How Do You Make An Intellectual Dream Team?

Have we forgotten that Einstein was an immigrant?

Posted Mar 29, 2011

All Stars Michael Jordan and Yao Ming

In my article America's Got Talent, I stressed the importance of encouraging the identification and development of intellectual and inventive talent here in America so that we don't have to continually import our innovators from other countries.  A perceptive reader pointed out that we have probably always imported intellectual stars, including Einstein, who helped create the atomic bomb and sought refuge and freedom in America.  This made me wonder if we will always need to recruit at least some of our intellectual and inventive talent from abroad along with making every effort to find and develop it locally.

On any sports team, it makes sense to both develop the star players you have, and to simultaneously look for other stars that might consider joining.  After all, when the goal is winning, where the individual members come from and what they look like are irrelevant.  What matters is that they get the job done.  Having American born Robert Oppenheimer as team captain of the Manhattan Project was important, but adding Einstein and many other talented immigrants to the group, for example, was also critical.

The Merit Principle

Ben Wildavsky recently (2010) introduced the idea of academic free trade: "As students and academics become citizens of the world more than ever before, the same kind of meritocracy that emerged in the United States when elite universities began talent-based admissions, drawing students from around the nation, is now beginning to take hold on a global scale.  In this worldwide marketplace, more and more people will have the chance, slowly but surely, to advance based on what they know rather than who they are."  This is quite similar to Thomas Jefferson's emphasis on talents and virtues rather than family background, in a letter he wrote in 1813, nearly two centuries earlier.  Wildavsky calls this the merit principle.

So as we move to a global meritocracy, this means that more and more, the best and brightest of every country will begin to have the opportunity to compete with one another on even ground.  Being born in America may not confer as strong an advantage as in times past.  Wildavsky notes that this will promote brain circulation.  This means that if we want to stay on top, team America probably should hope that the best of these brains (both here and abroad) don't end up circulating somewhere else.  Perhaps in China or India, or as Thomas Friedman calls it, "Chindia."  Or maybe if they're already in Chindia and are provided excellent opportunities they won't attempt to circulate at all.  This would appear to be important, so what could we do about this?

The Einstein Principle

Darrell West, author of Brain Gain, argues that "We should staple a green card to Ph.D.s in science and technology."  He calls this the Einstein principle approach to immigration.  "If the country wishes to benefit from future immigrant geniuses similar to the Einsteins of the past...legal immigration [will need to be] strengthened in a way that draws top international talent."  Perhaps West is right.  America should find every opportunity to attract individuals from around the world with "brains, talent, and special skills."

As Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University points out, "At a time when our economy is stagnating, some American political leaders are working to keep the world's best and brightest out. They mistakenly believe that skilled immigrants take American jobs away. The opposite is true: skilled immigrants start the majority of Silicon Valley startups; they create jobs."

They not only likely create jobs.  They likely create the opportunity for America to have a brighter future.

The Multiplier Effect

Finally, in addition to the merit principle and the Einstein principle, there's The Multiplier Effect, named by Stuart Anderson.  These talented immigrants reproduce, and their children grow up and contribute to an essential part of the intellectual and inventive talent base of our country.  According to Anderson, "foreign-born high school students make up 50 percent of the 2004 U.S. Math Olympiad's top scorers, 38 percent of the U.S. Physics Team, and 25 percent of the Intel Science Talent Search Finalists."  On the face of it, this would appear to be a pretty good deal: If you buy two, you might get at least one free.  What the multiplier effect illustrates is that by importing our innovators now, we may also be providing a large part of our homegrown talent for the future.

If we are genuinely interested in Finding the Next Einstein, not only should we develop the talent that we already have, perhaps we should also strongly consider opening our nation's doors as wide as possible to immigrant stars from around the world (as Nobel Laureates from other countries who were themselves immigrants have already stressed to their own governments).  Both strategies are likely needed to create an intellectual all star team for the scientific and technological security of America's future.  After all, if we don't find the next Einstein, someone else probably will.

© 2011 by Jonathan Wai

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