Flight Capital

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by David Heenan

Davies-Black © 2005, 306 pages, $24.95 (ISBN 0-89106-202-5).

The Alarming Exodus of America’s Brightest

The United States was once a one-way destination for the world’s best and brightest. Today, immigrants in many professional fields are traveling to America for their education and returning to their countries of origin more often than ever before. According to business executive, professor and author David Heenan, “The flight of any country’s brightest minds is a sure sign that that country is in serious trouble.” In Flight Capital, Heenan examines this “reverse brain drain” and its effects on America’s future while searching for ways to stop the trend and improve the quality and quantity of the United States’ native-born work force.

Based on his many interviews with repatriates in Ireland, Iceland, Israel, India, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Mexico, Heenan presents valuable insights into how other countries are attracting accomplished Americans, both immigrant and native-born. In addition, he describes the loss America feels when highly sought-after professionals return home and take their high-achieving children with them.

Einstein to Hitchcock

From Albert Einstein to Alfred Hitchcock, immigrants have provided the United States with a pipeline of brainpower. Heenan points out that Chinese and Indian immigrants run almost a quarter of Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms, and half of the Americans who shared Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry over the past seven years were born in other countries. In addition, almost 40 percent of MIT graduate students are from other nations, as are more than half of all Ph.D.s working in the United States. Forty-five percent of America’s physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians were born abroad, and one-third of all current physics teachers and a quarter of all female doctors are immigrants to the United States.

The trend of highly educated immigrants staying in the United States began to change in the 1990s, Heenan explains. That was when the native countries of many of them improved economically and politically. As the world economy increased its premium on knowledge, many of the best and brightest in the United States began to return home.

After importing brainpower for centuries, the United States is currently its largest exporter. When Edward Tian returned to Beijing from Texas, he took with him a Texas Tech doctorate in ecology and a small Internet software company: AsiaInfo. That company became China’s top systems-integration company and created nearly 70 percent of China’s Internet infrastructure. Tian has gone on to found and become CEO of telecom giant China Netcom.

Reverse Brain Drain

This type of reverse brain drain, or “flight capital,” has spawned flourishing new scientific epicenters from South Asia to Scandinavia, including Israel’s MalkhaTechnologyPark and Sweden’s KistaSciencePark. Heenan writes that this “exodus of invaluable human capital is an unintended consequence of today’s more tightly knit world economy.” Although it is good news for other nations, he argues, it is bad news for the United States. He points to numerous surveys that reveal a U.S. labor shortage of knowledge-oriented workers, and writes that the steady outflow of brainpower from the United States poses a serious threat to America’s security and its scientific and economic pre-eminence.

“Nothing short of stopping the present threat will safeguard America’s talent base and shape the kind of society in which our children and their children will prosper,” Heenan states.

In addition to sounding a wake-up call to the United States, Heenan offers details of the corrective actions that can be taken to halt or slow the exodus of human capital and recoup talent losses. These actions include overhauling public education, revamping immigration policies, and celebrating science and technology. ~

Why We Like ThIS Book

Flight Capital presents a fascinating examination of why highly trained immigrants are leaving the United States, complete with personal stories describing their motivations. By offering the human side of an issue whose impact will be felt far into the future, Heenan gives readers a firm foundation on which to build an informed opinion about it and specific ways they can respond. ~

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