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The U.S. is risking an academic brain drain

Sam Jayne / AP

Linsen Li is a Chinese-born, 30-year-old specialist in advanced batteries — a postdoc in MIT's material science and engineering program. He received his Ph.D in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, in all spending the last seven years in the U.S. His infant son, William, is an American citizen.

But he's reluctantly going home: Li tells Axios that, having received no teaching offers in the U.S., he's accepted a $65,000-a-year teaching slot at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University, along with the equivalent of a fat $900,000 in research funding, in addition to $250,000 to buy a house.

The program that grabbed him: Li is returning under China's Thousand Talents Plan, which seeks to lure back under-40 Chinese students and professionals to bolster the country's research sector. "I just don't want to think about it," Li says. " … I still would like to stay here if I find an opportunity. … I never actually worked in China. I did grow up and go to school, but I've never actually worked in China."

Why it matters: Absent a commitment to scientific research or immigration reform, the U.S. risks losing significant numbers of the foreign-born Ph.Ds and post-docs at its best universities to other nations. And this brain drain has the potential to accelerate should the White House continue its inaction on these issues.

The context: There is very little certainty around the Trump administration's plans for visa and immigration reform, making it easier for highly skilled foreign researchers and workers educated in the U.S. to be poached by offers elsewhere.

And the poachers are determined: Canada, France and China have been most open and aggressive about seeking out foreign talent studying in the United States. Financially, China's offers appear to be the most attractive.

The statistics: The Thousand Talents program is growing, funding 143 returning Chinese scientists in 2011 (out of 1,100 who applied) and 590 last year (from 3,048 applications.).

Li's case: For two years, Li has worked on one of the world's most prestigious advanced battery research teams — run by MIT scientist Yet-Ming Chiang. From there, he applied for research positions at seven U.S. institutions, and received no job offers. That's not a surprise: teaching and research positions are notoriously hard to obtain anywhere, but especially in the U.S. Li might have had a better shot at numerous American startups hungry for battery talent, but he said that, at this point in his career, he wants to try to make a splash in research.

So he turned his gaze back home: "A lot of us choose to go back because there are a lot of positions available — like hundreds of them — because the central government is investing a lot of money into this," he said.

The benefits:

  • Significant research investment: Li said that he'd be receiving a three-year grant worth six million yuan (about $900,000). Meanwhile, colleagues in U.S. academia are finding it increasingly difficult to fund their battery work, and have even begun to seek Chinese grants.
  • Financial flexibility: U.S. universities take about half of research grants as fixed overhead, sapping up funding before it reaches a scientist's hands. In China, overhead is closer to 10%, allowing more staff hiring and equipment purchases, Li said.

The negatives:

  • High expectations: China expects a lot from its repatriated scientists, like scientific breakthroughs and papers in high-profile publications, according to a Nature profile of the Thousand Talents Plan.
  • Reported problems with professionalism: The best Chinese universities — like Jiao Tong, where Li is headed — have research environments comparable to American institutions, but, per Nature, even the best of them can be riven with patronage, plagiarism, and academic fraud.

And it goes beyond academia: A recent Hired analysis found that the U.S. political climate has led tech companies to lose significant interest in hiring foreign workers — down 37% compared with this time last year — even as many foreign-born workers want to remain here.

  • Where they're going: That same Hired analysis found that nearly a third of foreign workers would choose Canada if the United States weren't an option, with Europe being another sought-after destination.
  • What Canada is doing: Canada introduced its Global Skills Strategy program earlier this summer, allowing 80% of foreign work permit applications from highly-skilled workers to be processed within two weeks.
  • What France is doing: After Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron kicked off the Make Our Planet Great Again initiative, designed to lure climate scientists to France.