U.S. faces science ‘brain drain,’ report finds

A recent study finds that the United States’ stance as a world leader in science and technology may be under threat.

The report, issued by the science advisory group National Academies and presented to Congress last week, focuses on the country’s position in the world of science and engineering.

Titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the study asks how current trends in globalization, immigration, education and research will affect how the U.S. is viewed in these areas in coming years. Judging from the words of the report, the answer seems to be: negatively.

“The thinking is that the U.S. is the most attractive setting in the world for engineering and science now,” said study director Deborah Stine. “That said, there are several warning signs that create concerns.”

Chief among such worries is a greater ability for U.S. firms to transmit large amounts of data across the globe in a very short amount of time. The report refers to this as the “death of distance,” giving American companies the ability to use resources in other countries in lieu of homegrown technologies.

One example given in the report details how some American businesses receive software in the morning that was written just hours earlier in India, test it and then send it back overseas that evening for further tweaking. The result is a streamlined production process made possible by the use of foreign labor.

The reason for such trends, according to the study, is simple economics. For the money it takes to hire one engineer in the U.S., a firm can hire 11 in India, increasing the appeal of an overseas workforce.

Statistics show that more domestic companies are taking advantage. High wage employers accounted for only 29 percent of all new jobs in the U.S. in recent years, while 44 percent were created by low wage employers like Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

Another key factor is education. Just 32 percent of all U.S. college students are enrolled in science or engineering degree programs, compared to 59 percent in China and 66 percent in Japan. Moreover, 59 percent of all the engineering doctorates awarded in the U.S. were given to students from overseas.

The possibility of luring foreign-born engineers to the U.S. is also diminishing. The study cites a 2005 poll asking foreign engineers where they would most like to live and work. A majority of respondents chose the U.S. in only one of the countries surveyed.

Immigration issues are another hindrance. The number of visas set aside for “highly qualified foreign workers” recently dropped from 195,000 to 65,000, making it harder engineers from abroad to come to America.

The report has been widely discussed in both the House and Senate in the past week, and Stine said it has thus far gotten a “very positive” reception.

“I’m sure eventually somebody will object to something,” Stine said. “But at the moment I think we are doing very well.”

The study was spurred in part by conversations between the Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., both members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The two are leading the charge to propose legislation based on the study’s findings.

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