilled researchers to come to the U.S. A call to issue a green card—the first step toward U.S. citizenship—to every foreign student who graduates from a U.S. university in science has gained little traction.
Despite massive building of university capacity in China, their overflow of Chinese students has kept the number of international students in U.S. increasing, although numbers from other countries in decline.
Foreign students are becoming a major way to subsidize U.S. student tuition at public universities for now and in many fields are the backbone of our science programs. But new figures showing that most foreign students will go back home to better jobs suggests this reverse brain drain is already eroding U.S. capacity in the sciences.