Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?

By Omar Ali 7 Comments

We had a little discussion on Twitter about this topic. It was triggered by this post by Sam Altman @Sama, (about increasing political censorship of heterodox ideas in Silicon valley) but became a more general argument about US competitiveness and ability to attract talent, especially scientific talent. I just wanted to put a few random thoughts and questions out there, in the hope of enlightening feedback.

Clearly the US is still the world’s number one destination for exceptional scientific talent. But this is just year one of the reign of the mad king and already there are many reports of racist and bureaucratic obstruction of visas and suchlike (being both racist and bureaucratic, this process naturally has limited connection to rational priorities). There is also the general decline of US reputation across the globe (whether it reflects the reality of US life and to what extent, these are separate issues; the perception itself would likely influence SOME aspiring migrants). This is one (obvious) side of the story. There is also an attack from the Left flank (see below).

US higher education is increasingly perceived (again, reality may or may not be exactly this, but the perception itself should make a difference) as being dominated by left-liberal/SJW ideas. In the short term this may not matter much because STEM subjects are able to recruit immigrants (Chinese and Indians dominate, but they get talent from everywhere, from Eastern Europe to Africa) as students, as faculty, as slave labor (graduate students, postdocs etc) and so on. In any case, they are still the best in the world, about that there is little dispute. But all this is paid for by fee paying liberal arts majors, by endowments (paid for by disproportionately Republican donors) and by the state and federal governments, some of whom are thinking about (or actively working on) making war on what they see as dens of opposition propaganda. This is not good news. The Right wing attack on the universities will likely be as racist and bureaucratic as the Right wing attack on immigration. But that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that there will be a fightback, and civil wars are hugely destructive, no matter who wins. The end results is likely to be a significant degradation of US higher education (even the real subjects, not just the “critical studies” type fluff).

The rise of China is real and it is not going to go away. China really IS an ancient culture with deep roots, with a securely established dominant ethnic group (the Han Chinese) and a long tradition of valuing excellence and learning. Of course, they are not supermen, and they are not going to run the world like some unchallenged boss. They do have their weaknesses. Fraud and corruption are higher in China than they are in Western countries and this means it is not a “high trust” society. They are still relatively poor. Their international reputation is not at American level. Language is a big barrier in a world dominated by English. And  their Achilles heel is their political system, which is really less a political system and more an authoritarian highly bureaucratized empire, albeit run at this time by a party elite rather than an emperor; but the point is that there is no deep theoretical underpinning for the current system. The elite themselves know fully well that they are simply lying when they describe it as socialism and when they claim it has long term stable legitimacy. Some people will immediately jump to say that the American system is in a similar state, but even on the most cynical reading, there are huge differences of degree between the lies and manipulation (and coercion) necessary in the Chinese system, and those that currently exist in the American one. But all this is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to STEM dominance.  Censorship and coercion are not as heavy handed as they used to be, and even if there is political instability at some point, it will really be an intra-Han affair, it does not mean that foreign talent cannot be attracted there. Already, there are tens of thousands of foreign students in China. While many are attending glorified diploma mills (and corruption being high, this will not get better any time soon) there are also real centers of excellence, and in STEM, they will increasingly attract real talent. Maybe they will never be like America (America is sui generis), but they will be a STEM superpower, and intra-Han political squabbles will not stop that work from continuing. There seems to be no appetite for a Mao-style millennarian revolution that attempts to burn everything down and “rebuild it nearer to heart’s desire”, so political shenanigans and corruption need not stop this process.

US decline is bipartisan. While Trump-Bannon style White nationalism and “America-first” solo flight attempts are burning down US credibility and appeal in the outside world, the SJW Left, with its anti-science agenda and attempts at censorship is doing its own part to immanentize the eschaton. People frequently argue that the Left is so weak that their hysterics do not need to be taken seriously. This is true in the sense that if the current system IS overthrown, it will be overthrown by an authoritarian from the Right, not the Left, the American Left lacking the street power or the ability to organize violence and enforce their will that the Right can muster if the system does crash and burn. But keep in mind that the Left does not have to take over the country and start a Red terror to discourage STEM talent from coming to the United States. Their disproportionate influence in elite educational institutions means that pillars of the scientific establishment like Scientific American and (and this really hurts) even the Royal Society have been penetrated. Just take a look at this piece from Scientific American, and then at the fact that the Royal Society gave their award for top science book of the year to Testosterone Rex. Enuff said. As an aspiring scientist, you could be excused for starting to have some doubts about the Royal Society (OK, the Royal Society is British, not American, but it is part of the same scientific establishment, if they are sinking, can America be far behind).


Many people react to the above by pointing out that “America was never that great; slavery, imperialism, the prison industry and other embarrassments being brought up. But I am not talking about absolute goodness or some ideal of progress, just about relative ranking in knowledge creation (especially scientific knowledge) on planet Earth at this moment in time. There can be no dispute about the fact that the US leads the world in science and technology today and has done so for at least 70 years.

The question I am asking is just this: is this lead likely to persist?

