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March 18, 2011

"An Internal Brain Drain"

The United States is suffering from a serious scientific and technological workforce problem that harms innovation, according to Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis computer science department. But it is not the supposed shortage of American scientists and engineers widely bemoaned by politicians and industry representatives.

Rather, because of "an internal brain drain" of able Americans out of scientific and technical fields, "we are wasting our talent," he told he told an audience of legal and immigration experts, IT workers, and scientists at a March 18 policy briefing held at the Georgetown University Law School. This loss of talent largely results from the nation's policy of admitting large number of scientists, IT workers, and computer engineers, he said.

 Entitled "Are they they best and brightest?  Analysis of employer-sponsored tech immigrants," the talk was arranged by the Institute for the Study of International Migration of Georgetown's school of foreign service.  Matloff's answer to that question is a resounding No. Despite widely publicized claims that foreign tech workers and scientists represent exceptional ability and are thus vital to American innovation, Matloff called that argument merely "a good sound byte for lobbyists" supporting industry proposals for higher visa caps. The data, on the other hand, indicate that those admitted are no more able, productive, or innovative than America's homegrown talent, he said.

In fact, Matloff went on, the nation is "wasting the innovation" that Americans could create because they are being driven from technical and scientific fields by the influx of foreigners.  "There are a lot of good people who are displaced," he said. In the tech field, this does not occur because of  talent, education, productivity or ability but with age, and ultimately with pay, he stated.  Employers prefer to bring in young foreign workers who are cheaper in preference to employing experienced Americans who are more expensive.  In a number of tech companies, a majority of workers are foreign-born while many Americans being displaced "are of good quality."    Over 20 years ago, he noted, experts predicted that encouraging immigration would discourage citizens from entering these fields.  

"It's an issue of money....It's all due to an oversupply of people" created by immigration policies, he said. The issues applies to both the IT industry and scientific research, he added.  One result is that young American "would have to be crazy to go into lab science today," he said.  "No study except for industry studies has ever shown a shortage" of scientific or technical workers, he said.  One indication of non-shortage is that "salaries are flat," whereas in a shortage situation they should rise.

Proponents of more visas and green cards for foreign engineers and scientists, however, regularly cite the supposedly higher rates of entrepreneurship and patent applications by foreigners.  The data show that immigrants patent at rates similar to or lower than that of Americans.  Immigrants do, however, have more research publications and higher rates of entrepreneurship.

Further analysis reveals, however, that this does not necessarily indicate greater innovation.  "Many people in academe game the system and are very good at becoming machines to make many publications," he said.  And "founding a company is not the same thing as innovation," he continued, citing a study showing that a third of the tech companies founded by Chinese immigrants are simply wholesaling or assembling PCs.  Many Indian immigrant firms, meanwhile, are involved in outsourcing.

Matloff emphasizes that he does not oppose immigration.  He himself is the son of an immigrant and is married to a Chinese immigrant, he notes.  He is fluent in Chinese and travels to China, both on professional matters and to visit family members.  He has been instrumental in his department's hiring immigrant faculty members, he adds.

What he opposes, he says, is permitting the labor market to be flooded with foreign workers, which he sees as contrary to the national interest.  Policies such as a blanket provision of a green card to all foreign science and tech graduates as "unwarranted."  "There is no labor shortage in tech" and no "best & brightest" trend found among foreign students or workers here.    

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