Thus begins America’s “Brain Drain”

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

MSNBC has been examining the impact of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and a recent article explores how the LHC has become an international magnet for brain power. The international “brain drain” is no longer flowing toward the United States in the field of particle physics, but rather the bright minds are being attracted to Europe. Or, more simply put – thus begins American “brain drain”.

The buzz of activity at CERN’s Swiss campus dramatically illustrates a changing of the guard on the frontier of physics, with Europe taking over from the United States. For the past 14 years, Europeans have taken the lead role in building and financing the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, which was started up on Wednesday. The U.S. federal government kicked in $531 million for construction.

The LHC is just this week’s most obvious example of Eurocentrism in science: Less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) away, an even costlier international physics project, the $13 billion ITER fusion research center, is just getting started in southern France. And European officials are currently considering how to move forward with yet another fusion project, the $1 billion HiPER laser-fusion facility.

Meanwhile, in the United States, physicists were shocked last December to see Congress pull back on research spending, to the tune of $94 million. Financial support for ITER was virtually wiped out. It took months for some of that money to be restored in a supplemental funding bill — and while Congress dithered, scores of research positions were lost.

Much has been made about the United States falling behind in science over the past eight years due to the Bush administration’s hostility toward science, but America’s anti-science culture is deeply rooted. The United States has been able to slide by being anti-science, because the U.S. has benefited greatly from an international “brain drain” flowing into the country.

For decades, American know-how has benefited mightily from a “brain drain” of talent from Europe. It started in earnest when German physicist Albert Einstein and many of his colleagues fled the Nazi threat in Europe in the 1930s and relocated in the United States. That flow of expertise continued right through the space effort of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the telecommunications revolution of the ’80s and ’90s.

Today, the United States still ranks No. 1 in most science and engineering indicators, but recent figures from the National Science Foundation indicate that the U.S. lead is eroding. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that when it comes to cutting-edge physics, all roads are currently leading to Europe.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957, “created both paranoia and concern that the Soviets had beaten Americans into space.” Part of America’s response was to create a new science curriculum and spend more than a billion dollars to fund science education in the United States in the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and create the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Perhaps more importantly, science was made sexy for America. NASA trotted out handsome men with the “Right Stuff” – a combination of brawn and brains.

But once the Moon had been reached and the Soviets beat, America’s interest in science drifted. Roughly at the time the moon program was being abandoned, ARPA was building the first links of the ARPANET. The goal of the ARPANET was to provide researchers remote access to powerful computers. It survived to grow up to become the Internet, while the more visible Apollo space program was disingenuously attacked as competing for tax dollars with social programs, when in actuality the U.S. was mired with paying for its war in Vietnam.

For decades, the United States has been anti-science and, I believe, anti-intellectual. The momentum the U.S. received by Europeans fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe has now long since dissipated. The boost that was given to the U.S. by increased science and education funding in the 1960s has now coasted to a halt. Anti-genetic research policies and anti-immigrant reforms have effectively made the U.S. less desirable a place to live and work for some of the world’s brightest minds.

And as the MSNBC story notes:

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, a widely known author and theoretical physicist at the City College of New York, traces the reversal of fortunes back to the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider project in Texas.

“Let’s be blunt about this: There could be a brain drain of some of our finest minds to Europe, because that’s where the action is,” Kaku said. “We had our chance, but Congress canceled our supercollider back in 1994. We’re out of the picture. We can basically tag along after the Europeans, begging them for time on their machine — but really, the action is in Europe now.”

The Superconducting Super Collider was canceled by the U.S. Congress in the early 1990s, even though President Bill Clinton wrote “Abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science – a position unquestioned for generations.” Americans, of course, we have ourselves to thank for this event, but I do not expect any fingers of blame to point inwards.

So, as the world celebrates the beginning of the work for the LHC at CERN, the mantle of scientific leadership in basic science is being passed to Europe. While the the mouse click heard ’round the world marked an important milestone in this transfer, the handoff has been decades in the making.

America’s Cold War defense research endeavor that grew up to become the Internet would be unrecognizable to most people without the addition of World Wide Web on top of it that we use to communicate with today. The Web was invented in Europe in 1989 at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee to help scientists share and collaborate on research. And like the American space program fifty years earlier, with the help of the LHC, CERN has helped make science sexy again.

With the public’s enthusiasm for and interest in science once again rekindled, good things will come from the research. Yes, even young people across Europe and, perhaps, the entire of the world are excited about science once again.

Shortly after the LHC switch-on… a reporter in Renfrewshire asked a schoolgirl why she was so excited by it. She said that in 20 years’ time people would still be talking about the LHC, and she was here, now, witnessing the start of its journey.

Let’s hope she’s right and that, enthused by this week’s flirtation with the cosmos, the public will stay in love with big science.

Congratulations Europe! Open your doors to the world’s best and brightest and don’t look back.


Cross-posted from European Tribune.



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    • Magnifico on September 16, 2008 at 19:05

    or rather, so it continues. I think this is where the American “brain drain” starts to pick up steam… even more so if McCain becomes president.

    • Robyn on September 16, 2008 at 19:18

    …for the most part.  No Child Left Behind is only the most recent dagger.  But future historians might recognize that it was a death from a thousand cuts.

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