A brain drain for the United States?

A recent survey of foreign-born science and engineering students suggests that educated visitors are increasingly likely to return home after studying in the U.S. The potential trend has enormous consequences for the U.S. and global economies.

“Chinese students, in particular, strongly feel that the best job opportunities lie in their home country,” according to “Losing the World's Best and Brightest,” a survey issued by the pro-immigration Kauffman Foundation.

The question of whether college-trained immigrants make the American economy more dynamic or simply displace native-born workers has long been a divisive sub-current of the broader U.S. immigration debate.

In the past, the tendency of foreign students to build their careers in the United States frustrated developing nations, who saw the situation as a brain drain.

But the new survey — which contacted the students involved through Facebook — suggests that this talent flow could be starting to reverse, as foreign students show more interest in finding jobs or starting companies at home.

“Should their intentions turn into actions, the departure of these foreign nationals could represent a significant loss for the U.S. science and engineering workforce, in which such immigrants have played increasingly large roles over the past decade,” the report said.

But Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a critic of U.S. policies regarding college-trained immigrants, cautioned against making too much of the survey due to its use of a social networking approach that is inherently self-selective.

“A study with such limitations should be treated carefully,” said Hira, who opposes increasing the number of foreign-born college graduates who can work in the U.S. under H1B visas.

The report’s authors — which include AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the information school at the University of California at Berkeley — used Facebook to find foreign-born students who were studying at or had recently graduated from U.S. universities. Respondents completed an email questionnaire about their impressions of the U.S. economy, how long they intended to stay in the U.S. after graduation and where they thought they would find the best prospects for employment and entrepreneurship.

Researchers then asked these initial respondents to refer friends who met the same criteria. The final report is based on 1,224 replies, of which 878 were from Indian-born students, 229  from respondents of Chinese extraction and 117 from western Europeans.

“Our findings may not generalize to all foreign students,” the authors wrote, adding that the report does “provide insights into the views of a fairly large sample of foreign students.”

The survey found that very few students — just 6 percent of the Indian respondents, 10 percent of Chinese respondents and 15 percent of European respondents — want to remain in the U.S. permanently.

Respondents were pessimistic about their short-term job prospects and worried that the U.S. economy will “lag behind global growth rates,” according to the report. Among Indian and Chinese respondents, more than seven in 10 said they hoped to start a business within a decade — but in each case, more than half thought their prospects for entrepreneurship were better at home than in the United States.

Hira said the timing of the survey — it was conducted in October amid the U.S. financial crisis — probably influenced its pessimistic tone. But he did not quarrel with its findings. “The survey shows the obvious: Rational people will go where the jobs are and the jobs are in India and China,” he said.

Saxenian said the authors knew the survey was not as rigorous as past studies by the National Science Foundation that had found highly trained foreign students more likely to remain in the United States. But she said the last such study was done early in the decade, and the authors decided that social networking was a good way to get a current reading of foreign student sentiment.

The survey’s authors seem to be of two minds regarding the possibility that exchange students may be more likely to leave the U.S. after short stays. Saxenian is the author of “The New Argonauts,” a book in which she posits that the return of educated foreigners to their home countries could increase the circulation of ideas and business ventures between the developed and the developing worlds, strengthening the global economy.

“It is unclear, however, at what point a brain circulation becomes a reverse brain drain,” write the authors of “Best and Brightest,” adding that “it is troubling that these students expressed so much pessimism about the future of the U.S."

Read more about workers returning home:

India: Bangalore morphs into Silicon Valley?

Destitute, jobless, and on the move again

The end of the "Chinese Dream"?

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