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Competing for Talent in a Global Landscape

How can the United States continue to compete in innovation? Attract and create the best talent.

Talent is the key to creating a vibrant, creative, and innovative ecosystem. It is the entry point into the entire system: no talent, no system. Once the United States had a monopoly in attracting talent, but now we are not alone. New players are coming onto the scene, and there is powerful competition. We need to raise our game.

Higher education in the United States is a key competitive advantage. Some rankings place the U.S. with nearly half of the world’s 100 top universities. But universities are just one part of the creative ecosystem – they are intertwined with labs, high-tech employers, and venture capital, all resting on a foundation of intellectual protection. Talent is the critical element that fuels this ecosystem. As the United States faces budget crises in light of the recent economic downturn, the competition is stepping up its efforts.

Brazil just launched an ambitious program that aims to attract foreign scientists, called Brazil Without Borders. With the strength of an economy growing at full steam – ranked seventh globally – Brazil is seeking to become a hub of scientific and technological innovation and planning to invest $1.9 billion over the next four years. (Historically Brazil invested about 1.11 percent of gross domestic product on research and scientific development, but is expected to reach about 2 percent by 2014, comparable to many developed countries.)

Brazil sees an opportunity: with a vibrant economy at home and difficult economic situation in the U.S. and Europe, they hope to attract scientists that have fallen victim to budget cuts. Consider the situation at NASA alone, where an estimated 4,000 scientists lost their jobs. In addition to importing thousands of foreign scientists, Brazil also plans to send 75,000 students to study abroad. Amazingly this went almost unreported by U.S. news organizations; the Miami Herald was the only major newspaper that picked up the story.

Other countries are also taking aggressive initiatives. Singapore actively tries to develop connections with the top institutions across the world. Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), established in 2002, aims to have foreign researches set a research base at Singapore. A*STAR currently oversees 14 research institutes as well as 7 consortia and centers and supports extramural research in collaboration with universities, hospital research centers and other local and international partners. A*STAR’s budget is in the order of several billions – not bad for a country of five million people.

Both of these initiatives attack the problem of recruiting talent at the level of graduate students and above, focusing primarily on post-doctoral students and prestigious and established researchers in science and engineering. These initiatives will only be successful only if they succeed in building a strong sustainable foundation, both in terms of sheer numbers and, more importantly in new and sustainable thinking skills. Keeping a healthy pipeline in place – the sheer numbers – addresses only half of the issue. The other half of the problem is ensuring that skillful innovators emerge from the halls of academia. This is where the US can lead the way.

We hear that we need more engineers, and that emerging nations such as India and China far outstrip our production of engineers. However, we need to look at these numbers carefully. I was just in India in January with a group that included several deans, the president of Caltech, and the president of the National Academy of Engineering and former president of MIT. The question proposed to the group was “How can India scale up its educational system?” (Without scaling up, there was clear consensus that India would not be able to realize its ambitions.) I was surprised to be told by Indian colleagues that roughly “70 percent of current Indian engineers are essentially unemployable.” While the top Indian engineering schools are amazingly good, the quality drops rapidly from there and does not trickle down to all levels of education. At all levels, the goal is focused entirely on technical excellence, not creativity.

While the United States may not win in terms of sheer numbers, there is continued opportunity to lead based on the quality of engineering students that we produce. Key to quality is the type of thinking that we instill.

Continued leadership in innovation requires that we have the right numbers or people with the right types of skills. It is no mystery that science and engineering encourage “left-brain” activity: logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, sorting, and organizing. Innovation, however, requires attributes of the humanities found in “right-brain” thinking; creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotion. Innovation requires the whole brain.

Scientists think like scientists, and scientific thinking is probably the most organized thinking of all. There is also humanistic thinking; it is not as codified as science but there are clear identifiers: critical thinking, the ability to come up with an original thesis. And, even though much less regulated, there is something like artistic thinking.

These types of thinking coexist in the U.S. educational system longer than other countries. In most other places students quickly converge into law, medicine, engineering, or another narrow specialization. This is true in most of Europe – France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain – as well as South America. In the United Kingdom, specialization begins around the age of 15-16; after that, students usually only pursue three disciplines, often within a single area (e.g. the humanities or sciences). American universities are unique in their insistence that all undergraduates receive, at least in part, a humanistic education. There was no master plan behind this, but it has tremendous practical implications. By allowing different types of thinking to coexist throughout undergraduate education, our students are afforded tremendous opportunities.

The greatest area for the United States to improve and extend its competitive advantage is graduate education. Nearly all undergraduates pay for their education, while most doctoral students in engineering are paid to go to school. The money for the latter generally comes from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc. Today, these grants support specific research proposed by professors and executed mainly by paid Ph.D. students. The demand for (often narrowly defined) research results, the need for myriad compliance mechanisms, and the gravitational pull toward meeting (narrow) program goals that will, if successful, yield follow-on funding, act together to create a closed system within which there is little time or attention for ancillary pursuits, especially idle exploration. This process can yield excellent researchers, but does nothing to form — and unintentionally suppresses — whole-brain thinkers. Perhaps worse yet, the process actively discourages “whole-brainers” from even applying.

This situation contrasts sharply with the undergraduate experience at top universities, where students customize their education, engage in social entrepreneurship, study global health in Africa or China, compete in solar car races, work on sustainability in Central America or collaborate with an art or music major. Undergraduate exploration, creativity, and social entrepreneurship are actively encouraged.

Fostering this level of exploration is important. We need a fraction of people with an “anti-establishment” spirit, who do not simply accept dogma. This concept is aptly encapsulated by the Italian phrase, “Impara l’arte, e mettila da part”, learn the craft and then set it aside. This is not easy to achieve. I would argue that all the tests about academic performance – with China and other Asian countries on top – capture only the “learn the craft” side. But there is a healthy dose of “anti-establishment” thinking in the United States, likely because the system encourages students to explore.

Recruiting the best talent from around the world remains a key priority for the United States. The key point is to keep attracting people who are hungry to succeed, people with an “immigrant spirit,” people who want to establish and raise families here. The impact of foreign talent is unquestionable; for example, between 1990 and 2004, more than one-third of the U.S. scientists who received Nobel Prizes were foreign-born.

As other countries make serious efforts to attract talent, the United States must continue to improve. The underlying system is uniquely strong, and changes in targeted areas – such as graduate education – could help expand our leadership. A retooled system may attract and develop even better talent.

If you want to see the future, look inside universities. This is where ideas happen; without ideas there is no innovation. Within the next year or two we will see the emergence of the next big idea, and I think that this will come from a university. There is a game-changing industry forming right now, and it’s only a matter of time until we know what it is. But this will not happen if we lose the pipeline to bringing talent into the United States. We have stiff competition. Now we must focus our efforts on continuing to attract and create the talent that will continue to drive innovation and creativity.