Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Brains Not Welcome
The backbone of long-term economic growth in this country has always revolved around innovation, natural resources, infrastructure and hard work. In recent years, as global competition has richly rewarded nations that embrace education and cutting-edge scientific research backed up by solid implementing engineering, relying decreasingly on natural resources. In the late 20th century, the United States began courting the smartest young students worldwide to come to American universities to study.
Lots of those super-bright minds liked what they saw so much that they stayed, building some of the most technologically-advanced companies the world has ever seen. Those inventions, often born in federally-supported laboratories, have fueled top-of-the-line, high-paying U.S. jobs for decades. Those that elected to return to their homelands often became pro-American fans for life.
I am reminded of cultures that faded from the pinnacle of success and power because they failed to push scientific progress when society deprioritized science and engineering. Think of the inventors of gun powder – the Chinese – who, by the middle of the 19th century, relegated their use of the explosive substance to make noise intended to scare off the enemy; their “cannons” weren’t designed to fire cannon balls. They were helpless against the 41-gun men-of-war British ships that forced China to give up massive territorial concessions to the Brits and their allies, including Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Or the clearly superior Islamic world – Europeans were basically barbarians – that thought steam engines would be too disruptive to their social fabric to use them in manufacturing, only to be decimated by Western manufacturing, weapons development and steam engines deployed militarily against them… with great success. Isolation and xenophobia kept Japan mired in the past, until Commodore Matthew Perry’s ultra-modern warship entered Tokyo Bay in 1858 and showed the locals (pictured above) how primitive they had become. They got modern fast!
But as a nation of immigrants, the United States ruthlessly courted scientific and engineering brains, not only from its own people, but from brilliant minds the world over… and boy did we succeed! “According to a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy, nine of the top 25 U.S. public tech companies were founded by people born outside the U.S. That's 36%.
“These are the founders: Sergey Brin, Russia (Google), Eduardo Saverin, Brazil (Facebook), Andrew Viterbi, Italy (Qualcomm), Pierre Omidyar, France (eBay), Cecil Green, UK (Texas Instruments), Edouard Bugnion, Switzerland (VMware). Jerry Yang, Taiwan (Yahoo), Francisco D'souza, Indian descent but born in Kenya and Kumar Mahadeva, Sri Lanka (Cognizant Technology), Eli Harari, Israel (Sandisk).” Business Insider (5/28/14), commas added.
But we have just elected a president who, along with his key administrators, are science skeptics, and now he is implementing his anti-scientific bias to propose a major slashing and burning in his proposed federal budget when comes to anything scientific.
“Before he became president, Donald J. Trump called climate change a hoax, questioned the safety of vaccines and mocked renewable energy as a plaything of ‘tree-huggers.’… So perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Trump’s first budget took direct aim at basic scientific and medical research.
“Still, the extent of the cuts in the proposed budget unveiled early Thursday [3/17] shocked scientists, researchers and program administrators. The reductions include $5.8 billion, or 18 percent, from the National Institutes of Health, which fund thousands of researchers working on cancer and other diseases, and $900 million, or a little less than 20 percent, from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds the national laboratories, considered among the crown jewels of basic research in the world.
”The White House is also proposing to eliminate climate science programs throughout the federal government, including at the Environmental Protection Agency [for which the largest budget cut – 31% was – proposed].
“‘As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore,’ Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a White House briefing on Thursday [3/16]. ‘We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.’” New York Times, March 16th. Oh….
Given all that creative invention here from immigrants, I wonder if all that anti-immigrant rhetoric and resulting action has had an impact on those bright students wanting to come here and give us a try.“Nearly 40 percent of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students, according to a survey of 250 college and universities, released this week by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.” NY Times. Think any international universities noticed?
“Madeleine Von Holzen, a spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, says ‘bilateral informal discussions’ had already taking place among EPFL staff and non-U.S. researchers interested in relocating to Switzerland as a result of [Trump’s de facto Muslim travel ban] executive order…The school—ranked number one in Europe in chemistry by U.S. News & World Report—operates globally. Some 19% of EPFL scientific publications are coauthored by researchers in the U.S. Approximately 200 students and professors at the institute originate from countries targeted by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s order, according to EPFL… Von Holzen says the school is advising a number of affected students from the institute—nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—who were expecting to travel to the U.S. after the 90-day ban on their entry expires.
