Study: Foreign-Born Workers Look To Non-U.S. Locales

A report by Carnegie Mellon University's Software Industry Center suggests the perception that U.S. attitudes toward foreign-born workers could weaken the economy as foreign scientists and technologists go elsewhere.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 17, 2004

3 Min Read

American attitudes toward foreign-born workers in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could weaken the U.S. economy as overseas scientists and technologists go to to other countries to develop new technologies, suggests a new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Industry Center.

A growing worldwide perception that the United States acts in a unilaterally aggressive manner and doesn't welcome foreign-born people could mean experts born in other countries could choose to conduct research and development in more-tolerant nations than in the United States, writes economics professor Richard Florida and doctoral candidate Irene Tinagli write in the report, Europe In The Creative Age. "Its [America's] direct policies restricting the flow of individuals and scientific information has unintentionally chilled the climate for all creative talent," the researchers write.

The report contrasts the potential of scientific and technological innovation in Europe to that in the United States and contends that tolerance along with technology and talent play a crucial role in creating an environment to drive innovation and economic growth. Simply, more-tolerant nations will attract the best talent, according to the 48-page report released Tuesday by Demos, a London think tank. "America's current political environment may be undermining its competition advantage, for example, by restricting scientific research and making border entry harder," says Tom Bentley, Demos' director, citing stats showing that U.S. visas for foreign-born workers in science and technology fell by a staggering 55% between 2001 and 2002.

For years, America possessed an unchallenged, completive advantage in its ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world. For the first time, the researchers say, that advantage seems to be imperiled. As many European countries, Canada, and Australia have liberalized their immigration policies and increased efforts to attract and retain talent, the United States has made it harder for people to enter the country.

The researchers contend the key element of global competition no longer centers on the trade of goods and services or the flow of capital, but on competition for people. Though they'll be centers for cost-effective manufacturing and delivering of basic business processes, emerging giants like India and China likely won't be the economic leaders. The leadership will come from the nations that can best mobilize the creative capacities of their people and attract creative talent from around the world, the researchers say. "The more tolerant or open a nation or region is, the more talent it is able to mobilize and attract," they write. "This is a critical dimension of economic competitiveness today."

In the past, the United States took advantage of mixing American and foreign-born know-how to develop new technologies and expand the economy. The report cites a study by Annalee Saxenian at the University of California showing that new immigrants founded about one-third of all high-tech businesses created in Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

The United States remains the clear global leader in technology development and continues to benefit from its longstanding ability to attract top scientific, artistic, and entrepreneurial talent from around the world, Florida and Tinagli say. But, they add, traditional economic leaders can lose their position in the nascent creative economy as vibrant, new creative centers quickly emerge.

"We stand at an intriguing inflection point," they write. "The United States, which has for years enjoyed a undisputed eminence in attracting the best and brightest from all countries of the world, seems poised to surrender its lead."

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