05 April, 2008

Rethinking the Globalization Debate

Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday" with Gary Eichten had an interesting clip of Vivek Wadhwa speaking about globalization and it's impact on the production of scientists/technologists in India, China, and the U.S. He addresses the question of whether there is a shortage of engineers and scientists entering the field in the U.S., and why our current political big-wigs are not supporting the right strategies to compete in the global market of science education. Wadhwa argues that educating and hiring foreign nationals is necessary to compete, and that part of the problem (from the U.S.'s perspective) should be how to keep foreign nationals who study in the U.S. from leaving and going back to their home nations to work. Apparently, 60% of engineering Ph.D.'s and 42% of engineering Masters degrees in the U.S. are currently being awarded to foreign nationals annually, most of which return to their native countries (India, China, etc) to do research and development.

While it's clear to me that educating foreign nationals and then pushing them out (by making visas nearly impossible to get) gives foreign industrial powers an edge in R&D, I can't help but wonder if there are benefits to such a system. By allowing foreign students to apply to our universities, we raise the selectivity of our institutions and require American students to study harder to get accepted. Further, these foreign students often pay big money to study here which the universities often get in full - money which pads uni's budgets and allows them to offer tuition breaks to needy U.S. students.

Perhaps most importantly, by keeping a system where students from all over the globe turn to the U.S. for their post-secondary or graduate education, we strengthen our soft power and our influence on how R&D should be conducted globally. It's arguable whether America's global influence on culture is a good thing - but I think most would agree that our standards for academic research are admirable (at least compared with China's), and teaching new generations to follow our lead seems to me like a plus.

Here's the link:
"Rethinking the Globalization Debate", Minnesota Public Radio

Also, Wadhwa cites Richard Freeman in his talk. There's a list of interesting publications here.


Eremita said...

Wow, 60%?! That certainly seems like a lot. You do make a good argument, higgy, that this is not a bad thing, and I feel inclined to agree with you after reading that. Still, I think American higher education is headed for something of a tuition and funding crisis and that saving the integrity of our institutions will make some kind of socialistic state funding worth it. I imagine this will significantly restrict foreign nationals in American schools, much as state funding restricts non-Californians from UC schools.

Elliot said...

There's also an argument to be made from the perspective of development. Brain drain is a major factor in limiting the economic competitiveness of third world countries in an age when many countries are emerging from poverty based on innovation rather than traditional industrialization (the Asian tigers). In that light, sending degreed students back to India or China (or Latin America!) could be seen as a sort of international wealth redistribution scheme. Much like the flip side of allowing more unskilled laborers to work here, since their remittances are apparently the most effective and best targeted form of foreign aid.

While the conventional wisdom is that this is a losing situation for the US, its really interesting to think of how it can be, as you propose, Higgy, a win-win. We take their money and invest it in our students, and then send the foreigners out, helping decrease world inequality and opening space for Americans (who will be better prepared in the math and sciences by educational reform at the lower levels) to fill those roles.

From a policy standpoint, this seems like a possible and creative thing to do. But making it work for us may be pretty difficult in practice, since I think it will take policy changes in other areas - mostly more investment in basic math and sciences at younger ages - for us to take advantage of the dynamic.

higgy said...

That's right, it only benefits us if we stay competitive and don't fall behind on primary education. Such a scheme should provide an incentive for U.S. students to study harder, but I doubt such pressures will/would be felt by high school students quickly or in any meaningful way.

Rather, we should be proactive about being competitive in the R&D global market of the future. We should brainstorm better (non-centralized) ways to give young Americans a better, higher-standard education - without mindlessly throwing money at the problem.

The goal is to raise the standard of our primary/secondary schools AND universities, while still raising the quality and output of overseas R&D.