Place your bets. And present your arguments. ” I ask this, O you Fathers, not as a challenge. I ask it to know” (Rig Veda)

Post Script: people may ask why only China was mentioned as the alternative. What about Europe? or Russia? or India? or someone else? or no one at all (just a globalized world with a transnational elite)?

Well, why not? you tell me..



7 Replies to “Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?”

  1. I feel the ability of Chinese to attract foreign talent will increase but flatline soon, more like Japan less USA. Of course I am talking strictly in terms of Indian talent. From some of the anecdotes gathered from family working in Indian Institute of Science, US still remains overwhelming destination for students looking for graduate and post doc studies. Since most of the existing faculty have worked/studied in US they are very likely to collaborate/work with US universities, and the students naturally look to US for post-doc/graduate. At least in Indian academia, I think its very hard to replace the pro US bias. Recently Singapore has emerged as an alternate destination, but they can’t match the scale of US.

    Recently though one hears of instances where IIT toppers with a Microsoft offer having been denied US visa, if cases like these increase then who knows.

    There is a similar play happening in Indian software industry, people who have worked in American software companies for decades are being lured by the likes of Huawei, with 30-40% higher salary, some people have moved, but the work culture reputation is proving a deterrent for many. Interesting times.

    1. I agree. People also underestimate the role of English in Indian migration. Fluency in English allows Indians to adjust to the US and UK with much more ease than others who have not had the fortune of an English medium education. This is a huge part of the reason why Indian’s have been able to rise to the top of the management chain in a lot of American corporations.

      I hope the biggest competition for the US, for Indian students, can come from India itself. I have seen two recent examples of folks with a PhD from an Indian university (but post-doc abroad) get faculty positions in top 50 American CS departments. This is great news for the programs where these guys did their PhDs.

  2. Top 50 Robotics companies in the world.


    29 – USA
    8 – Japan
    7 – Europe
    2 – Canada
    2 – China
    1 – India

    At this point, China has not even produced a winning vehicle or electronics (not appliances) brand. If scale (which is the main thing that China has on its side) was the major factor, tiny South Korea would not have produced winners like Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

  3. To add to Omar’s excellent post, a good frame to structure this discussion could be the attraction of talent from the “swing regions” to either the US pole or the Chinese pole.
    The partitioning of the Internet economy worldwide between a US-centered (Google, Facebook, Amazon) economy and a China-centered one (Alibaba, Tencent), I believe, is a leading indicator a larger partitioning of the world economy in the 21st century. The China-sphere is restricted within PRC borders today, but will grow (OBOR) to expand Central Asia and perhaps SE Asia. US pole might be ~1.25 billion and the China pole ~ 1.75 billion. Africa, South Asia, West Asia and Russia/E. Europe are what I am calling the “swing regions” (~4 billion people)
    The higher education market will also not be immune to this split, with students having grown up in a Google-Facebook or a Baidu-WeChat world naturally drawn to the metros of that world. It is also in these swing regions that population is growing the fastest, and most of the young people in 2050 will be from here. Even if academic excellence is the primary reason attracting talent to an institution (I am skeptical, and believe a larger pull to the culture in which it is situated matters too), ability to integrate into the society is important in keeping that talent during their productive years. Bannonism and its Anglo-Euro cousins are indeed dulling the west’s attraction, but it is nothing like the deep ethnic chauvinism and superiority of the Han.
    The west is used to the idea of the non-western expert/thinker in their universities for centuries now; even Bannonism seems directed more against cultural change rather than elite migration. The Han, however, while Sinicizing surrounding barbarians over generations, don’t have a tradition of the Confucian elite integrating barbarians directly into the academy. I think if the world does trend bipolar, the west will have the advantage. However, in a true multi-polar highly integrated scenario, China will take its natural historical position as the leader. In either case, existence of more than one center is better overall for Science not being held hostage to social-justice/PC/ethnic interests.

    1. Just got to California (SF) from Cambridge UK & one thing that’s very noticeable is that both places have lots
      Of Chinese!!

    2. The Han, however, while Sinicizing surrounding barbarians over generations, don’t have a tradition of the Confucian elite integrating barbarians directly into the academy.

      not sure this is totally true. though need think on this. but integration is definitely on chinese terms: that is, barbarians become gentleman by following the way, as defined by chinese.

      (there is a lot of stuff in the early confucian canon about how barbarians can and have been assimilated, illustrating that human nature is malleable re: ethics)

      but it it seems plainly obv that chinese don’t have a theory of multiculturalism really worked out and are not assimilative today (though they are with their national minorities, including muslim ones).

  4. i always think of this when this topic comes up:
    “64 percent of Chinese millionaires were considering or were in the process of moving, with education topping the list of reasons.”

    also, it’s trivially true but, i think communism will be their downfall. every time i read about China’s internal economic policy it makes me think that they really have no idea what the hell they’re doing. that and the insane videos i see coming from china – things so crude and cruel it makes it hard for me to believe they’ll be THE world leader soon.

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