The U.S. is risking an academic brain drain - Axios
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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.
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Puerto Rico in crisis

A man looks at the horizon early in the morning after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

Puerto Rico remains without power and short on supplies after being slammed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Officials are having difficulty even communicating with outlying towns that were devastated by the storm, and the humanitarian crisis is growing.

After focusing for days, at least publicly, on NFL protests and other matters, President Trump tweeted about the crisis in Puerto Rico on Monday night — and seemed to blame Puerto Rico in part for its own misfortune.

Trump's tweets: "Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble....It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars....owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well. #FEMA"

What Puerto Rican officials have said

From Governor Ricardo Rosselló: "We are U.S. citizens that just a few weeks ago went to the aid of other U.S. citizens even as we're going through our fiscal downturn and as we were hit by another storm…Now, we've been essentially devastated. Complete destruction of the power infrastructure, severe destruction of the housing infrastructure, food and water are needed. My petition is that we were there once for our brothers and sisters, our other U.S. citizens, now it's time that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are taken care of adequately, properly."

From Manati mayor Jose Sanchez Gonzalez: "Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It's at capacity," he said, crying. "We need someone to help us immediately."

The scale of the crisis

  • Government officials said Sunday a dam on the Western part of the island "will collapse at any time." Eastern areas, which were hit by the eye of the storm, could take years to recover.
  • Officials estimate it could take up to 6 months to restore power to the whole island.
  • Federal agencies have cleared the Port of San Juan for daytime operations, but accessing Puerto Rico is pretty difficult right now — airports and harbors are severely damaged and the whole island remains out of power. 11 ships have delivered 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food, per the AP. Many hospital patients are being flown to the U.S. mainland for treatment.
  • The death toll is at least 10 in Puerto Rico, and 31 if you include other Caribbean islands, per the AP.
  • 1,360 of the island's 1,600 cell towers are down. 85% of phone and internet cables were knocked out.

Personal experiences

  • When locals see outsiders, the first thing they ask is "Are you FEMA?" per The Washington Post.
  • "Nothing's working, we don't hear from anyone…We feel abandoned," Toa Baja resident Johanna Ortega told USAToday.
  • Food at local grocery stores is "VERY LIMITED," San Juan resident Claudia Batista messaged Axios. Batista described the situation in San Juan as "desperate times," saying because of "all the material loss, people are losing control and patience and are stealing in other homes and assaulting people on the streets."
  • Some local responders in Juncos cleared streets with machetes since the town doesn't have enough chain saws. People are riding bikes and walking for miles to get to gas stations

What FEMA is doing

  • FEMA teams were in Puerto Rico earlier this month following Hurricane Irma, and as soon as Hurricane Maria's winds died down they launched search-and-rescue missions, per USAToday.
  • All of the 28 task force teams around the U.S. have been recruited to help, which is rare, per Karl Lee, a FEMA Incident Support Team member.
  • FEMA responders are using a San Juan hotel as a command center.
  • 4,000 U.S. Army Reserve members have also been deployed to the island. The Army Corps of Engineers dispatched the 249th Engineer Battalion, per CNN.

What Trump has said

Trump declared a major disaster in Puerto Rico and said all of the U.S. government is behind the relief efforts. White House adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA's chief are heading to Puerto Rico Monday, although a trip from Trump isn't expected for a while, per CNN.

  • Rosselló thanked Trump on Monday for having federal emergency assistance provided, per the AP, noting FEMA has done a "phenomenal job."

Trump's most recent tweets about Puerto Rico, from last week:

Take a look

How to help

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Between the lines: Russian hackers, who worked off of evolving lists of racial, religious, political and economic themes, were able to take advantage of the ability to send targeted messages to different Facebook users based on their political and demographic affiliations. The aim appears to have been to inflate tension between already feuding groups.

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