Muddled US policy helps rivals' success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2012, 12:00am


A new study by an advocacy group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg finds, astonishingly, that foreign-born researchers were behind more than three out of four patents obtained by top US research universities last year.

Yet bizarrely, as the study points out, US immigration policy has made it difficult for even the most talented foreign graduates to obtain residency. Bloomberg is calling for reforms to make sure the best foreign students stay in the US after graduation instead of going home. The rest of the world, especially competitors like China, must hope no one listens to him.

Each year, many of the most gifted students from the developing world apply to study science, technology, engineering and maths (or STEM) in the US. Bloomberg's report says the STEM achievements those patents represent will underpin high value-added goods and services that a 21st-century economy needs for its survival and prosperity. Emerging powers like China are well aware of this and are desperate to make sure that those graduates come home.

Since the end of the second world war, the US has built the world's most advanced educational and research infrastructure, partly by attracting the best talent from around the world. Yet, one key point is often forgotten, probably because it runs counter to many myths the Americans tell themselves. The military-industrial complex in the US has drawn much flak ever since Dwight Eisenhower warned of its dangers in his 1961 farewell address, while free-market fundamentalists denounce state-sponsored industrial policy. But the fluid intersection between military, commercial and civilian research has been key to the US success in STEM; and military research is industrial policy par excellence. The internet is one of its achievements.

Unlike Americans, China and other emerging powers have no qualms about how their economies go hi-tech, so long as they succeed in doing so. Their leaders can only be grateful for America's 'generosity' in educating their best and brightest, and then sending them home.