“At the University of Cambridge, the head of the chemistry department deferred to a statement issued by the vice-chancellor, Leszek Borysiewicz, in response to questions about the effect of the ban. The statement says, ‘Even as governments around the world seek to curb freedom of movement, the University of Cambridge remains committed to welcoming the best and brightest students and staff.’” Chemical & Engineering News, February 6th. Oh…
We are not only stepping away from seeking the best and the brightest wherever they may be but deprioritizing scientific research itself. We have become virulently anti-immigrant, both in discouraging great minds from coming here and in discouraging our own scientists from, well, scientific research. We are also keeping future leaders from coming to the United States to build lifetime friendships that could help us stand tall in the future. Other countries will get all that brainpower? This cannot end well.
For rural communities – Trump heartland – there are vast tracts of land where there isn’t medical doctor to be found. These communities are heavily reliant on recruiting physcians from overseas. But not only are qualified doctors scared to come to the “anti-immigrant” United States, even for those willing to travel, the visa process has slowed to a crawl. It’s gone from a couple of weeks to a yet undetermined number of months.
“Small-town America relies on a steady flow of doctors from around the world to deliver babies, treat heart ailments and address its residents’ medical needs. But a recent, little-publicized decision by the government to alter the timetable for some visa applications is likely to delay the arrival of new foreign doctors, and is causing concern in the places that depend on them…
“[For example, in] Great Falls, Mont., 60 percent of the doctors who specialize in hospital care at Benefis Health System, which serves about 230,000 people in 15 counties, are foreign doctors on work visas… In Montana, for example, where nine counties do not have a single physician, it means Benefis Health does not know when a Romanian doctor trained in kidney transplants will arrive. The health care company spent months recruiting the doctor and had been expecting her in July.… ‘Our health system already has nine months invested in her, and now we have no idea when she can start,’ said Erica Martin, who recruits doctors for the company.
“The doctor, Silviana Marineci, who is completing a fellowship at the University of Minnesota, said she was frazzled by being in limbo… ‘I won’t have an income, I don’t know if I will afford rent, I don’t know where I will be,’ she said. ‘It’s insane.’” New York Times, March 18th. Romania? Are insane?!
I’d like to end this little piece with a personal story. A tale of a man who fled his native land in the Middle East where he had been an academic superstar (tested first in his entire country), ultimately landing here in Southern California. The smartest person I have ever met. Chemical engineer turned patent lawyer, a man who fostered scientific research at some of the finest universities in our nation. Fluent, and I do mean fluent, in several languages, he became a superstar in his profession, coveted by clients and institutions all over the earth. An American citizen for decades, with no detectable accent, he got as used to getting stopped by police (as a “person of color”) here in California dozens of times… as used to such intrusions as you can ever get accustomed to.
Notwithstanding his legal obligation to protect his clients’ attorney-client privilege, the post-Trump border guards, insisted on downloading the information on his smart phone and laptop. He no longer carries them on trips that involve crossing the U.S. border. He was an immigrant, albeit totally legal, educated and productive, loved by the scientists, engineers and institutions whose patents he protected. But to Trump and his flock, he was what was wrong with this country.
The new administration was pretty clear that people of his ethnicity weren’t welcome here… and they were anything but subtle in expressing those feelings. People who used to just let him be were telling him how now he and “his kind” were now going to be forced to leave under the new Trump regime. He’s a citizen!!! He never raised his voice or accepted these challenges. He avoided confrontation. Angry people, feeling empowered by the open political rhetoric, came out of the shadows.
But his law practice was exploding now, with calls from his German clients to come to their country, where he earned the epithet, “the unicorn.” The angry political climate he escaped as a boy, a long time ago, seemed too familiar to him. It was all around him now. It was in his new home country. He just told me that he is no longer comfortable here. He is moving to Germany. They get his brain, his productivity, the results of his American university education. We don’t. How many other brilliant “job creators” is Donald Trump deflecting or are simply leaving because of his misconceived policies? I am sad. Very sad.
I’m Peter Dekom, and how mediocre do we have to get before we realize what a colossal mistake we have made… assuming we are even able to reverse the damage?