Andres Oppenheimer

President Barack Obama's immigration plan calling for a huge increase in visas for foreign science and engineering graduates will pose a huge challenge for China, India and Latin America: they will either have to do something to retain their best talents, or they will face the biggest brain drain in recent history.

The global race for talent is already under way. Canada, Australia, Singapore, Brazil and Chile have recently adopted measures to attract highly skilled scientists, engineers and high-tech entrepreneurs.

Now, if the United States - the world's biggest economy - joins the race, the global competition for highly skilled professionals will be fiercer. Much like after World War II, when the U.S. government lured Albert Einstein and other top European scientists, the United States will become a magnet for a new generation of the world's best brains.

Under a bipartisan bill led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and known as the Immigration Innovation Act, the United States would eliminate restrictions on visas for workers with graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from qualified U.S. universities, and would almost double existing quotas for other highly-skilled private sector workers.

The bill, which may become part of Obama's comprehensive immigration reform plan, is very likely to pass, congressional sources say.

While Democrats and Republicans are still arguing over other parts of Obama's immigration plan, which would give a path to legal status for up to 11 million undocumented residents, both parties agree on the need to dramatically increase the number of visas for foreign scientists to help make the U.S. economy more competitive.

"This is a big, big step forwards," says Vivek Wadhwa, a well-known innovation guru with Singularity University and author of "The Immigrant Exodus," a book arguing that the United States is falling behind in innovation because of its failure to retain the scientists who graduate from its universities.

Right now, most U.S. visas are given based on family ties, rather than on professional skills. Only 7 percent of U.S. visas are given to foreigners based on their skills, compared with 25 percent in Canada, 42 percent in Australia, 58 percent in Britain, 80 percent in Switzerland and 81 percent in South Korea, according to a recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy.

Under the Hatch bill, the number of highly-skilled foreigners admitted into the United States could double to 280,000 from the current 140,000 a year, according to Wadhwa.

"The race for skilled immigrants is intensifying in today's knowledge-based economy," Wadhwa told me. "In the past, it was all about manufacturing, and you needed workers. Now, it's all about technology and innovation, and you need skilled scientists and engineers."

If the United States attracts more scientists and engineers, it will not only increase its world primacy in patent registrations, but it will reduce the need of U.S. multinationals to outsource many of their operations to China, India and Latin America, experts say.

So what should Latin American countries do? Most experts say countries in the region will have to upgrade their universities to produce more and better scientists and engineers, and provide a better business climate for their science and technology sectors.

Right now, only about 14 percent of Latin American students are enrolled in science and engineering schools, and no Latin American university is ranked among the world's best 150. In addition, few Latin American countries are providing big tax incentives and funding to attract new technology industries.

Chile and Brazil are among the few who are moving in the right direction. Chile, for instance, has launched the government-backed Start-Up Chile agency, which gives $40,000 in funding, free office space, work visas and a local bank account to foreign entrepreneurs with good projects, especially in high-tech industries.

My opinion: If Latin American countries play it smart and join the global race for knowledge-based industries - creating joint science degree programs with foreign universities, offering better conditions for their graduates returning from abroad, and creating a better business climate for high-tech industries - they could benefit from the proposed U.S. talent grab.

They could turn the "brain drain" into a "brain circulation" phenomenon. China, India, Taiwan and South Korea have benefited greatly from sending their best science students to the world's top universities, and then welcoming them back as investors, entrepreneurs or university teachers. Latin America could do that, too.

But if Latin American countries don't get into the game, and if China and India don't step up their efforts to lure their scientists and engineers back home, we may see the biggest brain drain from emerging countries in decades.


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