It’s official, everyone, we live in a ‘post-truth’ world! Everything is made up and the facts don’t matter! How did we get here? What happens now? What will a future America devoid of objective certainty look like? History might hold a clue, but at this point, there might not be anyone left to listen.
It’s become increasingly apparent in American politics that facts, those snippets of objective, evidence-based, indisputable information, no longer hold sway over the public discourse. To hear some tell it, we live in a ‘post-truth’ world where “there are no such things as facts.” America, and indeed the world, is currently experiencing an upswell in populist sentiment that rejects, amongst other things, elitist institutions and organizations that appear to dictate policy and societal direction. The image of a cold, unfeeling elitist who speaks unto the masses and drags them kicking and screaming into their future has been used for decades to stoke anti-intellectual sentiment in America. Caught up in this wave, though, are the researchers, developers, and innovators who advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge and in many cases are dependent on public money (in the form of government grants or institutional budgets) to fund their activities. When the electorate is disdainful of, or actively hostile towards, these so-called ‘scientific-technological elites’, so too are the government officials they elect, and consequently the purse strings are slowly drawn closed. What happens then is an exodus of academic and creative human capital, commonly known as ‘brain drain’. Researchers, innovators, and other developers end up relocating themselves, their research, and in many cases their businesses, to friendlier countries.
Throughout modern history, that friendlier country has been the United States of America, and consequently the country has been at the forefront of every major scientific, technical, and industrial advance that influences how we live today. America’s policies have allowed everyone from Albert Einstein to Elon Musk the opportunity to grow their field and develop unprecedented technologies, not to mention contribute significantly to the US economy in the form of patent licensure and direct commerce. Today in America, major fields of research and innovation are the target of scepticism, indifference, or outright hostility even as they seek to improve the world we live in. Medical research using fetal tissue, green technology to reduce global warming, even funding to explore space have all been the victims of a growing distrust in the intellectual process and scientific fact. Even in fields that are well-regarded and -supported, Immigration policies are making it increasingly difficult for qualified students and innovators to learn and remain in the United States. Combined with the fact that many other countries now have systems and infrastructure in place to support similar fields of study, America faces an unprecedented period of brain drain where it stands to lose its position as the most innovative, creative, and scientifically capable nation in history.
Where could all these academics and innovators go, do you ask? China and India, for a start. Currently the majority of Chinese- and Indian-born college graduates (many of them in STEM fields that are shrinking in the US) are returning to their home countries to start research opportunities and businesses not available to them in America. The resultant leaps in innovation, science, and development have generated not only massive corporations like Alibaba and Biocon, but are driving global scientific and technological progress at a rate to soon overtake the United States. The trend is also apparent in immigrants from other countries, such as those in Latin America and Eastern Europe, though presently China and India are the closest runners-up. Regardless of their destination, each scientific emigrant from the US represents a significant loss of human capital and economic contribution at a time when the US is not educating enough scientifically-minded Americans to fulfill the existing demand. This trend is not likely to reverse under a society and administration that do not value scientific fact.
The loss of American human capital is not restricted only to developing economies. Canadian universities of late have been actively courting American scientists and researchers, unveiling hundreds of millions of dollars and world-class facilities ready for immediate use. The Canadian government has similarly declared support for fields of research and innovation that are threatened or unsupported under US policies. So when your friend says “I’m moving to Canada”, it might be because her research proposal just got funded by the Canadian government.
What would the impact of brain drain be on the American economy? It would be difficult to estimate, especially as America has never been on the negative side of a human capital exchange. The impact could be something like never having Google or Tesla or Pfizer contribute to the US economy. Instead, let’s look at what happens to those countries that have faced similar situations to the US right now and see how brain drain (or lack thereof) affected them. Ireland is still recovering from the 2008 Great Recession, but suffered high emigration rates, including to Canada, especially among those with advanced degrees. This brain drain once threatened the recovery of the Irish economy to the point where a ‘double-dip’ recession seemed likely. Recently, government support for advanced research and development has led to a net increase in Irish academic expatriates returning home, with a corresponding increase in economic growth and opportunity. American policymakers would do well to learn from the Irish lesson as we at home still struggle to regain traction after the 2008 recession.
Conversely, we can also look at the impact supporting scientific progress and innovation have on an economy. Poland’s support for innovation and entrepreneurship is credited for allowing it to emerge from the 2008 recession with net economic growth, with no years of net negative growth. Europe has also reaffirmed its commitment to fostering innovation and development in their respective economies, the net result of which is expected growth and recovery amongst every nation to do so. Europe currently faces many issues similar to America, especially in terms of immigration and a growing populist or far-right sentimentality, yet it seems apparent that the way out of economic and social turmoil, so often cited as the primary reason for populist movements, is the embracing of scientific discovery and technological innovation, not its rejection.
It becomes obvious, then, that America cannot afford to lose its best and brightest. The degradation and loss of the scientific infrastructure already present in America would be a major setback to the pace of scientific discovery as a whole, to say nothing of the immediate economic impact. What can we as ordinary citizens do to stop this cycle? For a start, contact your federal, state, or local representative and tell them that you support increased funding for American scientific, innovative, and entrepreneurial institutions and organizations. Start with the Federal Committee on Science, Space, Technology and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Tell your state and local representative to support in-state funding for science and technology. And when you can, support American small businesses, especially those working to create innovative and creative solutions for the world we live in.
Still not convinced? We’ve paired our story with a Mind Eraser cocktail, so you can see for yourself what America with ‘brain drain’ would be like!
Mind Eraser (makes 1 cocktail)
- 2 oz. Kahlua coffee liqueur
- 2 oz. vodka
- Club soda
Fill a rocks glass with ice and pour in vodka. Next, layer in the Kahlua so it floats over the vodka. Top with a layer of club soda.
Drink by placing a straw in the glass and consuming as rapidly as possible, ideally all at once. It’s not called a Mind Eraser for nothing, you know! Disclaimer: one cocktail may not be enough if you’re trying to drink to forget.