unnamedRosanna Volchok
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The December 2013 release of OECD’s 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) findings generated massive media buzz. A blow to the American ego, the results placed American teens 21st in science and 26th in math out of 33 other OECD nations. Devout believers in “American exceptionalism” expressed incredulous outrage, while proponents of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational reform cried for action. In truth, America has been flatlining, with PISA scores remaining more-or-less the same for a decade. In efforts to expand on PISA, a newer “Efficiency Index” now also ranks 30 OECD countries by efficiency of educational budget allocations. Unsurprisingly, the report published this September ranks the U.S. 19th along with the assertion that the U.S. system appears to be more “efficient than effective.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned this trend of “educational stagnation” calling for reforms to counter complacency and low expectations. And yet, Federal initiatives aimed at improving STEM education are nothing new. President Obama has been pushing for an “all hands on deck” approach to developing STEM learning since he first took office. In the meantime, while we wait for considerable reforms to take place, it is worthwhile to ask what an American job market ill-equipped to fill STEM positions with American professionals means for an increasingly global scientific community. Ralph Nader posits that it fuels “brain drain,” encouraging U.S. corporations to outsource STEM careers to highly skilled and cheap (i.e., exploited) workers from developing economies at the expense of the American labor market. Nader asserts that this influx of foreign workers has resulted in a dearth of skilled human capital within their home countries, a paucity of careers for American STEM professionals, and an overall decline in pay for said STEM positions. He calls for “cognitive empathy,” waxing poetic on the need to upgrade American STEM capital and to stop skimming cream-of-the-crop professionals from developing economies.

Viewing the migration of STEM talent as a drain on a country’s resources, however, is overly simplistic. At its core, employment abroad provides migrants with a chance to earn a living—an attractive prospect if one’s country of origin is comparatively more limited in its capacity to do so. U.S. recruitment of foreign STEM professionals has served to supply training and job opportunities to those living in resource-constrained countries. In addition, the resulting migration has had a positive impact on U.S. innovation through the sheer quantity and quality of STEM professionals now available to the sector. Restricting flows of talent is hardly empathetic.

Moreover, to develop STEM capital in a vacuum is to deny the constructive potential of a global approach to scientific innovation. The National Science Foundation cites international collaboration as a critical driver of economic growth, key to keeping the U.S. globally competitive. If one believes that economic competition is healthy, then inhibiting flows of information, knowledge and STEM talent is harmful. Social challenges become insidious when these resources are not considered sharable commodities. Restrict the free-flow of knowledge and information and we run the risk of examining social ills through too narrow a lens.

An isolationist approach to building STEM capacity rests on the assumption that America’s own STEM talent has little to gain through these intercultural interactions. This line of thinking limits the potential for the U.S. to benefit from practices that could become the catalysts for meaningful and durable change. What’s more, developing economies stand to benefit greatly. The emergence of new industries in countries like India and China are dependent on technology transfers through just these types of international networks. Evidence from a study on the effects of African physician emigration to North America indicates that skilled migration raises remittances more than once previously assumed. Accordingly, it is time to shift away from the position that “brain drain” is intrinsically a problem and re-focus attention on ensuring that international collaborations are leveraged in a way that benefits both host and home countries.

With demand for H-1B visas up by 40% in 2014, the surge of skilled migrants into the American workforce shows no signs of subsiding. It is thus important for states to re-examine how best to nurture returns on these flows. Limiting mobility through immigration reform or incentivizing American corporations to “keep it local” are merely insecure interventions. Figuring out how to “plug the drain” prevents both host and home countries from reaping the benefits that a global network of STEM professionals has to offer. What is more, the inherent xenophobia in these actions is a denial of America’s history of openness and the socio-political realities that prompt incoming STEM professionals to leave their homes in the first place. A policy prescription that accepts and anticipates peoples’ right to move would both nurture global scientific innovation and cultivate the mutual economic gains to be found within these networks.

Rosanna Volchok is an MPA candidate in International Policy and Management at NYU Wagner. She is currently a research consultant to the Center for Institutional and Social Change, a social innovation hub housed within Columbia Law School. Her (broad) areas of interest include issues related to STEM education and science policy.