The Coming U.S. Brain Drain

Fedor Kossakovski: These are strange days for science. Ever since WWII, the U.S. has been a top destination for the world’s scientists and engineers, causing what’s called a “brain drain” in their home countries. But now, with science under siege in the U.S., it looks like we could be on the losing end for the first time. Today’s journal Science highlights the impact of migrating scientists, which we’ll get into a little later. But first, you have a personal story on this–right, Brian?

Brian Truglio: Right. When I interviewed Ana Franchi in Argentina a few months back I got a real sense of what it’s like to be on the losing end of that exchange.  Argentina has waved goodbye to their best minds in science many times over their history.  And in the interest of full disclosure, I should also say I’m married to an Argentine scientist so I too have directly benefitted from their brain drain.

Like us, Argentina is an immigrant nation and their experience may shed some light on the real consequences we could face if scientists start leaving the U.S.  Obtaining a PhD in science is just as rigorous and selective in Argentina as it is here.  But unlike the U.S., the cost of that PhD is covered completely by the state. So, brain drain in Argentina is particularly painful because the return on the public money invested in that PhD is reaped by another country.

Ana Franchi, Director of the Center for Pharmacological and Botanical Studies in Argentina. Photo credit: Brian Truglio.
Ana Franchi, Director of the Center for Pharmacological and Botanical Studies in Argentina. Photo credit: Brian Truglio.

FK: And we’re talking some serious returns, too! New research shows that foreign-born college graduates are twice as successful as their U.S.-born counterparts at patenting new technologies. I’m reading here from an article by Dr. Jennifer Hunt, in today’s issue of Science: “Although 0.9% of college-educated natives have been awarded one or more patents in the past 5 years and 0.6% have been awarded a patent that has been licensed or commercialized, the figures for immigrants are 2.0% and 1.3%, respectively.”

There’s direct economic implications as well, Hunt says, as “immigration of college-educated individuals increases patenting per capita and is likely to have increased Gross Domestic Product per capita by 1.4 to 2.4 percentage points over a decade.”

I think that shows it pretty clearly that the U.S. definitely benefits from brain drain. So, why does brain drain happen? Why did it happen in Argentina, Brian, and who’s leaving?

BT: Historically, Argentina has suffered brain drain for two main reasons: politics and economics.

The turbulent politics of the early 1960’s led the most famous science immigrant from Argentina to resign after a military coup and move to Cambridge, England. César Milstein went on to win the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for developing a revolutionary technique to produce monoclonal antibodies. His work led to the development of an entirely new branch of medicine that is now at the forefront of our best efforts to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of autoimmune diseases.

Last year, Gabriela González, a physicist born and trained in Argentina, was named one of the 10 most distinguished scientific personalities in the world by the journal Nature. She left Argentina in 1989 at the beginning of the financial crisis and now works at Louisiana State University, where she is one of the key scientists involved in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. Two years ago, for the first time, they successfully detected gravity waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Gabriela González. Credit: Nature.
Gabriela González. Credit: Nature.

While these are among the brightest minds and heaviest brain drain losses, there are thousands of Argentine scientists working abroad and in the United States. Through my wife, I personally know dozens of Argentine scientists running labs and doing high level research at institutions and businesses like Harvard, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Genzyme. They were all trained in Argentina and it’s now the United States that benefits significantly from their accomplishments instead of their homeland.

FK: Turbulent politics and economics, you say… Sounds vaguely familiar. I imagine if the Trump administration continues to wage war on science, it’s likely the U.S. may become less of a beneficiary of scientific immigration and more of a victim. Especially after seeing if, or more likely how badly, science funding will be slashed in the September federal budget.

BT: Who do you think is most at risk of leaving? I’m guessing climate scientists, considering how they’ve been targeted by the Trump administration.

FK: I totally agree. In fact, there are indications that other countries are already vying for these scientist.

For example, then-candidate, now-President of France Emmanuel Macron released a video in February professing his support of climate change research and inviting any American climate scientists to move to France to continue their research unimpeded.

BT: Macron’s probably also trying to get French scientists to return, not just get U.S. scientists to leave.

FK: Good point. It’s probably easier to get native scientists to come back then go after a completely new cultural demographic. Has Argentina tried anything like this?

BT: Yes! Argentina set up a program to bring them home called Raíces or roots. In the last twelve years they’ve brought back over 1,200 scientists.

Raíces program ad. Credit: Argentinian Consulate.
Raíces program ad. Credit: Argentinian Consulate.

While the program has plenty of critics and there have been accusations of fraudulent spending, there is little doubt that some who have returned have participated in the significant accomplishments Argentina has made in science and technology over the last dozen years. Domestic advancements in everything from satellite technology to medicines and vaccines have been a boost to the economy, national security and, no doubt, pride that Argentina takes in science.

FK: Well, that’s encouraging!

BT: Not so fast… Unfortunately, their attempts to reverse the brain drain may be coming to an end. If you read my earlier article on the recent science crisis in Argentina, you know that the current administration appears to be pivoting away from funding for science. Budget cuts to science have reduced the number of scientists that will be entering research positions by nearly 50%, reversing a thirteen year trend that saw research positions grow by an average of 10% annually.

Long term, the picture for science in Argentina doesn’t look very bright right now. The uncertainty of funding alone will likely make young scientists look for work outside the country and restart the brain drain they’ve worked so hard to reverse. All of this should be a cautionary tale for the Trump administration, which belittles science and aims to cut funding.

FK: Bleak. To end on a positive note, another article in the Science issue today showed that moving around is correlated with being a better scientist–or, at least, their papers received more citations.

“The impact factor of research by foreign-born scientists (measured by country of residence at age 18) is on average higher than that of natives who have no international mobility experience,” report Giuseppe Scellato and his colleagues. “The effect persists when we account for the fact that migrant scientists may be selected from among the best in the origin country, using individual-level data on migration during childhood, which is correlated to the likelihood of subsequent international mobility but arguably not correlated to the scientific quality of the migrant.”

BT: So, there is a possibility that all this movement of scientists will benefit the field overall?

FK: Yes. If this were to happen, though, the U.S. science community would certainly be left behind. The question is: are we okay with that?


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