Why Research Will Leave the US

I had a conversation today that highlighted to me one of the bigger threats that I can see with the incoming administration. Trump has, in the month since his election, removed science and research web content from government sites, has put people into various administration positions who are actively hostile to the missions of those bodies (the EPA being the latest and most egregious), and has evinced a clear disdain for evidence-based research in order to play to his base — diehard fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, and anti-education zealots.

The conversation centered around semantic data and how to make this data more accessible to researchers, part of what is considered open linked data. Funding for much of this came from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, NIST — the National Institute for Standards and Technology — and the National Institutes of Health. These two organizations are the clearing houses for the vast majority of technology grants that are issued today, with DARPA, the FDA, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA making up the much of the rest. Business makes up a small percentage of the remainder, and often is done via PPPs — public/private partenerships.

As we talked, what I realized is that there is a high likelihood that these grants are going away, and with them, the vast bulk of public research in this country. Most people have no idea what is actually covered by these grants, and the right wing media has created an “alternative fact” narrative that most of these grants are superfluous and silly [1].

  • Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls?
  • An outbreak of “jello wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station”
  • Studies of shrimp locomotion by putting shrimp on treadmills

These studies are typically cherry picked and taken far out of context — the shrimp location study, for instance, was intended to better understand the rise in diseased shrimp in polluted environments with direct impacts on fishery yields and the shrimping industry, and most are part of ongoing investigations were parameters for grants have been set tightly precisely to insure that the money is spent most effectively.

The hostility of the GOP towards these institutions is hardly new. Despite the most recent incarnations of “alternative facts” that have been infecting the public discourse significantly, the reality has usually been that this has been going on for a number of decades. Fundamentalist Christians trying to push a Creationist viewpoint face a daunting amount of detailed evidence (much funded via grants by these agencies) showing how absurd Creationism is at any level. Epidemiological studies showing the marked benefit of birth control or availability of education or the presence of lead in gasoline contributing to rises in violence run counter to the desire of abortion opponents, theocratic homeschool advocates and law-and-order advocates on the right.

Indeed, it can be argued that the current push on the part of the Trump adminstration and the GOP to establish conspiracy blogs and grocery store tabloids as the source of truth, with the president being Chief Speaker of Truth, clearly points to a concerted effort to delegitimize any evidence-based authority, with the goal of ridding scientists as potential opponents to the emerging authoritarian state.

The impact that this is having on universities already is profound, and it will begin to negatively impact businesses within six months. One of the first aspects of the Trump administration was to have send out a memo to the outgoing head of NOAA and NASA to identify potential climate change proponents.

It is likely that any universities that receive Federal Funding (most of them, including many private ones) will similarly be asked to provide such information to the (what will likely be a newly reconstituted) EPA, with similar notes going out through the NSF, NIST, the FDA and others to their grant recipients, likely rescinding any moneys while at the same time claiming the artifacts of such research.

This not only will stop long and complex research in most fields of science, but will also enable the Trump administration the option to “sell” specific research to private commercial bidders, who then can bypass the long and often arduous research process. The University based researchers will also likely find their own positions threatened, as it is likely that broader US funding to academia will be cut if those researchers are not continued.

The same thing is already happening to the arts, with Trump intending to demolish the National Foundation for the Arts, a favorite target of the GOP because they often include outspoken professors of history and the humanities who are typically not shy about going to the press in opposition to authoritarian behavior. The appointment of Beverly DeVos, a committed and wealthy donor to the GOP who has been a committed opponent to public education and an advocate for Christian based teaching, should be seen as an early indication of who will likely replace these.

Businesses have, as a rule, reduced their overall investment in R&D considerably, preferring instead to partner with universities. These same businesses are now facing an increasingly unpalatable future. Most of those researchers, deprived of grants, will not stay at these universities. This means first that it will force businesses, many already existing on paper thin margins, to invest heavily in acquiring that talent directly at premium prices (because there will be far fewer in the pipeline after a very short time) or facing competition as these same researchers go into business for themselves — quite probably outside of the United States.

Yet even this is likely not to be the worst of the effects from this purge. Trump’s recently fumbled immigration ban left a great number of researchers stranded in airports worldwide, many of whom were mid-to-high end researchers from other countries on H1B visas.

The recent hints of doubling the minimum salaries required on H1B visas will also mean that many foreign workers here on legitimate visas will have their visas terminated in the software and IT sectors, stopping ongoing development on projects and forcing companies into a desperate scramble for local talent. Even after a month, this has begun to manifest as projects getting cancelled throughout most industries, in which even domestic workers are being let go because there is no longer funding to carry through one these.

This has the potential to kill several large software companies. Microsoft, for instance, has roughly 34% of its workforce who are Indian-born, including it’s current CEO Satya Nadella, who was born in Hyderabad, India. Thirty eight percent of all doctors in the US are native-Indian born, which has the potential to leave many hospitals, already stretched to find enough doctors, unable to complete their core missions.

This one/two punch is also impacting international companies with both US and foreign operations, as well as startups. Many companies are quietly considering repatriation programs to move key non-native employees out of the US, along with decisions to reduce overall expenditures within the US for the foreseeable future. Technology startups in general are far less dependent upon favorable tax policies than larger corporations are, but are far more dependent upon having access to talent. While remote working increases that ability to transcend borders, having a key architect or designer sitting in customs for weeks on end, or even worse arrested, is proving a strong disincentive for both local and foreign investors.

The period leading to the consolidation of the Third Reich in Germany saw a brain drain as even loyal German resources quietly made their way to England, Switzerland or the United States. Eighty years later, that migration is beginning anew, as mostly apolitical researchers realize that they could be the targets for political attacks or targets for brownshirts who physical threaten themselves and their family. Expect that the first tentative trickle becomes a flood of researchers, American and foreign, as it becomes evident what will happen to those who stay.

The long term costs of such a drain is difficult to calculate, but could very well be in the hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars of lost revenue. The most successful businesses are those that originate the most patents over even a reasonably short measure (years rather than decades).

As those researchers leave, and as the capability of the US to both raise and attract new talent declines, this will likely lead to the US losing its dominant position quickly — already China is generating nearly as many patents per capita as the US is, and in total numbers is leaving the US in the dust (1,100,000 patents vs. 550,000 in 2015)[2]. This will only accelerate.

Arguably, there are good reasons for immigration reform, but the current slash and burn approach is not the solution. These policies and their implementations will likely irreparably harm research in the US for decades, perhaps even irrevocably.

Kurt Cagle is a writer specializing in information architecture and knowledge management.

[1] Why the GOP Hates the NSF

[2] World Intellectual Property Organization, 2016 Analysis