NSF Grant Funds Prof’s Study of Reverse Brain Drain in U.S.

Dr. Meghna Sabharwal

“National borders are becoming thinner, and we want to expand research on human capital,” says Dr. Meghna Sabharwal.

Competitive salaries and research opportunities are strong incentives for foreign-born academics to work in the United States.

But are they enough to keep them here?

Dr. Meghna Sabharwal, assistant professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, recently landed a National Science Foundation grant to study these patterns of migration.

“Academic scientists and engineers from other countries tend to be very productive when they come to the U.S., but we are slowly seeing that they are returning to their native countries rather than staying here,” she said. “We want to examine this trend of reverse brain drain.”

The two-year grant for $197,000 will involve interviews with faculty members in science and engineering disciplines both in India and the U.S.

Historically, few scientists and engineers from developing countries have returned to their countries of birth, she said, whereas scientists and engineers from the U.S. rarely cut ties with their home country.

“We hope this research helps reveal the bonds between the United States and other countries – specifically India – given the contributions of foreign-born academics to the scientific innovation of this country,” said Sabharwal, who studies workforce policy as it relates to job satisfaction, productivity, and diversity. “National borders are becoming thinner, and we want to expand research on human capital.”

Sabharwal said that little is known about the way skilled migrants formulate their re-migration decisions. Existing data have shed light on why these workers have been highly productive but dissatisfied enough to leave. Cultural and social experiences may indicate whether they choose to stay in the United States, she said.

Such patterns could lead to gaps in the workforce, an issue that academic leaders and policymakers may want to consider as they try to maintain a stable workforce.

Sabharwal says she will begin with detailed interviews of foreign-born scientists and engineers who have attained PhDs in the U.S. and worked in academia for at least five years before returning to India. She will also interview Indian-born academics who continue to work in the U.S. Eventually, the study may expand to include academics from China, South Korea and Taiwan.

“China in particular is making it very appealing for workers to return there,” Sabharwal said. “There are many issues we will need to pinpoint.”

Work on the study will begin in Spring 2013.

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