Creative-Class Brain Drain

Other countries are luring our best and brightest

| September / October 2004

Better than any other country in recent years, America has developed new technologies and ideas that spawn new industries and modernize old ones, from the Internet to big-box stores to innovative product designs. We came up with these new technologies and ideas largely because we were able to energize and attract the best and the brightest, not just from our country but also from around the world. Talented, educated immigrants and smart, ambitious young Americans congregated, during the 1980s and 1990s, in and around a dozen U.S. city-regions. These areas became hothouses of innovation, the modern-day equivalents of Renaissance city-states, where scientists, artists, designers, engineers, financiers, marketers, and sundry entrepreneurs fed off each other's knowledge, energy, and capital to make new products, new services, and whole new industries.

But cities from Sydney to Brussels to Dublin to Vancouver are fast becoming creative-class centers to rival Boston, Seattle, and Austin. They're doing it through a variety of means -- from government-subsidized labs to partnerships between top local universities and industry. Most of all, they're luring foreign creative talent, including our own. The result is that the sort of high-end, high-margin creative industries that used to be the United States' province and a crucial source of our prosperity have begun to move overseas. The most advanced cell phones are being made in Salo, Finland, not Chicago. The world's leading airplanes are being designed and built in Toulouse and Hamburg, not Seattle.

As other nations become more attractive to mobile immigrant talent, America is becoming less so. A recent study by the National Science Board found that the U.S. government issued 74,000 visas for immigrants to work in science and technology in 2002, down from 166,000 in 2001 -- an astonishing drop of 55 percent. This is matched by similar, though smaller-scale, declines in other categories of talented immigrants, from finance experts to entertainers. Part of this contraction is derived from what we hope are short-term security concerns, as federal agencies have restricted visas from certain countries since September 11. More disturbingly, we find indications that fewer educated foreigners are choosing to come to the United States. For instance, most of the decline in science and technology immigrants in the National Science Board study was due to a drop in applications.

Why would talented foreigners avoid us? In part because other countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of recruiting them. The technology bust also plays a role. There are fewer jobs for computer engineers, and even top foreign scientists who might still have their pick of great cutting-edge research positions are less likely than they were a few years ago to make millions through tech-industry partnerships.



But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a half dozen countries over the past year, I'm convinced that the biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy landscape in Washington. In the 1990s, the federal government focused on expanding America's human capital and interconnectedness to the world -- crafting international trade agreements, investing in cutting-edge research and development, subsidizing higher education and public access to the Internet, and encouraging immigration. But in the past three years, the government's attention and resources have shifted to older sectors of the economy, with tariff protection and subsidies to extractive industries. Meanwhile, Washington has stunned scientists across the world with its disregard for consensus scientific views when those views conflict with the interests of favored sectors (as has been the case with the issue of global climate change). Most of all, in the wake of 9/11, Washington has inspired the fury of the world, especially of its educated classes, with its my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we're saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, 'You don't belong here.'

Obviously, this shift has come about with the changing of the political guard in Washington, from the internationalist Bill Clinton to the aggressively unilateralist George W. Bush. But its roots go much deeper, to a tectonic change in the country's political-economic demographics. As many have noted, America is becoming more geographically polarized, with the culturally more traditionalist, rural, small-town, and exurban 'red' parts of the country increasingly voting Republican, and the culturally more progressive urban and suburban 'blue' areas going ever more Democratic. Less noted is the degree to which these lines demarcate a growing economic divide, with 'blue' patches representing the talent-laden, immigrant-rich creative centers that have largely propelled economic growth, and the 'red' parts representing the economically lagging hinterlands. The migrations that feed creative-center economies are also exacerbating the contrasts. As talented individuals, eager for better career opportunities and more adventurous, diverse lifestyles, move to the innovative cities, the hinterlands become even more culturally conservative. Now, the demographic dynamic that propelled America's creative economy has produced a political dynamic that could choke that economy off. Though none of the candidates for president has quite framed it that way, it's what's really at stake in the 2004 elections.



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